Accessibility links

Polarization, Security Issues Could Spark Crisis in Libya

A man shouts during a demonstration against what the protesters said was the decision of the National Congress to extend the period of their stay in power, in Benghazi December 27, 2013.

A man shouts during a demonstration against what the protesters said was the decision of the National Congress to extend the period of their stay in power, in Benghazi December 27, 2013.

Deteriorating security and rising political polarization in Libya has left some analysts worrying that Libya may be on the verge of breakdown. Their sense of pending crisis only worsened this week when more than a third of Libya’s fractious parliamentarians tabled a motion of no confidence in the country’s beleaguered Prime Minister Ali Zeidan.

The move against Zeidan, a former human rights lawyer, came just days after Libya’s national congress voted on December 23 to extend its own mandate for another 12 months, which sparked anger among democracy activists, who argue the extension is not legitimate and sets a dangerous precedent. Demonstrators in Tripoli and Benghazi took to the streets wielding brooms and calling for congress to be swept out of office.

Zeidan and the Islamist-dominated General National Congress (GNC) have been locked in a power struggle since militias managed briefly to abduct the prime minister in October. Zeidan accused political foes inside the GNC of encouraging the kidnapping. Analysts say neither the GNC nor Zeidan command much public confidence among Libyans, who are frustrated by the lack of change.

“Uncertainty regarding the democratization process is likely to further frustrate the public,” according to Karim Mezran, senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the U.S.-based think tank the Atlantic Council.

The tabling of the no-confidence motion marks an escalation in a war of words between lawmakers and Zeidan, and analysts say it could lead to a final political showdown.

A vote on the motion, which calls for the establishment of a “crisis government,” is set for January 5.

This is not the first time a group of lawmakers have sought to oust Zeidan. Previous efforts to bring down the government faltered because the 200-strong GNC failed to secure sufficient numbers to meet the 120-member quorum required for approving the motion.

But a quorum may be within reach this weekend. The Islamists argue the time has come for a new government and have now been joined by centrists, led by Mahmoud Jibril, calling for a national salvation administration as a possible way to break a political impasse that has added to Libya’s dangerous drift and lawlessness. Jibril served as an interim Prime Minister for the rebels for seven and a half months during the uprising that toppled Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Zeidan’s authority has been weakened in large part by his failure to engineer an end to a months-long blockade by militias of vital eastern oil terminals. The blockade has stifled oil production, the main source of government revenue, which has fallen to ten percent of capacity.

On January 1, labor minister Mohamed Swalin told a news conference that the blockade is undermining Libya’s ability to pay public salaries. He warned the strikes are leading Libya into a “dark tunnel.”

Blockade leader Ibrahim al-Jathran, who once oversaw the Petroleum Facilities Guard assigned to defend the facilities his supporters now control, refuses to reopen the key oil-exporting ports until the Tripoli government recognizes eastern Libya, known by federalists as Cyrenaica, as a semi-autonomous region.

In a speech a week ago, centrist National Forces Alliance chief Jibril warned that lawlessness, the refusal of revolutionary militias to disband and a weak government in Libya have created an environment ripe for “foreign conspiracies and foreign intelligence agencies.”

“Arab and Western states [are] conspiring against the future and unity of Libya,” Jibril said.

His outline for a national salvation government to replace Zeidan’s administration received support from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party, the largest force in the GNC.

The English-language Libya Herald newspaper says that “positive overtures by the Justice and Construction party” could indicate that the GNC’s two largest parties may be poised to reach agreement on the next step forward—which may include sacrificing the Zeidan government as a means to save the “equally unpopular GNC.”

The last time Jibril’s NFA and the Muslim Brotherhood acted in concert was to remove Zeidan’s predecessor, Mustafa Abushugar, who served as Prime Minister for only a handful of days in 2012.

It isn’t clear, however, whether removing Zeidan will lead to the rapid change ordinary Libyans say they want. GNC critics argue that lawmakers are just as much to blame for the country’s drift. They point to the legislature’s failure to implement a “transitional roadmap” agreed upon by the rebels and their leaders after the fall of Gadhafi.

That roadmap set a timetable for drafting a new constitution and staging elections for both a new parliament and head of state. The timetable hasn’t been met; hence the GNC’s decision to extend its mandate by a year.

But Libyan commentator Mohamed Eljarh, a blogger for Foreign Policy magazine, warns, “prolonging the lifetime of a deeply polarized GNC mired in political infighting and hobbled by narrow-minded political interests is, however, likely to make matters worse.” The country, he says, needs “better decision-making and less political polarization.”