TRIPOLI — In the dimly lit gardens and sumptuous restaurants of the city’s Rixos Hotel, Libya’s newly minted politicians are bargaining furiously over who will be the country’s first elected prime minister since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.
The widely spaced benches and dining tables allow conversations to stay private – necessary when tribal affiliations, religion, personal ties and business interests are involved in the haggling.
The point of the bargaining is to put together a coalition of legislators who can command a majority in the new 200-member parliament and form a government. The deal-making centers on 40 or so independent members of parliament who have held back so far from supporting any of the three main candidates.
The five star Rixos hotel is no stranger to important events. Deposed dictator Muammar Gadhafi liked to stage press conferences at the hotel in central Tripoli. And it was at the Rixos that Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, dramatically appeared in late August of 2011 inform foreign journalists that the rebellion against his father would fail. He turned out to be wrong.
Libya’s dangerous moment
Now, the hotel is the scene of more Libyan history in the making.
Whatever governing coalition the legislators approve, it will be taking over at a dangerous moment in Libya’s struggle to shed what’s left of the Gadhafi dictatorship.
Not only will the new government need to establish a credible democracy in a nation that has never known it, it will have to reign in powerful militias that are a political force in their own right. There are an estimated 200,000 or more militia members in the country now – more than fought on the rebel side to oust Gadhafi last October.
“They talk, but the threat of violence is there,” a U.N. diplomat, who declined to be named, said of the coalition bargaining. “Who’s in charge, and who will be in charge after all of this remains unclear.”
Showdown in Parliament this week
Formal voting in parliament to form a government starts this week. If there is no clear winner in the first round, there will be a second.
Mahmoud Jibril’s centrist National Forces Alliance is considered to be in the strongest bargaining position. Jibril aides say the party and its allies can now count on at least 85 of the 101 votes needed to form a government.
Two other candidates are still in contention - the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party's Ibrahim Awad Barasi, Libya’s current energy minister, and the National Front-backed Mustafa Abushagur, the current deputy prime minister.
Abdul Rahman El Mansouri, a National Front adviser, predicts there will be no winner in the first round of voting for prime minister despite Jibril’s apparently strong numbers.
“In the end Abushagur will win because he will be the compromise candidate,” says Mansouri. He dismisses Barasi as a serious threat because as energy minister he has become known as “Minister for the Dark” due to the daily power outages in Tripoli and other large Libyan cities.
Coalition bargaining intense
The pace of coalition bargaining has become intense as the parliamentary showdown approaches. In the evenings, the Rixos hotel is full of parliamentarians and aides negotiating and discussing in groups that break up and reform with new participants. In recent days, Jibril held a series of private meetings with undecided independents after they had been softened up in earlier discussions with his aides.
Jibril has been trying to make up for lost time after being initially reluctant to go for the premiership. He had been expected to stay in the background for now and run for the presidency next year after the drafting of a constitution.
“Over the summer he changed his mind,” said Fowzi Omaar, one of Jibril’s top advisers. “He decided there might not be a democracy to be the president of, if in the next few months things continue in the vein of the last few weeks.”
New surge in violence
A factor in Jibril’s decision to run has been a surge of a new kind of violence since the July elections.
Before the balloting, there were flare-ups between tribal and ethnic groups and clashes between rival militias mainly in the south and the western mountains.
Since July, the violence has taken a different turn with car bombs in Tripoli that authorities blame on Gaddafi loyalists and more score-settling assassinations of former Gaddafi-linked military and intelligence personnel.
Most disturbing of all has been a wave of ultra-conservative Islamist violence involving the bombing and destruction of mosques and shrines revered by followers of the mystical Sufi Muslim tradition.
In one of those attacks last month, extremists destroyed a well-known mosque containing Sufi graves in the center of Tripoli in broad daylight. The extremists said the graves and shrines were un-Islamic and accused Sufi Muslims of practicing “black magic.”
Taming these various sources of violence is a major part of what the coalition bargaining in the Rixos Hotel is all about.
Moammar Gadhafi managed to keep these restive factions in check using the brute force of his military. Libya’s next leader will try to keep the peace, initially at least, through democratic compromise.