TRIPOLI — Two years after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, Libyans find themselves free of a vicious dictator but at the mercy of thousands militias who act with impunity, a central government unable to enforce its laws and authority, and an oil-based economy dramatically underperforming because of political instability.
Now Libyans are bracing for more turmoil after Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has promised to implicate political rivals in his abduction last week, claiming the incident was a coup attempt by his adversaries in parliament.
Zeidan made his threat this week in an interview with Al-Arabiya saying he would name names, of those involved in his seven-hour kidnapping, setting the stage for a political showdown after the end of the three-day Eid religious holiday.
The gunmen who barged into Zeidan’s hotel suite and seized him last week were just a few of the more than 200-thousand militiamen who roam Libyan cities and towns. While they are paid by Libya’s Interior Ministry they answer to local commanders who represent competing tribal and regional interests. The group that abducted Zeidan was reportedly formed recently by the speaker of the General National Congress, Libya’s parliament. Many other parliamentarians are connected with similar militias.
Analysts say the militias form a parallel state and that if Zeidan is to survive, he needs to curb their power – no small feat when Libya has yet to form a national army or a functioning police force since Gadhafi’s ouster.
“Until individuals and groups agree to empower and submit to the authority of a central government and lay down their weapons, power continues to be loosely fragmented amongst revolutionary brigades,” said Wael Nawara, a former visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Nawara said the mainly Islamist militias are “aborting the prospects of the emergence of a unified Libyan state” by challenging and defying the country’s fragile government.
The kidnapping of a Prime Minister whose authority stretches not much further than his office has marked a low point in Libya’s struggle to establish stability and order. But it didn’t come as a surprise to many Libyans. In recent months they have endured a blockade of oilfields and seaports by an assortment of militias and eastern Libyan federalists, a wave of assassinations and abductions in Benghazi and kidnappings and carjackings in Tripoli.
Support for Zeidan has waned among ordinary Libyans who have seen no significant improvement since he was elected last October by a narrow margin in the General National Congress. He is Libya’s third prime minister since Gadhafi’s ouster.
“People are getting tired,” said Nareen Abbas, an activist. “While we have seen an improvement in what we can buy with the opening of new shops, this has nothing to do with the government. We have not seen any improvement when it comes to security and there has been no progress on deciding how to elect a committee to draft a new constitution. We are stuck.”
Foreign businesses are concerned also at the gloomy political trajectory. Tripoli’s four luxury hotels are not bustling with international businessmen as they were a few months ago. The American oil giant Exxon Mobil has reduced its staff in the country because of security fears observers said. Royal Dutch Shell halted exploration last year.
“Zeidan’s kidnapping is just part of the pattern whereby Islamist and other militias are willing to use force to get what they want,” said a security analyst for Western firms who asked not to be named for this article. “Everyone has weapons and to a certain extent everyone is using them to make demands but Islamist-aligned thuwar (warrior) groups are definitely willing to take matters into their own hands when they feel political matters are not going their way.”
Islamist militias exert political influence
Islamist militias with the backing of a variety of Islamist politicians from the Muslim Brotherhood and smaller parties did just that in May when they blockaded government ministries to force the GNC to pass a law that excluded a wide range of people who had worked for the previous regime from holding public office.
The result of that law was to reduce the number of more secular-minded lawmakers, dozens of whom had to leave the GNC. And that has made Zeidan’s challenge even harder. Ever since then he has been facing a hostile and Islamist-dominated General National Congress that has blocked his policies.
Following his abduction, Libya’s Islamists are stepping up the pressure. Just days ago the leader of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood political party accused Zeidan of failing as a Prime Minister and said he should go. Mohammed Sawan blamed mismanagement by Zeidan's government for the “irresponsible actions” of the kidnappers, a reference to the widely held belief that Zeidan gave approval for the U.S. commando raid that captured the al-Qaida suspect known as Abu Anas al-Libi. The operation infuriated Islamists and prompted demonstrations in Benghazi where protesters accused Zeidan of being a Western puppet.
A former adviser to Libya’s two previous post-Gadhafi prime ministers, Abdul Rahman El Mansouri, worries about what comes next. He said Zeidan needs ordinary Libyans to show their support for him. But he said Libyans seem to have given up hope. “We have had the blockade of the ministries and they didn’t come out on the streets to support the government. The electricity gets cut off and they don’t come up. The water was out for a week recently and they don’t come out. What will make them mount protests?”