TRIPOLI - Militiamen besieging key Libyan ministries say they won’t release their chokehold on the government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan until it fires anyone who worked for the regime of the late Moammar Gadhafi.
If the militias succeed in forcing the General National Congress (GNC) to pass a law barring Gaddafi-era officials from being lawmakers or working for the government, Libya could be plunged into an even deeper crisis with no clear guidelines on how to proceed.
The exclusion law is scheduled for a vote on Sunday. If approved and enforced, it would require many General National Council members to quit, including the council president, Mohamed Magarief. It also would require the resignation of Prime Minister Zeidan, who worked for several years Gadhafi’s diplomatic service, as well as several cabinet ministers.
New elections would have to be called, but the GNC could well be left without a quorum, throwing into doubt the legality any of its subsequent decisions.
Warnings of chaos
Politicians warned that approval of the new law could throw the country into chaos. But militiamen blockading the foreign ministry on Thursday dismissed those fears.
Allowing regime holdovers to stay in the government or legislature would be an insult to the “martyrs” of the rebellion that ousted Gadhafi 18 months ago, the militiamen say,
“We will not leave until the law is passed,” militiaman Emad Zigiham said Thursday. “There are other competent people around to replace the government. We are doing this for Libya’s good.”
“We’re not going to throw them out of the country,” said another militiaman, dressed half in military fatigues, half in civilian clothing. “They can work and earn a living, but they must not be in the ministries or in the government or congress.”
The militiamen acknowledged that many former officials had participated in the uprising against Gaddafi, but say their time is now over.
The possibility of a confrontation over the issue became more acute late Thursday when the deputy president of the GNC, Jumaa Ateega, declared that the legislature and the government were voted in by the people and held national responsibility. He was accompanied by Zeidan and the leaders of the main political parties.
Government signals no compromises
Government sources told VOA that the prime minister had no intention of making a deal with the militias and that the hope was that Libyans would rally behind the government on Friday.
Under the proposed new law, former Gadhafi regime officials would be banned from public office for 10 years. If passed, the likelihood is that exclusion law would most benefit the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which has been pushing hard for approval of the measure.
In March militiamen stormed the GNC twice and the prime minister’s office once in bid to coerce approval of the law.
The militia blockades at the Foreign and Justice ministries have been orchestrated by the group known as the Higher Council of the Revolutionaries. They began earlier this week when gunmen blocked the entrances and roads around the ministries using pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.
Other militiamen forced out the police and formed a security cordon around a national television station.
Since Tuesday, militiamen from other towns, including from the eastern city of Benghazi, have joined. On Thursday, trucks from the Libyan Shield Force, a grouping of militias that’s supposed to take its orders from the Defense Ministry, showed up outside the Foreign Ministry and joined the blockade.
The militiamen outside the Foreign Ministry are disciplined and well organized and say they are acting on orders from the Higher Council of Revolutionaries. They warn of a “second revolution”, if their demands are ignored.
Some Libyan commentators critical of the militia action argued that the sieges and threats from armed gunmen amounted to a shadow coup.
A shadow coup?
“Libya is now in grave danger and it is not clear what’s going to happen. Unless we gain some control, Libya will turn into a Somalia,” warned politician and journalist Abdurrahman Shater. “We are going to face a future of warlordism and no law and order for several years, if this continues.”
But so far, the general populace has not rallied behind Zeidan. On Tuesday, less than a hundred people turned out for a rally in Tripoli to show support. And on Thursday, only about 200 showed up at a rally against the militiamen.
As the struggling country lurches from crisis to crisis some Libyan politicians are quietly discussing the idea of naming a “Father of the Nation” figurehead leader to help unite Libyans and provide a measure of national stability.
The man being mentioned as having the most potential to fill that role is a frail 80-year-old who has spent more years in jail as a political prisoner than South Africa’s Nelson Mandela -- Ahmed Al-Zubair al-Senussi, the longest-serving Gaddafi-era political prisoner. He has the advantage for some of being a distant relative of King Idris, the monarch deposed in the 1969 coup led by Gaddafi.
But according to Libya expert Ellen Lust at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, just the thought of choosing a “Father of the Nation" figure reflects the gravity of the political crisis.
“I can see why they might want to do it, and no doubt it reflects their frustrations, but it has some very serious potential downsides, including not encouraging Libyans to shake off a collective mindset of needing a strong leader,” said Lust. “They need instead to be building a democracy.”