North Africa, West Asia

Political fault lines threaten Libya's stability


Deep rifts between Libya’s leaders have been laid bare and if they continue to grapple with one another instead of facing up to the country's profound challenges, these fault lines could swallow the country whole.

Rhiannon Smith
16 October 2013

From the farcical to the dodgy to the downright destructive, Libya has seen it all over the past few weeks and it's beginning to take its toll on the country's collective wellbeing. Libya's politicians are walking a dangerous tightrope between legitimacy and anarchy as militias bay for their blood and much of the population watch with varying degrees of anger, despair and alienation as Libya's elected authorities try to throw one another to the wolves below.

To set the scene, since the start of the summer Libya's government has been locked in a battle of wills with protestors who have blockaded oil terminals in the east demanding better wages, employment opportunities and greater regional autonomy. Recently protests spread to the west as well and Libya's oil output dropped to just 200,000 barrels per day (bpd) out of a potential capacity of 1.6 million bpd; this led to serious concerns about the state of Libya's economy which is heavily reliant on hydrocarbons. Although the government was able to resolve strikes in the west through negotiation, the situation in the east has not improved. The latest incident in the saga there involved the strike-leader Ibrahim Jathran accusing a member of the General National Congress (GNC) of attempting to bribe him to end the blockades with  $2.5 million-worth of cheques. The GNC member in question is currently being investigated by the Public Prosecutor.

Another ongoing power struggle is that between the Zintani armed groups who are currently holding Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Muammar Gaddafi's son and onetime heir-apparent, and the central authorities who have started pre-trial proceedings against him and other former regime figures. Zintan have so far refused to hand him over to Tripoli claiming that Prime Minister Ali Zeidan's government is weak, corrupt and full of Gaddafi loyalists who therefore cannot be trusted to try him. To add to the tension, the International Criminal Court (ICC) are still demanding that Saif be submitted to the Court until the outcome of Libya's appeal to try him domestically is decided. However in more positive news the Court ruled on October 11 that Libya is 'willing and able' to try Gaddafi's former spy chief Abdullah Senussi for crimes against humanity.

To add to this, targeted kidnappings, attacks and assassinations seem to have escalated across the country, especially in Benghazi and the surrounding area, and there have been a flurry of reports suggesting the presence of hard-line Islamist groups in Libya is growing. With the start of high profile trials, the judiciary has also come under increasing scrutiny. Although courts are generally functioning, security concerns are seriously hampering the ability of the judicial system to deliver justice through free and fair trials. A number of judges have been assassinated in recent weeks and members of the judiciary report they are increasingly subject to threats and intimidation from armed groups and the families of victims and defendants alike.

Against this backdrop, calls for the Prime Minister to resign have been gathering force within the Islamist blocs of the GNC who are demanding a vote of no confidence be held (although so far they have fallen short of the required votes to do so) while PM Zeidan remains resolute that he will not be intimidated out of office and maintains that he is doing his best for Libya in difficult times. The political fault lines which run through the foundations of the GNC and government have been growing ever deeper and wider as the security situation in Libya has grown more uncertain, and shockwaves from the deteriorating situation in neighbouring Egypt have forced open the rifts still further. Indeed, the extent of Libya's political polarisation was dramatically underscored after Libya's leaders faced two serious challenges to their authority, sovereignty and legitimacy last week.

On October 5, American Delta forces seized a Libyan citizen from outside his home in Tripoli, where he has apparently been living with his family for the past two years, and whisked him out of the country claiming he was a ‘legal and appropriate target'[1]. The man in question was alleged al-Qaida leader Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by his alias Abu Anas al-Liby, who is wanted for the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 220 people. The Libyan government demanded an explanation for the kidnapping claiming it had not been informed in advance, although a number of reports suggested that the Libyan authorities had in fact collaborated with the Americans. This raid on Libyan soil provoked mixed reactions among the public. Some were glad al-Liby had been removed, seeing it as a blow for Islamic extremists trying to find a foothold in Libya. Others were furious that the Americans had undermined Libya's sovereignty, feeling that the US had revealed its true colours by riding roughshod over Libya's authority and taking advantage of the chaotic situation to further their own interests. Although there is little support for al-Qaeda-type movements in Libya, al-Liby is a Libyan citizen who was kidnapped by foreign forces without due process: therefore this incident has provoked some fierce reactions within the country.

Following this, in the early hours of October 10, PM Ali Zeidan was taken from his hotel room in the capital by armed men from the government's Crime Combating Unit and the Revolutionaries' Operations Room, claiming to have a warrant for his arrest based on allegations of corruption and mismanagement of public funds ( an action which later turned out to be illegal). Zeidan was released a few hours later, but this incident sent waves of disbelief and frustration across the country; underlining the fragility of the state and the growing security vacuum within Libya. Many believe that Zeidan's kidnapping was directly linked to claims that the Libyan government assisted the US in their seizure of al-Liby and was a move by Zeidan's opponents to remove him from power. Whether this is the case or not, Zeidan has certainly tried to turn the kidnapping to his advantage. He claimed that his 'arrest' was not an attempted kidnapping but an attempted coup and has tried to shift the blame towards his Islamist rivals in the GNC, although they have denied involvement.

So far the reaction from the Libyan population has been fairly muted and there have been few large demonstrations of either support or anger on the streets of Libya's cities. However the events of the last couple of weeks are likely to mark a turning point. There is no denying that the situation in Libya at present is far from ideal but that does not mean it is a lost cause. There are a huge number of challenges which would be tough to deal with under the best of circumstances, the most pressing being the growing power and influence of Libya's myriad armed groups. However the process has been made so much more difficult by the corrosive effect of political polarisation and infighting which has left the state weak and unable to make or implement decisions. The extent of these rifts has been laid bare and if Libya's leaders continue to grapple with one another instead of facing up to the country's real challenges then these fault lines could swallow the country whole. However, if recent events are viewed as the kick-start needed to put these rivalries aside and rebuild the country on the basis of inclusive, consensus-based politics then Libya may yet be able to bridge some of the divides and prevent a downward spiral into chaos and destruction.

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