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Libya: A Chaotic Start for the New Government

The Libyan parliament will today vote on cabinet members. Could this put an end to the country's political turmoil?
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Tripoli by night. Photograph by Quigibo.

Yesterday, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, who was appointed on October 14 following the dismissal of his predecessor Mustafa Abushagur after just 25 days in office, presented the General National Congress (GNC) with his proposals for a new coalition government. The cabinet put forward by Zeidan is composed of individuals from a variety of political organisations, although the two dominant blocs in the GNC – the liberal Alliance of National Forces and the Justice and Construction Party, an offshoot of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood – provide the bulk of ministerial nominees. Other posts went to independents.

In an address to parliament, Zeidan, a former diplomat and Geneva-based human-rights lawyer, said he had “tried to put into consideration the element of geography and avoid biases in favour of certain regions". The move comes after a series of negotiations between Libya’s main parties and is intended to reinforce national unity in the face of rising tribal and regional tensions. Zeidan’s 30-member cabinet will have to win the endorsement of a majority of the GNC’s 200 members, 120 of whom sit as independents without any formal party affiliation.

Challenges ahead

The most significant of Zeidan’s suggested cabinet appointments are Ali Ali Aujali as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Abdulbari al-Arusi as Minister for Oil. Should he survive parliamentary vetting procedures, Aujali, who until recently served as Libya’s ambassador to the United States, will be charged with a formidable task: repairing the damage done to Tripoli’s relationship with Washington following the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in September which left four Americans dead, including US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stephens. The task will become even more difficult if Mitt Romney, the US Republican presidential candidate who has made the Obama administration’s alleged mishandling of the attack a central feature of his campaign, wins control of the White House next week.

The challenge facing al-Arusi would be no less daunting. Libya’s chief economic asset is its large reserves of high-quality crude oil. Yet, one year after the toppling of the Gaddafi regime, oil production is only just returning to pre-war levels and, as a result of ongoing political instability, the oil sector is struggling to attract international investors. What is more, most of the oil reserves are located in the east of the country, which in recent months has seen the emergence of a powerful federalist movement demanding the devolution of key powers from Tripoli to Benghazi, the regional capital. Although the movement has not yet called for local control of oil revenues, it has signalled an intent to disrupt the process of national reconciliation if the government refuses to consider a new, federal constitutional settlement.

Another of Zeidan’s nominees who would occupy a position pivotal to the success of the new government is proposed Minister of Interior, Ashour Suleiman Shwayel. As interior minister, Shwayel, a 58-year-old ex-policeman, would have to achieve something which has proved impossible for his predecessors: disarming the country’s numerous militia groups, many of which operate as de facto security units in the absence of an effective central police force. More immediately, he would have to confront the violent uprising in Bani Walid, which was one of the last towns to fall to the rebels during the civil war and remains a source of instability for the government. Some estimate that 25,000 of the town’s 80,000 residents have fled over the last six months amid clashes between troops and militia gunmen.

A chaotic start

Even before the GNC had an opportunity to vote on the composition of Zeidan’s government yesterday, there were signs of significant extra-parliamentary opposition. Just ahead of the ballot, around 100 protesters occupied the floor of the national assembly, calling on some of the nominees to stand down. Parliamentarians remonstrated with the protesters, thought to be disgruntled former rebel fighters, and eventually proceedings were allowed to resume before a second disruption forced the vote to be postponed until today.

It has been a chaotic start for Libyan representative democracy. Since July, when the first elections of the post-Gaddafi era took place, the problems holding back the country’s development seem only to have intensified. The National Transitional Council (NTC), an assortment of technocrats and former regime elements which held power for eight months after the war, proved incapable of establishing the basic pre-conditions of a functioning state: a centrally-controlled and professional security force, healthcare and judicial systems, and a stable economic infrastructure.

The task of reconstructing Libya now falls to the GNC and, if approved later today, to Zeidan’s government. On the basis of the last few days, let alone the last 12 months, the odds are not stacked in its favour. But then the unique nature of Gaddafi’s rule and the legacy it has left may almost have been designed to ensure Libya remains politically stunted. With little history of institutional government and no experience in party politics, Libyans are quite literally starting from scratch.

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Regional, tribal and secular/religious divisions are still as rife now as ever in post-Gaddafi Libya. It is, then, certainly important to address regional divides at the governmental level, and avoid bias in the cabinet, insofar as possible. However, the major challenges of regional divisions and security enforcement fragmented among local militias, exaggerated by the circulation of large numbers of arms, a lack of a functioning court system and a weak central government, still mean that minor disputes can escalate into deadly conflict. Protracted instability, particularly clashes such as have recently been witnessed in Bani Walid, also hinders any efforts of national reconciliation. This raises the important question of how the government can dismantle the various militias, and ultimately the Supreme Security Council comprised of brigades nominally loyal to the state.

Oil is a very important resource for Libya’s economic development, and also potentially as a means for the government to exert some level of control over its domestic situation. If used wisely it could be a means of creating some stability, by giving the government control over security spending and earning public confidence through investing in infrastructure and public services.

It is to be hoped that Zeidan’s new cabinet works efficiently to rebuild state institutions, and particularly to form the constitutional committee. During the process of selecting this committee, it would be important to maintain as much independence as possible from armed groups; asserting a level of control is as soon as possible is thus imperative, to reduce the militias’ ability of influencing political processes by force.