Libya rising

This morning, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in the city of Zawiya, about 40 km west of the capital, to denounce the takeover of government ministries by armed groups in Tripoli. The demonstration moved on to both Algeria and Martyrs Square, with numbers growing by the hour. The protesters, who have remained there, are calling for the disbanding of all armed militias in Tripoli and the end of the siege.

The demonstrations come days after a plea from Prime Minister Ali Zeidan for the public to support legitimate democratic processes through peaceful protests. His comments came on Sunday, April 28, when armed men started a systematic violent takeover of government institutions in Tripoli. Shortly after, Zeidan warned of a dangerous security situation as gunmen began storming the Interior Ministry and a state-owned television station after blocking access to the Foreign Ministry.

The assailants are demanding that the Libyan government pass the controversial isolation law immediately. They have now moved on to the Ministry of Justice, where they have ejected the staff and minister from the building.  The ministries that have been attacked have been closed since the siege began. These events have prompted the General National Congress (GNC) to postpone its Tuesday session amid fears that the militias would storm it in an attempt to force GNC members into passing the law.

According to the GNC spokesperson, Omar Hmaidan, the vote on the isolation law will now take place on Sunday, May 5, with only minor sticking points to be agreed on by the different blocs within the GNC.

However, the armed protesters have now shifted to calling for the dismissal of Prime Minister Zeidan and the formation of a new government. Only the GNC can put Zeidan's government up for a vote of confidence, and it is highly unlikely that it will take such a move. Zeidan is accused of strengthening the grip of Qaddafi's men on government institutions by keeping them in their posts and hiring others to leading posts. The prime minister has dismissed the accusations, refusing to be intimidated by armed militias.

The government is trying to take an inclusive approach to move the country forward. Supporters of the isolation law would rather see the government adopt an exclusionary approach towards all individuals associated with the Qaddafi regime.

From the outside, the current events in Tripoli might seem specifically related to the isolation law, but in reality, there are hidden agendas driving the escalation of the situation. They have much to do with the struggle for power and influence. The young armed protesters currently besieging the government ministries have been co-opted by the proponents of the isolation law, and seem to be misinformed about the whole issue.

When asked about their reasons for the armed siege of government ministries, one of the young armed protesters said the following: "I went to a government institution to get something done, and the guy at the reception was a Qaddafi loyalist. These people need to be purged." However, the proposed law does not apply to low-level government employees, and this shows the clear misconception among the young armed protesters. (The problem with this mentality is that the smallest pretext can be used to label anyone as a Qaddafi loyalist.)

The leaders behind the armed takeover in Tripoli are individuals who ran as candidates in the GNC's general elections in July 2012. However, they failed to secure any support from the voters in their constituencies, so they decided to form a coalition to champion the calls for the isolation of pro-regime individuals.  The real aim is not good governance or legitimacy, but obtaining power, which they failed to achieve through the democratic process. They are now opting to use the armed militias to gain influence.

The anti-militia protesters have vowed to continue their demonstrations until Tripoli becomes militia-free. There are calls for nationwide demonstrations to take place tomorrow. In light of the recent surge of violence, there have been renewed calls for serious steps towards creating a national army and police force. So far, the army and police forces are still in disarray. Army officers are accusing current army chief Youssef al-Mangoush of corruption, lack of leadership, and leniency toward the militias.

The government has a valuable opportunity to capitalize on the public mobilization to disband the armed militias in Tripoli. So far they have stuck to a policy of restraint. This, however, has only led to more attacks on government forces; countermeasures need to be taken now.

In a show of unity, Deputy GNC President Guma Attigha held a press conference this evening along with Prime Minister Zeidan and the leaders of the different blocs within the GNC. Attigha affirmed the government's commitment to democratic legitimacy, the rights of Libyans to peacefully protest, and unity of the Libyan nation.

The U.N. mission in Libya issued a statement calling on Libyans to solve their differences through dialogue, not violence or armed action. The U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said that all Libyans should remain true to the aim of the Libyan revolution -- the creation of a modern, strong state based on democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.


Nicolás Maduro's unfinished campaign

Nicolás Maduro, who is now officially Venezuela's president, is not enjoying much of a honeymoon period. After narrowly winning a special election to replace the late President Hugo Chávez -- only to have his main rival question the results -- Maduro should be extending an olive branch to the vast sectors of voters that opposed him.

Ever the radical, Mr. Maduro is doing just the opposite. He seems to be fighting the fire with (heavily subsidized) gasoline.

Maduro began his post facing serious protests. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles asked his followers to bang pots and pans in the streets in protest over what they deemed a fraudulent election. Maduro responded by calling his supporters (mainly, government bureaucrats) to shoot fireworks in response. The result was a loud mess in Caracas that did little to smooth over differences.

Maduro's next line of attack came when he appointed his cabinet. Most of the names were recycled from old chavista cabinets, casting serious doubt about the new president's ability to change course. The new finance minister used to be president of the Central Bank; the new tourism minister is the old communications minister; and the new electricity minister has held six previous ministry positions in the past.

Some of his appointments were highly controversial. Maduro ratified the defense minister (an active Navy man), who had said that the armed forces "would ensure [Maduro's] election." The controversial prisons minister, who presided over some of the most deadly riots in the history of the continent, was also ratified. She quickly went on air to say that she was preparing a "special cell" for Mr. Capriles, to purge him of his "crimes" as well as "his drug habit." (Chavistas have long accused Capriles of being a drug user, which he has never even bothered responding to.) And the housing minister, who surfaced in a YouTube video earlier in the month saying that he would fire any government employees who had voted for Capriles, "labor laws be damned," was also ratified.

Yet another battle is being fought in the National Assembly, Venezuela's single-chamber legislature. The president of the legislature, Diosdado Cabello, decided that no opposition representative will be allowed the right to speak in the assembly unless he or she accepts Maduro as President. He has also stopped paying opposition deputies' salaries and the rest of their parliamentary allowances.

Meanwhile, the president continues to talk about Capriles as if it were still campaign season. He frequently refers to Capriles as a member of the "bourgeoisie." More significantly, he has threatened to cut funding for the state of Miranda, where Capriles is governor.

Since Venezuelan states cannot raise funds independently via debt or taxation, all of their funding is transferred from the central government. The Venezuelan Constitution clearly establishes the rules that govern such transfers: States receive a certain percentage of the federal budget according to their population. In the last fifty years, federal transfers had never been used for political retaliation -- until now.

The government has also heightened repression in light of increased calls of its illegitimacy. A prominent former military man, Antonio Rivero, was jailed on trumped-up charges and soon after went on hunger strike. The government has also jailed an American documentary filmmaker, Timothy Tracy, on made-up charges of "espionage" while he was trying to board a commercial flight back to the United States. In the meantime, there are numerous stories surfacing of harassment of government employees. The search for "moles" inside the government has even included checking their Facebook pages to see if they have any activity related to Capriles. It is rumored there are active military personnel being held in custody for expressing support for Capriles, although this has not been confirmed.

As all this plays out, Venezuela's electoral body, the CNE, has basically denied the elections audit that Capriles requested. Instead, they have put forward a partial audit; Capriles is boycotting it, and is preparing to file suit in the courts over the election. It would take a miracle for the heavily chavista courts to rule in his favor, which can only mean that Mr. Capriles will have to take his case overseas.

With the independence of key institutions in question and a reckless new president intent of burning bridges (instead of building them), only one thing is clear: The period of deep instability in Venezuela is nowhere near over.    

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his blog posts here.