Libya on the Brink

Deepening political polarization in Libya is hindering the country's democratic transition as different political factions struggle for power and control over the country's fledging institutions.

Over the past two weeks, political tensions between Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya have intensified due to Zeidan's visit to Egypt on Sept. 5. Zeidan held talks with the military-backed government and met with the head of the Egyptian Army, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The timing of the visit was sensitive considering the recent military overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsy and his government. The Justice and Construction Party (the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing in Libya) was quick to condemn the prime minister's visit to Egypt and his talks with Sisi, especially after the crackdown on the pro-Morsy supporters in Egypt. Libya's grand mufti was more critical of the prime minister and called for the General National Congress to sack the government.

The Brotherhood and the grand mufti both insist their calls for the government's resignation have nothing to do with the prime minister's recent visit to Egypt, but rather with the failure of the government to deliver on its promises and provide the most basic of services to its people. Indeed, the government has failed to improve the security situation, and the country has become plagued with power outages. Most recently, the residents of Tripoli had to endure a week without water. Then there's the continuing oil crisis, which has seen the country's output drop to less than 10 percent of its original capacity.

Upon his return from Egypt, however, Zeidan attacked the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing it of hindering his government's efforts since the day he assumed office. He also linked the attack of the Muslim Brotherhood on his government to his visit to Egypt. The Brotherhood sees the visit as support for the military-led government that toppled its counterpart in Egypt. Zeidan insists that his visit was aimed at securing Libya's strategic interests in Egypt and that Libya has to keep a good relationship with Egypt regardless of who is in charge.

Zeidan's visit was sudden and unannounced, fueling speculations that the visit was a tactical move by the prime minister to divert public anger over the plague of shortages from his government. In this interpretation, Zeidan aimed to provoke action from the Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood fell into the trap. If that was indeed the intention of Zeidan's visit to Egypt, then he succeeded. Calls for a general strike backed by the mufti and the Brotherhood have failed to gain public support, and the public's anger seems to have focused on the Brotherhood rather than Zeidan and his government.

The federalists in Cyrenaica have also been calling for Zeidan to resign amid allegations of corruption in Libyan oil sale deals. They have also been urging Zeidan and his government to be investigated after the government's threats to use force in order to reopen the oil terminals that are under the federalists' control. Nevertheless, it is ironic to see the federalists and the Islamists (known to be the fiercest of opponents otherwise) presenting similar demands. Ultimately, however, the federalist agenda, based on demands for autonomy for their oil-rich region, are entirely different from those of the Islamists. If the Islamists succeed in dismissing Zeidan's government, it will be difficult for any upcoming government to exercise control over the area controlled by the federalists -- especially if an upcoming government is led or backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The future of Zeidan and his government is increasingly uncertain. The pressure exerted by different political groups in different parts of the country is growing. Yet for the moment Zeidan seems to have consolidated his position and that of his government by managing to foil the Muslim Brotherhood's plans to unseat him by calling for a nationwide strike; the Brotherhood had already failed in a bid to force his resignation with a no-confidence vote in General National Congress. On the other hand, the federalists are planning a pro-federalism rally on Monday in clear defiance of the central authorities in Tripoli, who are still insisting that the oil terminals be reopened.

Zeidan still enjoys the support of the National Forces Alliance, which has said that sacking the government now would only worsen the situation in Libya and lead to more chaos in the country. It would also be hard to see how an agreement could be reached on a new prime minister to lead the government amid the current political polarization. Libya's most prominent friends in the West -- the United States, France, Britain, and Italy -- have iterated their support for Libya and urged Libyans to support Zeidan and his government to resolve the country's oil crisis. There is no doubt that Libya's Western allies can do more to help the country progress by speeding up efforts to help with the security situation and help boost the economy, health, and education sectors by providing know-how and technology. The Libyan government needs all the support it can get to provide even the most basic of services to their citizens during these critical times.

After toppling Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime, the pro-revolution camp has fragmented into different groups, each one dominated by its own goals and narrow-minded political interests. These groups have hijacked politics in post-revolution Libya. It is impossible to see how Libya can progress unless someone proves capable of bringing together the different groups for a constructive dialogue to shape the future of the country.

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



Democracy Lab Weekly Brief, September 16, 2013

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Chris Stephen assesses the grim situation in Libya one year after the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. DemLab editor Christian Caryl contends that this is the international community's last chance to help Libya find its way to democracy.

Maikel Nabil Sanad proposes four benchmarks for a democratic Egypt.

Tik Root reports on a once marginal political movement that has become a major participant in Yemen's national dialogue.

Tomas Bridle explains why democracy promoters should rely on a variety of tools.

Dalibor Rohac urges Egyptian policymakers to follow the example of Eastern Europe by pushing hard and fast for economic reform.

Juan Nagel reveals the Syria-Venezuela connection, even as Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro sends a "rambling missive" to U.S. President Barack Obama.

Min Zin explains that though Burmese President Thein Sein hopes for a timely end to the civil war, peace in Burma is coming down to political maneuvering.

This week's recommended reads:

In an open letter on the Lancet, doctors plead with armed forces in Syria to stop attacking medical centers, ambulances, health-care professionals, and patients, and allow their medical colleagues to treat the wounded. In the photo above, Syrian men evacuate a victim of an air strike by regime forces in Aleppo. 

As Zarni Mannn reports for the Irrawaddy, Burmese President Thein Sein met for the first time with members of the 88 Generation Students, a group that was instrumental in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, as part of his plan to release all political prisoners by the end of the year.

The New York Times's Jeffrey Gettleman interviews Rwandan president Paul Kagame.

Writing in the Nation, Sarah Carr presents a dark portrait of post-coup Egypt.

The Atlantic's Nick Danforth explains why colonial-era borders can't be blamed for all the ills of today's Middle East.

Alakbar Raufoglu, reporting for SES Turkiye, explains why a video of police officers beating a Turkish protestor could have serious consequences for Turkey's prime minister.

Vikram Nehru, writing for the Carnegie Endowment, argues that Indonesia's succesful elections don't necessarily mean that the country has genuine political competition.

Adow Jubat reports on the false promise of devolution in Kenya's Northern Frontier, where inter-clan conflict has exploded into violent clashes.

And the Guardian's Music Blog explains how a taboo-breaking Lebanese band is shifting political boundaries.