In Libya, It's One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The recently appointed Libyan interim Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni resigned on Sunday just five days after taking the job, reigniting concerns about political stability in the country. When Thinni submitted his resignation to the General National Congress (GNC), he cited an attack on his family home by armed militants, which appeared to be an assassination attempt. His decision comes just as the security and political situation in the country has deteriorated significantly.

Thinni, who previously served as defense minister, was named caretaker prime minister after the dismissal of former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan on March 18. The leadership change was part of a package deal among the GNC's various political blocs. After months of political deadlock, the deal -- which included the dismissal of Zeidan, a call for early parliamentary elections, and the indefinite postponement of the presidential elections -- has potential to usher the country into the next phase of its transition. The new parliament will decide whether to elect a new president during the transitional phase. Political groups are divided over the issue, with Isalmists opposing any presidential election and their opponents (nationalists and the liberal-leaning) pushing for direct elections so Libyans can choose their head of state.

The package deal was an ill-devised and half-hearted attempt to bring about a solution to the political chaos in Libya. The deal was intended to serve the narrow-minded political interests of certain political groups within the GNC, and completely disregarded national interest and the will of the people, who took to the streets to demand early parliamentary and presidential elections. (The photo above shows the scorched outer wall of the GNC building the day after anti-GNC protests.) In response, the GNC oversaw the drafting of the constitutional amendment to add a third phase to Libya's democratic transition. This only adds to the Libyan people's disillusionment with the government and the country's democratic process.

Though the identity of the militiamen who attacked Thinni's home is still unknown, and their motives unclear, the circumstances of the event might provide a clue. In his first cabinet meeting, Thinni declared his government's intention to fight terrorism in Derna, Sirte, and Benghazi, and urged the Libyan people to show resilience and support the government's efforts as it attempts to establish some sense of law and order throughout the country. This declaration was received with mixed reaction within the GNC; one ultra-conservative member, Mohamed Busidra, dismissed the prime minister's use of the term "terrorism" to describe the situation in Derna and Benghazi.

Thinni's resignation undermines the country's democratic transition. His resignation adds to the uncertainty and inconsistency in the running of the Libyan state during these critical times, making it hard for Libya's friends and the international community to provide much needed help, advice, and assistance to the country. It is likely, for one, that Thinni's decision was also due to still more political jockeying within the GNC. The congress had asked Thinni to choose his cabinet within the week, and, inevitably, different political groups were pressuring him, attempting to influence his appointments. The Martyrs bloc, for example, a faction dominated by former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, insisted that Thinni appoint its candidates to the Ministries of Defense and the Interior -- a demand that Thinni resolutely dismissed, according to Libya's Al-Wasat News. Thinni's refusal to give in to pressure seems to have led his opponents to employ unorthodox tactics to force him out of office by targeting his family home.

Post-revolution Libya has been characterized by a struggle between competing political groups and their affiliated militias to control vital institutions. The Islamists have been working consistently to control Libya's defense and security sectors, in fear of a military ouster like the one that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As trust disintegrates among political factions, Thinni became the latest victim of the zero-sum political game dominating the political scene. A new prime minister will require 120 votes to be approved, a quorum that is unlikely to be achieved in the current polarized atmosphere in Tripoli.  

Days before Thinni's appointment, the government had agreed to an interim deal with the federalists in eastern Libya to reopen the country's main oil terminals, which have been blockaded for more than nine months. But Tripoli's deal with the federalists in Barqa will only hold if the government shows commitment and capacity to fulfill its end of the deal. A new prime minister and a new government could betray inconsistency and set back these peace efforts, sending the oil crisis back to square one. Yet again, political bickering in Tripoli has undermined efforts to get the country moving in the right direction.

Libya's partners abroad must start making bold moves, and use whatever advantage they have to push for a political deal among the various competing political factions and their militias. So far, the role of the international community and Libya's friends has been limited to technical advisory and assistance; however, most of Libya's woes require political solutions, not technical ones. Libya is in dire need of a new and comprehensive political deal that would bring all the stakeholders together to agree on a national, publically supported agenda to move the country forward. They must target priority areas for action -- such as security sector reform and economic development -- and provide a set of concrete policy initiatives designed to meet medium and long-term objectives. If the parties fail to strike such a deal, Libya could be stuck at the transitional stage for years as the central government disintegrates, giving rise to extremist and criminal groups that would threaten the peace and stability of the entire region. Libya's friends must engage with all political groups and actors on Libya's political scene today and work with them to ensure such scenarios are avoided.

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


Democracy Lab

The Self-Defense of Odessa

ODESSA, Ukraine — This is a surpassingly strange moment for the people of Odessa, the largest city on Ukraine's Black Sea coast. Outwardly, life couldn't be more normal. Smiling teenage girls stroll arm in arm, admiring the explosion of spring flowers. The myriad cafes and restaurants don't want for customers. And there is even a smattering of foreign tourists, come to admire the magnificent ensemble of 19th-century buildings.

Yet make no mistake: Odessa has a serious case of the jitters. Turn on the TV and you're likely to see Ukrainian politicians loudly accusing each other of treason, or railing at the government for its failure to respond to the mysterious gunmen who have taken over official buildings in the East. "Let's call things by their names: Ukraine is at war," one deputy declared during a live session from the parliament in Kiev on April 15. In Odessa itself, a pro-Russian demonstration on Sunday night turned violent: Some of the participants attacked the car of a TV crew and turned it over. Each day brings a new rumor about possible Russian intervention. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry is now calling upon Odessans to help dig trenches and install anti-tank barriers along the city's beaches, measures apparently designed to thwart a possible Russian amphibious landing. (The measure also evokes powerful psychological imagery of World War II, when spiky, steel "hedgehogs" were used to block German tanks.)

No one embodies this cognitive dissonance better than Vitaly Svychinsky, a 27-year-old independent businessman who also happens to be a passionate supporter of the Euromaidan movement that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych two months ago. Svychinsky and I met, at his request, at a McDonalds in the center of the city. No sooner had we taken our seats than his phone began ringing: "Yeah, exactly. 29 flak jackets. That's right. When do they arrive?" I barely had time to ask my first question when the phone rang again. This time, the call involved pistols. (Svychinksy insists that the only arms owned by the members of his organization are legal gas pistols that have been registered with the authorities.)

Svychinsky and his friends are part of the Euromaidan's "self-defense units." Yanukovych is gone, but now the activists are facing a new enemy in the form of "little green men," the strikingly well-armed, pro-Russian militants who continue to defy the Kiev government from their strongpoints in the East. Odessa, with its strategically crucial port and its proximity to the pro-Russian stronghold of Transnistria in the neighboring Republic of Moldova, could well be a tempting target for the forces of Vladimir Putin. So Svychinsky and his allies, who include pro-Ukrainian groups such as the nationalist Right Sector militia, are now preparing for the possibility that separatist insurgents could turn up in their city as well. (Svychinsky says that his own group consists of a mere 150 men, but insists that all those involved add up to a respectable force.)

Svychinsky and his friends -- consisting mostly of students and professionals, all with military backgrounds -- know that they aren't sufficiently well-equipped to withstand an assault by professional soldiers. Right now the self-defense units are armed only with helmets, shields (mostly wooden), and clubs -- "like your American baseball bats," Svychinsky helpfully explains.

In the event of trouble, the pro-Ukrainian militiamen plan to form cordons around key strategic points designated by a team of experienced military officers. In the case of the eastern city of Sloviansk, the attacking insurgents numbered just a few dozen, yet managed to carry out their mission nonetheless thanks to the lack of any organized resistance. The pro-independence Odessans hope that a well-coordinated response will enable them to hold off the attackers long enough to allow reinforcements to arrive.

It's a plan, to be sure. But the desperation behind it is thinly concealed. The very fact that civic activists feel compelled to improvise defense against a possible military assault reflects the devastating paralysis that has seized the Ukrainian state. The humiliation of the Ukrainian military during the Russian grab for Crimea, as well as the government's current failure to organize a credible answer to the insurgents in the East, dramatize the broader incapacity of the post-Soviet Ukrainian government: the result of two decades of rampant corruption, the cynicism and self-interest of a morally bankrupt political class, and enduring divides along lines of language, region, and religion.

Those problems are especially palpable in Odessa, where pro-Russian feeling is widespread. Long-running squabbles over the status of Russian in schools and in official documents have boosted the pro-Russia camp's sense of itself as a persecuted minority. The views of wide swathes of the public have been shaped by years of exposure to Russia's state-dominated media (which have now been banned by the Ukrainian government). And the city and provincial governments are still dominated by politicians from Yanukovych's pro-Russian Party of Regions -- one reason why Svychinsky and his friends don't expect the official security forces to come to their help at a moment of crisis.

Now, after all those years, even well-intentioned efforts at reform have a tendency to boomerang. Artem Fylypenko, head of the National Institute of Strategic Studies in Odessa (and a self-identified Maidan activist), notes that one of the first things the interim government promised after it took power was a fundamental reform of the deeply corrupt national police force -- a major reason, he says, why the police have been conspicuous by their absence during the insurgent takeover in the East: "It's clear that the police aren't going to defend a state that says it's going to cut their jobs. They're perfectly happy with the current system of total corruption." This is the moment, Fylypenko says, when the past two decades of governance failures have come back to haunt the nation.

There is a bright side. Somehow this messy, dysfunctional, and often disappointing Ukraine has also managed to win the loyalty of a surprising number of its citizens. Despite everything (including widespread distrust of the government in Kiev), polls show that some 70 percent of the population in Odessa still want Ukraine to remain a sovereign country, free from interference by outside powers. Some analysts assert that this loyalty seems to be especially strong within the regular army -- which does give hope that Svychinsky and his comrades-in-arms won't have to do the job on their own if push comes to shove.