- By Mohamed EljarhMohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.
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.