Catch and Release, Libyan Style

Catch and Release, Libyan Style

This morning Libyans woke up to the news that a militia had kidnapped Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. Even though he was released soon after, the news highlights the latest turn for the worst in post-revolutionary Libya, as political groups and militias struggle for power over the country’s fragile institutions.

Around 4 a.m. local time, a group of armed men from the government’s Crime Combating Unit and the Revolutionaries’ Operations Room — both security agencies formed and dominated by Islamists and nominally under government control — stormed the hotel where the prime minister was staying and presented him with an arrest warrant based on allegations of corruption and mismanagement of public funds. These claims are related to a recent scandal in which government officials offered bribes to the groups shutting down Libya’s oil terminals in the eastern region (Cyrenaica).

The arrest warrant turned out to be illegal, since it had been signed only by the head of the Crime Combating Unit and not by the relevant officials whose authorization would have been needed. A few hours later, the prime minister was released by his captors after an intervention from the interim legislature, the General National Congress (GNC), and other government forces. (The photo above shows Zeidan shortly after his release.)

Today’s events highlight the growing security vacuum in a country where true power lies in the hands of the militias. Indeed, the prime minister described his kidnapping in a press conference as "part of everyday political fissures" in post-revolution Libya. The kidnapping comes just a few days after a raid in Tripoli that resulted in the capture of al Qaeda figure Abu Anas al-Libi. Many Libyans believe that the kidnapping was linked with Libi’s capture, given that the group that kidnapped the prime minister is headed by an ex-jihadi named Abu Obeida al-Zawi, who was appointed as head of the Revolutionaries’ Operation Room a few days ago by GNC President Abu Sahmain.

Both Libyan politicians and foreign governments have been quick to condemn Zeidan’s abduction. Notably, Zeidan’s political opponents were particularly quick to distance themselves from the group that seized him. However, the prime minister’s use of the term "political fissures" seemed calculated to shift the blame for his "arrest" to one of his many political opponents. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups have been trying hard to unseat the prime minster through a vote of no confidence in the GNC, but so far they’ve failed to get the required 120 votes. Some of Zeidan’s enemies may have seized upon the kidnapping as an alternative way of forcing him to resign. To their disappointment, however, Zeidan appears determined to go on with the job.

The prime minister’s ordeal could conceivably win him some much-needed support and sympathy. Initially, though, the public reaction was one of notable indifference. No one has taken to the streets to demonstrate support. People interviewed by TV stations said that they had expected something like this to happen, while others said they had expected much worse than a brief abduction. This shows the extent to which kidnappings and killings have become the norm.

Even if this incident does buy the prime minister some support and time, it will not be enough. It has undermined Zeidan’s leadership by demonstrating his government’s inability to protect its own head, much less the Libyan people and their aspirations to create a successful democracy. Democratic process and elections are irrelevant in an environment where guns rule. This reality essentially makes the much-ballyhooed constitution-building process a lost cause, since the country has no national army that can uphold the constitutional values to be agreed upon by the Libyan people.

Even after today’s events, the government is still reluctant to tell the truth to the public. This has been one of main factors contributing to people’s indifference towards the prime minister’s abduction. In addition, the lack of details about the incident has prompted people to come up with their own conspiracy theories about what happened. Some go so far as to claim that the prime minister orchestrated his own abduction to try to buy himself more time ahead of the planned vote of no confidence after the approaching Eid holidays. Lawmakers are increasingly frustrated with Zeidan, whom they blame for the country’s ineffective institutions. The political bickering and the lack of transparency are damaging the democratic transition in the public mind.

The international community, and Libya’s friends in the West in particular, have affirmed their support for the country’s people and the government, promising their full support for the democratic transition. The reality, however, is that the time for statements of support or condemnation is over. Unless Libya’s friends can find concrete ways to help the central government bring the armed groups under its control, Zeidan is bound to lose his security battle against the militias. The current situation is not sustainable. At this point, power will ultimately fall to the side — either the government or the militias — that succeeds in resolving the security situation. The niceties of democratic behavior will have little to do with the outcome.

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