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

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.