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A jolt to Libya's new democracy – but some progress, too

Libya's congress tossed out the prime minister-elect yesterday, casting uncertainty over the country's progress as it gains stability and nears pre-war levels of oil output.

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But most Libyans reject potentially violent or divisive ideologies. In July congressional elections, first place went to a party that campaigned on a platform of big-tent inclusivity. On Sept. 21, a large anti-violence march in Benghazi prompted a hard-line Islamist militia blamed for the consulate attack to withdraw peacefully from its compound and city streets.

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The country has gradually become more stable since last year, and oil production is up to around pre-war levels. That wealth, if used efficiently, could make Libya an economic success and offer high living standards to its relatively small population of 5.6 million.

A country hammered together by colonialists

Much depends on whether leaders can keep the state-building process on track. As Abu Shagur discovered, that means appealing to sometimes disparate loyalties.

Modern Libya was hammered together by Italian colonialists from the three provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. After World War II brought independence, regional interests were expressly catered to while drafting the country’s 1951 constitution.
 
After seizing power in 1969, Qaddafi’s divide-and-rule tactics set tribe against tribe, while state funding was showered on some areas – notably Tripoli and Qaddafi’s home town, Sirte – but withheld from others. Last year’s revolution complicated things further by empowering local militias; some now use their muscle primarily in the interests of their home cities.

 
Abu Shagur’s first proposed cabinet was roundly slammed last week by politicians who said it failed to embrace all of Libya’s regions – criticism echoed by protesters from the city of Zaouia who barged into the building where congress meets. The ministerial line-up also reportedly featured no current members of the National Forces Alliance (NFA), Libya’s leading party.

The NFA and the second largest party, the Islamist Justice and Construction party, quickly decided that Abu Shagur had to go, says Mustafa El Mana, head of Justice and Construction’s policy oversight commission. NFA spokespeople couldn’t be reached for comment.

Yesterday Abu Shagur proposed a slimmed-down, 10-person unity cabinet in place of his original 29-seat one. In short order, the congress removed him altogether with an on-the-spot vote of no confidence.
 
For Mr. El Mana, Abu Shagur seemed like the right choice last month when Justice and Construction backed him as prime minister in a run-off vote against the NFA’s leader, Mahmoud Jibril. But ultimately, says El Mana, Abu Shagur proved a disappointment.
 
“We don’t think he’s the man for the moment,” he says. “Going in the space of 72 hours from a 29-person cabinet to a 10-person one – he’s lost.”

New contenders unclear

El Mana says that his party and others have already begun discussing who might replace Abu Shagur, but declines to comment further. One possible contender is Mr. Jibril, widely seen as a capable leader and problem-solver, and who lost the prime ministerial run-off last month by only two votes.
 
It is still unclear when the congress might elect a new prime minister, and how long that person might need to see a proposed government through to approval.

For now, neither Libya’s leading party, the NFA, nor its second strongest, Justice and Construction, seems poised to come up with answers, says Mr. Hamilton.
 

“Neither block has succeeded in putting forward a proposal that is sufficient to command a broad majority,” he says. “Abu Shagur was a compromise that has now failed.”

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