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.

Ismail Zitouny/Reuters
Libya's Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagur attends a news conference in Tripoli September 27.

Libya’s nascent democracy was jolted yesterday as the national congress rejected prime minister-elect Mustafa Abu Shagur's second proposed cabinet in less than a week and then tossed him out, too – all in the name of national unity.

A lifelong anti-Qaddafi dissident, Mr. Abu Shagur had appeared to be a strong candidate to head Libya’s first democratic government. But analysts say he failed to build political support in a country with strong regional and tribal loyalties.

His removal also points to a degree of immaturity among Libya’s new political class, says Henry Smith, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Control Risks, a British risk analysis firm. He describes the move as “essentially holding the national political process to ransom with parochial demands for representation.”

Rough-and-tumble politics

Rough-and-tumble politics are to be expected in a country still learning democracy after four decades of one-man rule. But analysts say the costs could be high.

Until a government is in place with a democratic mandate, the hard work of developing the country will be even harder. Among key tasks are drafting a new constitution, improving public services, and reforming laws to secure civil and commercial rights – all of which could help attract more foreign investment.

“Without a cabinet in place prepared to assume sovereign authority over security, finance, and strategic development, the only outcome can be continued drift,” says John Hamilton, a contributing editor at African Energy magazine in Britain.

To be sure, Libya’s oil industry, increasing stability, and a strong public stand against violence hold out promise for the country’s future and its ability to improve the economy and build democratic institutions.

But the interim cabinet, appointed by revolutionary leaders after Muammar Qaddafi's regime was brought down last year, has struggled to assert its authority. Leaders rely largely on local militias to keep order.

While many militias have officially aligned with the government, their shortcomings are plain. One example was Libyan forces’ failure to secure the United States consulate in Benghazi against an attack last month that led to the deaths of US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three colleagues.
Currently, militias from the city of Misurata are threatening assault on the town of Bani Walid to avenge Omran Shaban, a Misuratan fighter who died last month from injuries his family says occurred during weeks of captivity there.

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.

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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