Why no one stopped the kidnapping of the Libyan prime minister

Powerful Libyan militias resent Prime Minister Zeidan as a symbol of a government that would rein them in – if it could.

Ismail Zitouny/Reuters
Libya's Prime Minister Ali Zeidan (c.) addresses a news conference after his release and arrival at the headquarters of the Prime Minister's Office in Tripoli October 10, 2013. Zeidan was seized and held for several hours on Thursday by former rebel militiamen angry at the weekend capture by US special forces of an alleged Al Qaeda bombing planner in Tripoli.

This morning in Tripoli a group of armed men marched into the Hotel Corinthia and marched out again with Libya’s prime minister, Ali Zeidan. Reportedly, no one – not hotel security, not Mr. Zeidan’s own bodyguards – tried to stop them.

Zeidan was released unharmed several hours later. His captors appear to be disgruntled militiamen who accuse Libya’s government of condoning a raid by US commandos last Saturday in Tripoli.

But this morning’s drama also highlights the deep fissures among Libya’s various armed groups and political factions, and the singular weakness of its top civilian leader.

“Zeidan has been weak for quite a long time,” says John Hamilton, a Libya expert and contributing editor at African Energy magazine in Britain. “Libya is polarized, and he’s become a focus of discontent.”

On the face of it, Zeidan boasts impressive credentials. A former diplomat under Muammar Qaddafi, he defected in 1980 and fled to Geneva. There he helped create the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a voice of resistance for three decades.

A coalition of parties that stressed nuts-and-bolts pragmatism over ideology took first place in the first post-Qaddafi election last year, while the Islamist Justice and Construction Party (JCP) came a distant second. But most seats – 120 of 200 in total – were reserved for independents, many of whom have since clustered around the two main party blocs. As politics has progressed, fault lines have emerged.

Stubborn militias

The GNC’s initial choice for prime minister, Mustafa Abu Shagur, was swiftly removed in a no-confidence vote amid griping that his cabinet appointments failed to represent Libya’s regions. Zeidan was voted in to replace him and took office last November. Since then, however, Libya’s government has struggled to assert its authority.

Most militias have refused to lay down their weapons. While some have accepted nominal government control in return for pay, even they break ranks at times to serve private agendas.

Increasingly, force of arms has impinged on politics. Last spring militiamen parked outside government buildings to force the passage of a law to bar Qaddafi-era officials from public office.

More recently, rowdy protestors – sometimes armed – have staged strikes and sit-ins at oil installations, severely denting this year’s oil output. Libya’s borders remain porous, crime is rising, and the country is awash with guns.

Politicians increasingly blame Zeidan for Libya’s dysfunction. Last month the JCP called for confidence in him to be put to a vote.

“If you heard the GNC members talk, you’d think it would be easy to get the 120 votes needed for a vote of no-confidence,” says Abdelmonem Lohashy, a former independent member of the GNC.


Mr. Lohashy acknowledges that Zeidan came into office with the deck largely stacked against him. “But the qualities you need to lead people, I don’t see them in Mr. Zeidan,” he says.

Meanwhile, Zeidan has also managed to alienate Libya’s gun-toting element simply through representing the notion of a central state, says Mr. Hamilton.

“Not that he’s able to deliver it,” Hamilton says. “But all these groups, the last thing they want is to see a strong government emerge.”

A US raid in Tripoli last weekend to capture an alleged Al Qaeda bombing planner appears to have prompted some of Libya’s gunmen to take action against Zeidan.

On Saturday US forces snatched Nazih al-Ruqai, better known as Abu Anas al-Liby, as he returned home from a mosque. Mr. Al-Liby is accused of involvement in devastating bombings of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam in 1998.

Libya’s government has insisted that it was unaware the raid would take place. But Zeidan’s abductors this morning appeared convinced otherwise.

“[Zeidan’s] arrest comes after…[Kerry] said the Libyan government was aware of the operation,” a spokesman for the abductors told Reuters, referring to US Secretary of State John Kerry.

It’s unclear what statement, if any, by Mr. Kerry the abductors may have had in mind. While unnamed US officials have told the New York Times that Libya’s government was notified of the raid, Kerry is not known to have made any such claim.

Meanwhile, a flurry of confusing and sometimes contradictory statements were issued from sources in Tripoli this morning while Zeidan remained incommunicado. His abductors initially said they were attached to the Operations Room, a militia coordination structure, then denied the Operations Room’s involvement at the behest of other groups, Reuters reported.

The justice ministry denied the abductors’ claim to have received an official warrant for Zeidan’s arrest, according to the BBC, citing Libyan state TV.

The public relations chaos is itself illustrative of broader disorder in Libya, says Hamilton.

“There’s no central authority,” he says. “This allows people to make their own claims and exert themselves in this way.

By early afternoon Zeidan was released, apparently through the intervention of officials and militia groups.

Afterward, he addressed his cabinet in remarks carried on TV, reports Reuters. While his words’ exact context aren’t clear from reports, their potential application is broad:

“Libyans need wisdom… not escalation… to deal with this situation.”

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