Libya lurches toward democracy?

Parliament failing to choose new government as world focuses on attack on US embassy in Benghazi.

November 12, 2012 12:12
3 minute read.
Protesters gesture in front of black flag of Cyren

Protesters gesture in front of black flag of Cyrenaica 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori)


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It is hard to avoid Libya these days. Ever since a September 11 attack against an American mission in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, cable news networks and talk radio channels have been abuzz about the security failures that led to the tragic attack. But in Libya the big story for the past month has been the failure to choose a new cabinet. With parliamentarians focused on political infighting, they are ignoring the structural security problems that need to be tackled in order to eliminate the growing jihadist threat.

Unlike in neighboring Egypt where a power struggle erupted between elected civilian leaders and the military, many Western observers believed Libya’s political process would be much less rockier.  But the task of cobbling together a cabinet has been anything but a smooth affair.

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The first prime minister to be sacrificed on the altar of regional and tribal strife that plagues Libya was Mustafa Abushagur.  Parliament twice rejected his cabinet choices, forcing him to resign. Inside the assembly the chief gripe was that he did not allocate enough portfolios to the two largest political parties and instead favored a small faction composed of dissidents and exiles who had been absent from the Libyan political scene for thirty years. “Libya is not their fiefdom,” complained a parliamentarian from the National Forces Alliance, the party that won the most seats in the July elections. “Abushagur needs to understand he is just one of many and needs to divide portfolios to make everyone happy.”

On the streets, though, Libyans had other grievances.  Some said he favored people with ties to former leader Muammar Gaddafi.  Others complained he did not dole out enough slots to regional leaders, instead allowing politicians from the country’s largest cities to monopolize posts.  All however were upset with the selection process that was secretive and lacked transparency.   Several hundred protesters from the coastal town of Zawiya stormed a parliament session to express their frustrations.  “We want people who are elected to have a clear background,” said a Zawiya businessman. “And the people here were angry when they found out that the cabinet had Gaddafi men who tortured us for years.”

After Abushagur resigned, President Muhammad Mugaryef asked Ahmad Zeidan to form a cabinet.  But he has stumbled over the same problems that tripped up his predecessor.  Zeidan has been unable to select people not tainted by association with Qaddafi.  Six of the thirty-two ministers he chose have been referred to a verification committee established to weed out Qaddafi loyalists.  Libyans’ ire has been directed at Foreign Affairs Minister designate Ali Aujli who served as Gaddafi’s last ambassador to Washington.  “It can’t be that we can’t find clean politicians to serve us,” lamented Ali Zaduni, an engineer with a local oil company.

But some Libyan analysts say that is exactly the biggest stumbling block.  “After forty two years of Gaddafi, there are few people who did not work in his government,” explains a Benghazi University political science professor.  “And those that didn’t do not have the political and technical experience necessary to serve in government.”

After several false starts, parliament finally approved Prime Minister Ahmad Zeidan’s government earlier this month.  But last week, Libyans again stormed parliament sessions, adding further chaos to a country mired in it.  Militia fighters camped outside the Rixos hotel where assembly sessions are being held.  “The politicians have reached the end,” said Jandal a fighter from the western town of Zuwara.  “If they don’t make some good choices we will get rid of them.”


And that is what many analysts are afraid of.  With a central government too weak to impose its authority, the militias have become kings of the Libyan jungle.  They appoint and dismiss municipal council members, allocate financial resources and mete out justice.  Many Libyans had hoped an elected government would gain a legitimacy the interim government lacked.  But the political infighting has sapped parliament’s strength and only perpetuated the uncertainty surrounding the country’s future.  “We can’t move to solving our problems if we are always focused on soothing politicians’ egos,” said a former Libyan ambassador to Europe.  And until they do, the security reforms necessary to build a strong police force and military will have to take a back seat.

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