Libya drifts after ousting prime minister over oil ship’s escape

Nancy A. YoussefMcClatchy Tribune News Service

The Libyan parliamentary decision to oust Prime Minister Ali Zeidan this week not only marks the demise of his government after 16 months but also renews questions among some Libyans about whether democracy is the best form of government for their nation.

In the nearly three years since Libyans fought to end 42 years of often brutal and bizarre rule by Moammar Gadhafi, the weak central government that replaced him has proved incapable of tackling the mounting problems. Now the nation is as fragile as it’s ever been since Gadhafi’s ouster and death, and Libyans themselves are showing less enthusiasm for the trappings of democracy.

“The democratic process is struggling,” said Ronald Bruce St John, a scholar who’s studied Libya since 1977 and has written several books about the country. Libya got “rid of the symbol of the problem, rather than a problem”: a weak central government.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki this week conceded what the collapse of the Zeidan government portended for the struggle to establish a democratic regime in Libya.

“We know political transitions take time, and especially from a four-decade dictatorship to a truly democratic system,” Psaki said Wednesday. “We recognize that the Libyan government and the Libyan people are facing significant challenges in their democratic transition.”

Armed militias have overrun the country, and they threaten to divide it along historical eastern and western parts, battling one another to assert dominance. Militias retain control of the nation’s crucial oil facilities, through which they fund themselves.

In the east, where Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, sits, the government’s hold is fragile at best. Many in the east are seeking an independent state if Tripoli _ in the country’s west _ can’t stabilize the nation.

Kidnappings and assassinations have surged, particularly in Benghazi, the birthplace of the uprising that began three years ago this month and toppled Gadhafi with the help of a NATO-led bombing campaign. The targets have been government officials and civilians alike, as militias have taken control of larger swaths of the country.

Government officials fear speaking out about the militias and they concede that the militias’ hold has made it impossible for them to arrest those responsible for major attacks such as the September 2012 assault on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, which killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Zeidan’s ouster was due to the government’s inability to protect the oil sector. Members of the General National Congress, Libya’s legislature, said they mounted the no-confidence vote that removed Zeidan after a tanker flying the North Korean flag managed to sail away from Es Sider port _ one of three major export terminals the government has lost to rebels _ with an illicit oil shipment despite threats from Tripoli. The ship reportedly was spotted off the Egyptian coast Thursday.

Zeidan, a liberal, had struggled to build a consensus among a parliament divided between Islamists and secularists. As the militias that originated to topple Gadhafi only grew in power, Zeidan sought to appease them, only to have them reject the government’s effort to build a military to replace them.

As if to underscore the lack of government control, in October Zeidan himself was briefly kidnapped.

The real root of the problem was that policy of appeasement, St John said, “trying to basically buy off groups instead of showing some resolve at the center of the government.”

Even the seemingly democratic process of removing Zeidan via a parliamentary vote raised questions about the country’s commitment to democracy. Many General National Congress members called the procedure unconstitutional.

The caretaker prime minister, Abdullah al Thinni, sought in his first statement after his elevation to reassure Libyans that the nation remained a democracy and that he’ll abide by the decisions of the legislature.

Thinni will serve in the post for only two weeks, during which the parliament is expected to find a longer-term solution. But with no obvious leader to step in, the future is uncertain. Indeed, it was the lack of a replacement that kept Zeidan’s government in power for as long as it lasted, despite several attempts to vote him out.

Elections for a new legislature are to be held in the next three months, but turnout drops with every vote, suggesting a populace that’s growing weary of selecting political leaders who can’t bring results.

During last month’s nationwide election for a constitutional assembly, only one-third of the voting-age population registered to vote; of those, only 21 percent cast ballots, according to the final tally from Libya’s High National Election Commission.

In July 2012, 2.7 million people registered to vote for that year’s parliamentary election and voter turnout was 61 percent, according to the commission’s final tally.

Members of the Libyan government sought to cast the no-confidence vote as a democratic measure, saying it reflected the will of the people.

“We are not exactly the perfect democracy. We are trying to be,” Libya Minister of Justice Salah Marghani told McClatchy.

The powerlessness of the government was evident even in Zeidan’s ouster Tuesday. He left for Germany, where he’d lived until Gadhafi’s fall, despite a travel ban that Libya’s attorney general had imposed on him.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Libya Minister of Justice Salah Marghani.

By Nancy A. Youssef
McClatchy Foreign Staff