Finally an elected Libyan cabinet, but is it fearsome enough to govern?

A new democratically elected government in Libya still has much work to do before it’s in the clear.

Zidan has excellent credentials and appears to be supported by Libya's two most powerful parliamentary blocs [EPA]

After yet another last minute delay, it now appears that on November 14th, Libya’s first elected cabinet will finally be sworn into office, possibly without six key ministers who are under investigation. They will replace the interim non-elected one which should have been replaced nearly two months ago and has been governing as a lame-duck since July. 

Delays in getting to this point have been numerous: First, a vote of no-confidence torpedoed Libya’s first post-election Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur’s attempt to form a cabinet; next, the selection of new Prime Minister Ali Zidan took weeks; and was followed by a wait for his ministerial list and lastly, a wait for the end of Eid al-Adha to approve the list. 

After this wearying wait, the prevailing wisdom is that the new cabinet will combine technocratic competence with the full legitimacy of being selected by an electoral body, and Libya’s most intractable problems can finally be tackled head on. 

Yet, like driving towards a mirage in the desert, the closer we have approached this mythical image of a democratically sanctioned Libyan government, which is simultaneously bureaucratically competent and universally recognised as legitimate, the further away the mirage has receded into the horizon.  

Until now, none of the leaders of post-Gaddafi Libya (elected or unelected, military or civilian) have shown the ability to put aside their factional or personal interests and take the bold steps the country needs. Will Ali Zidan’s government be able to provide that? The jury is still out. 

Security situation 

These tragic delays have played out amidst an unpredictable security situation. Strikingly, the murder of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, on September 11, occurred just one day before the selection of Mustafa Abushagur as Prime Minister.

 Inside Story – Libya united?

The siege of Bani Walid to root out anti-revolutionary forces was underway when militants from Zawiyya breached the assembly hall of Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) during the middle of the debate on the Abushagur cabinet on October 4. And as Marx wrote, “[History repeats itself]… The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. 

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the GNC hall was stormed again on October 31 during voting in favour of Prime Minister Ali Zidan’s government, as dozens of armed militiamen (thuwar) from Misrata, Tripoli and elsewhere occupied the hall after the vote in protest of six of the cabinet choices. 

The next day, around 100 thuwar occupied the hall and brought vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft guns outside the building. This is yet another ill precedent. 

It is imperative that Ali Zidan and the new government did not bow to armed pressure in making replacements to their government or in any other decision. Doing so would immediately eviscerate its ability to lead. Although, it is no secret that the central authorities are weak in post-Gaddafi Libya, they must earn the respect of the Libyan people while teaching the militias to fear them. 

Zidan has wisely pledged to make security his top priority, but he must follow through with the decisive actions needed to build functional security institutions, enact a meaningful reconciliation process and jump start infrastructural spending. 

Zidan has excellent credentials and appears to be supported by Libya’s two most powerful parliamentary blocs. But he will need to show more resolve if he wishes to strike fear into Libya’s nearly 200 militias. Possibly, he needs to read some Machiavelli. 

In a chaotic environment where the central authorities are struggling to control a portion of the national territory, it is far better to be feared than loved. All the religious credentials and goodwill in the world will not make Libyans follow governmental edicts that oppose their interests. But power, force, some carrots, some sticks and a pinch of cunning could go a long way. 

Until now, the constant cycle of protests at gunpoint are a troubling symptom of both the weak security institutions that cannot keep former revolutionaries in check and the perverse revolutionary mentality forged during the 2011 uprisings that political aims are better achieved through violence than voting. 

Sadly, the Libyan central authorities keep reinforcing the latter lesson by doling out government positions to whichever group yells the loudest about its grievances and has the most guns.

The Supreme Security Committee (SSC), a group of brigades that nominally pledged loyalty to the state and are supposed to act only under orders from the Interior Ministry, are increasingly overstepping their bounds. 

SSC members, who should have been upholding law and order in the absence of a genuine police force, are thought to be complicit in the destruction of Sufi shrines, mosques and schools in Zliten and Tripoli. Most recently, clashes in Tripoli between the SSC and an outlawed militia left the SSC headquarters on fire. 

GNC President Mohamed Magarief announced that all illegal militias will be disbanded. But far more important for Zidan’s government to enforce is the promised dissolution of the SSC, dissolution of the Libya Shield Force and indeed, all other temporary security structures and transformation of their members into genuine soldiers, police officers, or productive civilians. The central government still holds the purse strings for the training, equipment and concerted disarmament campaigns. 

Regional balance 

In the effort to satisfy all political and regional elements by giving as many as possible a stake in the new government, Zidan’s 32-member cabinet includes an unprecedented number of ministries. 

The government contains those aligned with the centrist National Forces Alliance, including Ali Zidan himself, while others are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party. 

Perhaps, in a show of compromise between the two largest parties in the GNC, the high profile ministries of foreign affairs, international co-operation, finance, interior and defence have all gone to non-aligned candidates. 

The cabinet also displays a carefully constructed regional balance. Yet, as Abraham Lincoln predicted it would be impossible – even post-Gaddafi – to please all the people all the time. 

The cabinet may tip too heavily towards the East as an acknowledgement of their grievances of late. An additional consideration is a mix of experienced bureaucrats who served under Gaddafi, recently returned Libyan expatriates and veterans of an NTC-led government. 

Public sentiment differs widely on which backgrounds are most appropriate for public service in the new Libya. 

Disarming militias 

Six potential ministers, including the most important portfolios of foreign affairs, interior, defence and health, have been referred to the Integrity and Patriotism Commission which will investigate their past actions in the Gaddafi era over the next three weeks. Some reports have said that they will sit out next week’s swearing-in ceremony and can only be sworn in later if they pass the investigations.

It is unclear which of these accusations are politically motivated responses to demands of armed protestors. After all, closeness to those in the upper echelons of the Gaddafi regime is a common insult hurled at one’s political opponent in post-Gaddafi Libya, and the Libyan rumour mill is more productive than the oil fields. 

It is a positive sign that Ali Zidan has refused to give in to militia demands to reshuffle his cabinet immediately but instead will wait for the committee to make its recommendations, showing that in a few instances, the legitimate central government can stand up to the self-appointed armed few. 

Most notable among those under investigation is current Libyan Ambassador to the US Ali Aujali, criticised for his 42 years of diplomatic service during the Gaddafi regime – despite being one of the first Libyan Ambassadors to resign in support of the Libyan people during the early days of the 2011 revolution. 

Aujali said in an interview on Alhurra TV, on November 4, that rumours of his resignation from the foreign minister’s position are false. His selection over other seasoned diplomats or western-educated professionals may be an attempt to signal to the US that, especially in the wake of the killing of the Ambassador, Libya will prioritise American concerns in the search for the murderers and the rebuilding of security. 

 The Arab Awakening – Libya: Through the fire

Alternatively, some say Aujali’s selection may be based on the incorrect assumption that he maintains particularly strong personal links to Washington which could help the new Libyan government on the international stage. 

Or more perversely, a cynical minority suggest that Aujali’s selection may be a way to get him out of Washington by kicking him upstairs, an old Gaddafian tactic. Aujali has long been in DC and his effectiveness has waned. New blood is needed to jump-start the US-Libyan relationship and a new Ambassador in Washington might be helpful.  

Some of those who stormed the GNC at the end of October are thought to be Salafists objecting to the Religious Affairs Minister Abdulsalam Mohammed Abusaad whom they view as insufficiently conservative. He is also accused of business ties to former Gaddafi foreign minister Musa Kusa. 

Next, it is worth noting that in addition to Aujali, the new Defence and Interior ministers, who are also under investigation, hail from Eastern Libya. Previously, Western Libyans with close ties to the key militias of Zintan and Misrata had held the top security posts. This may be further indication that the powers with the guns are able to prompt the Commission’s investigations. 

Thuwar who stormed the GNC hall in protest are almost certainly all from Western Libya and members of the powerful militias that the new cabinet will attempt to crack down on. However, national unity is needed for demobilising and disarming the militias. So, even the faintest scent of regional rivalries is a bad omen. 

Drafting the constitution 

Regional tensions will play out in the upcoming constitution writing process, which more so than the composition of the cabinet is the true determiner of Libya’s political future. Regional blocs are already coalescing to push for provisions in the permanent constitution which will favour their regions. 

Amidst this backdrop, once the new government is sworn in on November 8, the GNC can return to its primary task of selecting the committee of 60 that will draft the constitution, adopt the new constitution and organise general elections. This committee will be chosen on a regional basis. 

There is a fear that the GNC will choose various committee members not on their merits as legal scholars, but to appease regional grievances. In order to avoid this, the process can only begin in earnest once the government has better control over the militias so as to not have disruption by thuwar of the selection of the convention or its dispassionate decision-making processes. 

Now, debates exist about how best to proceed on establishing security. Conventional wisdom in Libya holds that only when security is re-established can the government concentrate on meeting the immediate daily needs of the people, ensuring transparency, reactivating past government contracts, especially in infrastructure, and attracting the new investment that would bring new jobs and opportunities for Libyans. 

We assert the opposite, the GNC cannot blame the security situation for its inability to create jobs and rebuild Libya. It must use its control over the oil spigots and purse strings in a clever manner to lead the country forward into a brighter future. 

The GNC and the new government have the elected mandate to lead. They can only do so successfully if they encourage citizens to exercise their right to political participation without allowing a minority to resort to making demands at the point of a gun and subverting Libya’s transition to democracy in the process. 

Jason Pack is a researcher of Middle Eastern History at Cambridge University. 

Haley Cook is Director of Research of