Libya: Swinging pendulums and political crematoria

The new Libyan PM will need to draw on the experience of seasoned politicians to avoid the political ‘crematorium’.

The selection of Maetig reflects the current rivalry in the west of Libya, writes El-Kikhia [EPA]

Libya may have a new government – the fifth since the February Revolution of 2011 – if Congress gets its act together and finally agrees on something. And there will probably be a couple more governments before a new constitution is completed and voted on.

The new prime minister is Ahmed Maetig, a 42-year-old businessman who lives in Tripoli but has strong links to Misrata. His uncle and backer is Abdul Rahman al-Swaihli, an influential member of Congress and the Swaihli dynasty of Misrata. Maetig was elected by the General National Congress (GNC) in a now disputed vote to form a “crisis government of national unity”.

His predecessor, Abdullah al-Thinni, who served as defence minister in Ali Zeidan’s government and replaced Zeidan after the GNC stripped Zeidan of his powers, decided that he didn’t like that honour any more. The GNC gave him little power and the position appeared to be too much of a burden for him. As a result, he wisely decided to relinquish it altogether after his home and life was threatened by one of the militias.

The selection of Maetig is interesting because it reflects the current rivalry in the West of Libya much more than the political situation in the whole of the country. There are a number of political poles influencing events in the country. The two most important and dangerous are Misrata and Zintan.

The two have been vigorously competing for influence and it seems that the political pendulum has now swung away from Zintan and towards Misrata. Zintan supported Zeidan by providing him with the Qaqaa and Sawaiq brigades to protect his offices after constant attacks on his headquarters forced him to relocate from the centre of Tripoli to the Islamic Call Society Complex on the outskirts of the city. This competition is manifest in the selection of Maetig.

Why Maetig?

Maetig’s major rival was Omar al-Hassi who hails from the east of the country. Hassi is not a particularly impressive figure yet he obtained the support of Zintan as well as some of the progressive votes in the GNC. The Cyrenaican vote was split between Hassi and another candidate from the east who was even less impressive.

So why Maetig? Why bring to the fore a relatively unknown political novice? First, he has huge guns behind him that has given him an edge that none of the other prime ministers possess. Second, he is young and brings a different perspective to the table. Third, he pleases the business community in the country.

The task of the new government will not be easy. It has to first terminate monetary subsidies to these useless paramilitary groups and send them packing. There is no reason why members of these militias should be occupying one or two top floors of the best hotels in Tripoli free of charge or receiving millions of dollars for doing nothing.

If Maetig plays his cards right, he can bring a certain degree of stability in the west and establish some degree of governmental authority if militias try to undermine the system as they have done with all other governments. Nevertheless, in spite of the firepower backing him, he will not be able to form a government or have it approved without first negotiating with the various factions in the GNC and meeting their demands, which will necessarily be the inclusion of their candidates in his government.

Under Muammar Gaddafi, Libya had more than 100,000 men with weapons. Many of these men still consider themselves part of the armed forces and collect monthly salaries, albeit very few actually go to work. The government has, on more than one occasion, threatened to cut them off to entice them back to their military duties.

The only semblance of governmental authority can be found in Benghazi where the Sa’iqa and special forces are located. Their commanding officer Colonel Wanis Abu Khamada still takes orders from the government, which has thus far neglected his needs in his battle with terrorist organisations. Most prominent among these are al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia, which the al-Thanni government has finally classified as terrorist organisations. These groups are assumed to be responsible for the daily carnage in the city. They are better equipped with military hardware than the security forces.

In the west, the Islamists are keeping a very low profile. While the rivalry between Zintan and Misrata plays itself out, they are beefing up their military capability. They still control crucial areas in Tripoli including the major hotels. Under the guise of maintaining security, they have made themselves unwelcome guests for the past three years. They also control the former Wheelus Air Force Base, now the Maitiga airbase, which is reported to be under the control of Abdulhakim Belhaj’s militia. Belhaj heads the Watan political party that has no members in Congress but that has not stopped him from occupying parts of the Radisson Hotel in Tripoli and making it his headquarters.

Not an easy task

The task of the new government will not be easy. It has to first terminate monetary subsidies to these useless paramilitary groups and send them packing. There is no reason why members of these militias should be occupying one or two top floors of the best hotels in Tripoli free of charge or receiving millions of dollars for doing nothing.

Libya needs to activate and equip whatever security forces it has and make them ready to assume their responsibility. Those who do not show up for work must not get paid. The new prime minister has the ability to do that.

Libya has many problems to overcome and the country needs a great deal of help from its friends to come to grips with these problems. The people of Libya have indicated through the election of the Constitutional Committee of Sixty that they will not permit the Islamists to dominate the committee as they have done the GNC. Very few seats on that important committee went to any of these groups and most probably they will not get any in the August 2014 parliamentary elections either.

However, at a time of great uncertainty and instability, the question debated on most Libyan social media sites is why the US ambassador in Libya, Deborah Jones, met with members of the Construction and Justice Party and the Watan Party. Indeed, in a country where rumours spread like wildfire and people often jump to erroneous conclusions, these meetings between US officials and Islamists seem to scare ordinary people and somehow convince them that the US might be as content with the Islamists taking control of Libya, as they were in Egypt and Tunisia.

The young prime minister might be pleased that he has been elected to an important ego-boosting position but in reality that position is a political crematorium for any aspiring politician. The position will require the experience and skills of seasoned politicians and policy makers. Maetig’s only hope is to call upon them within and without Libya and form a true national unity government. Only then might he stand a chance at partial success.

Dr Mansour O El-Kikhia is a columnist, educator and writer on International and Middle Eastern affairs.