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Libya: Trying to establish order amid chaos

Ahmad Mitig, Prime Minister-elect of Libya, speaks to reporters on June 3, 2014. On June 9 Libya's Supreme Court ruled his appointment by the transitional parliament was illegitimate, just one example of Libya's political chaos. Photo: AFP

Ahmad Mitig, Prime Minister-elect of Libya, speaks to reporters on June 3, 2014. On June 9 Libya’s Supreme Court ruled his appointment by the transitional parliament was illegitimate, just one example of Libya’s political chaos. Photo: AFP

While no road to democracy is smooth, Libya has seen its fair share of upheaval since the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 helped bust open the Arab Spring. Discord has escalated in the last month, threatening rule of law and the transitional government’s legitimacy.

Let’s go back to May 4, 2014, when Libya’s General National Congress appointed Ahmad Mitig as prime minister. This appointment followed the resignation of previous PM Abdullah al-Thinni after holding the job for just five days.

Seems straightforward, right? Well Thinni refused to accept Congress’ decision, claiming irregularity of voting procedures. He filed a complaint with Libya’s Supreme Court to invalidate Mitig’s ascension to prime minister. And while the Supreme Court deliberated each man claimed to be rightful leader of the country. Mitig and his supporters in the Congress stood firm in Tripoli, Thinni and those loyal to him established their own “government” in al-Baida in eastern Libya.

The legislature, and the country, found itself divided, reflecting a major schism along ideological lines for how Libya’s new government would be designed: Islamist factions led by Mitig versus nationalists and other liberal-leaning groups with Thinni.

Add to this mix the destabilizing activity of General Khalifa Haftar, In February 2014 Haftar, a retired army leader who supported Qaddafi’s ouster, declared the military would take control of Libya. While considered nothing more than an idle threat, Haftar has since been leading a personal crusade of sorts in eastern Libya to root out what he considers extremist groups. On May 18 armed groups supporting Haftar attempted to take over parliament in Tripoli (they didn’t).

As I read this situation, no one knows for sure what Haftar’s ultimate goal is and how much support/influence/power he really has. So there’s that.

The prevailing ideological camps in Libya are, not surprisingly, split on the Haftar issue too. Islamists say his activities amount to a coup attempt meant to disrupt the country’s fragile democratization. Nationalists applaud them as patriotic efforts to fight back against terrorist extremists who have preyed on the post-2011 anarchy.

On June 9 the federal Supreme Court ruled that Mitig’s appointment as PM was illegitimate. Both political groups have stated they will abide by this ruling…but it’s still unclear who’s running the country, especially with parliamentary elections planned for June 25. As Mohamed Eljarh points out in Foreign Policy, the prime minister decision “has not resolved the ongoing, fierce political and military struggle that has paralyzed Libya’s democratic transition and threatens its collapse.”

It’s hard to tell who has the upper hand in Libya, or who should. Things are so fluid that the game could change at any moment. Respect for the Supreme Court’s decision is a positive sign. Focus should now be on ensuring proper handling of the parliamentary elections and legitimate appointment of the prime minister, be it Thinni or Mitig. Whatever the outcome, the possibility of political instability and further violence remain high. There remains a long road ahead for Libya.



Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”