Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan’s ordeal reflects deeper crisis

The fledgling government has struggled to impose its authority

Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zeidan places his hand on his forehead as he addresses a news conference after his release and arrival at the headquarters of the Prime Minister’s Office in Tripoli yesterday. Photograph: Reuters

Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zeidan places his hand on his forehead as he addresses a news conference after his release and arrival at the headquarters of the Prime Minister’s Office in Tripoli yesterday. Photograph: Reuters


The grainy images of Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan, looking dishevelled and dazed as he was bundled out of his Tripoli residence at dawn by gunmen from a state-aligned militia, have prompted widespread shock among citizens increasingly concerned about their country’s shaky transition to democracy.

The fact that Zeidan was freed unharmed six hours later – emerging to describe his brief detention as merely part of “political games” – failed to stem the sense that Libya had reached what one Tripoli resident described as “a new low” two years after the Nato-backed overthrow of Muammar Gadafy.

Dr Fatima Hamroush, a Drogheda-based consultant who served as Libya’s health minister in the first post-Gadafy interim government, went further. She told The Irish Times that the prime minister’s seizure by forces apparently allied with state institutions represented a “clear signal that Libya is taking a serious turn towards open anarchy”.

Even Libyans who have clung to a more optimistic view of their country’s rocky trajectory, arguing that the legacy of Gadafy’s bizarre experiment in governance will take years to address, have become more despondent in recent weeks and months as the fledgling government struggles to impose its authority amid deteriorating security.

Last night there were conflicting reports over what exactly happened after members of an armed group assigned by the government to provide security in Tripoli hauled Zeidan, a former diplomat who later became an exiled opposition activist under Gadafy, from the luxury hotel where he lives under a strong security detail.

In interviews with journalists and posts on its Facebook page, the group claimed it had detained Zeidan after US secretary of state John Kerry said the Libyan government had a role in the capture last weekend of Abu Anas al-Libi, an al-Qaeda operative wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of American embassies in east Africa. It accused Zeidan of “violating national sovereignty” and corruption. Those posts were later removed and the group’s spokesman denied it was involved in seizing Zeidan.

In televised remarks after his release, Zeidan did not name those who had taken him from his hotel. Instead, he called for calm and again urged the constellation of armed groups that sprung up during the 2011 revolution to disarm or join Libya’s nascent military and police. Several of these groups operate in a quasi-official capacity, nominally under the control of various ministries and other institutions, but many Libyans see them as answering only to themselves.

Armed groups
Zeidan’s relationship with Libya’s armed groups, many of which still insist on being called “revolutionaries”, had become strained long before the US capture of al-Libi outside his Tripoli home on Saturday.

That raid by American special forces not only outraged Libya’s radicals, a number of whom promised revenge attacks, it also upset a wider section of Libyan society that considered the capture an abuse of sovereignty that underscored the weakness of the government. There were several calls for Zeidan’s resignation during heated sessions of Libya’s national congress this week.

“Many people want Zeidan to go, but kidnapping him like this is not the way,” said Mohammed Busidra, an Islamist congress member from the eastern city of Benghazi and vocal critic of the prime minister. Zeidan’s faltering government has also come under pressure over its failure to end a months-old blockade of eastern oil facilities by armed protesters.

Alleged bribes
Zeidan and his ministers have become embroiled in a scandal over alleged bribes to the protesters who are part of a federalist movement bubbling in eastern Libya.

But unpopular though Zeidan had become, the fact he could be seized by armed men in a heavily-guarded Tripoli hotel favoured by foreign diplomats and other officials will remind ordinary Libyans of their own vulnerability.

“The way Mr Zeidan was abducted from his residence at 3.30am, with the abductors finding their way up to his bedroom, dragging him out and photographing him half asleep, speaks volumes of the level of security in Libya,” says Dr Hamroush. “What adds to the insult is the fact that no one was held responsible, a usual outcome of kidnappings and assassinations since the beginning of the revolution . . . these incidents do not make Libyans feel secure.”