After Libya Fires Its Prime Minister, Will the Country Itself Fall Apart?

A year after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi's tyranny, the oil-rich nation is teetering into a maelstrom of factionalism and extremism

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LUIGI GUERCIA / AFP / Getty Images

Broken furniture is scattered outside the U.S. consulate building in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 13, 2012, following an attack on the building on Sept. 11 in which Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed

Nearly four weeks after an attack in Benghazi killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, politicians in Tripoli struggled to piece together a government on Monday. Fears have heightened among some in the country that, without a strong authority in the capital to glue the fractured nation together, Libya could face explosive violence from extremists and even the remnants of factions loyal to the slain dictator Muammar Gaddafi. “I predict that what’s left of the government will implode,” says Rami el-Obeidi, a former intelligence chief for the Libyan rebels during last year’s revolution, during a phone call with TIME. “If there is no central power in Tripoli there will be no safe area in the country.”

(MORE: Chris Stevens, the American Who Loved Libya)

Late Sunday night, the lawmakers of Libya’s General National Congress — voted into office last July, in the first elected parliament in 60 years — rejected an emergency Cabinet of 10 people and fired the newly installed Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur. A dual U.S.-Libyan citizen with an engineering degree from the California Institute of Technology, Abushagur had spent weeks trying to satisfy Libya’s rival factions, many of which spent decades exiled, jailed or driven underground under Gaddafi.

Split among tribal lines, different regions and degrees of religiosity, Libya’s tapestry of tribal groups and militias had, according to Abushagur, made his task all but impossible since he was appointed Prime Minister on Sept. 12. Libyans hoped the election would bring a peaceful transition. But as Libya’s legislators cast their votes, Abushagur, who had been the Deputy Prime Minister until then, squeaked in with only a two-vote lead over his more liberal opponent, Mahmoud Jibril. The result was a scramble for Cabinet posts among competing factions, with Abushagur winning little clear mandate to govern.

Among the team he proposed on Sunday, for example, were three Deputy Prime Ministers who would each represent Libya’s South, East and West — regions separated by thousands of kilometers and each with entrenched local tribal authorities. And having failed to find a Foreign Minister who would please the various groups, Abushagur appointed himself to the role. Now out of government entirely, he went on state television on Monday, warning that the power vacuum could leave the country deeply vulnerable to violence, saying, “Libya is now facing dangerous challenges that threaten its stability and national unity.”

(MORE: Was the Benghazi Crime Scene Contaminated?)

On the face of it, there is no clear link between the political turmoil in Tripoli and the attack against the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi on Sept. 11, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others and which is now the subject of a congressional investigation in Washington.

Yet in interviews, Libyans say the sense of drift in the capital has underscored growing concerns over insecurity in the country, as well as a suspicion that the government is not capable of cracking down on armed militias — and even perhaps is unwilling to do so, for fear of inspiring further attacks. “We haven’t seen anything from them,” says Fathi Baja, a liberal politician in Benghazi and one of the rebel leaders in last year’s revolution, speaking by phone from Benghazi. Baja, who had shared breakfast with Stevens the morning of the attack, says the government has been impotent in pursuing the culprits. “They want to show the international community that they are taking steps in pursuing these people, but they are doing nothing,” he says. “They know who is who, but they do not want to take serious steps.”

The fallout from the calamitous assault on the U.S. consulate is not the only potential for violence, however. For weeks, militia fighters who fought alongside Gaddafi in last year’s war have holed up in the former leader’s stronghold of Bani Walid, about 170 km southeast of Tripoli, threatening to create their own well-armed ministate. Libya’s fledgling national military has surrounded the town, but so far has been unable to disarm those inside. The crisis escalated after Omran Shabaan, the 22-year-old fighter believed to have killed Gaddafi in a gun battle in Sirte last Oct. 20, died in late September of wounds inflicted by pro-Gaddafi supporters, who kidnapped and tortured him over 50 days in Bani Walid.

(MORE: The Fall of Gaddafi — the End of a Long, Weird Ride)

In the aftermath of Shabaan’s death, bitter schisms have reemerged between those who fought with Gaddafi and those who waged the revolution, sparking fears that Gaddafi loyalists might choose to launch an attack on the anniversary of the leader’s death, in 12 days’ time. “The situation in Bani Walid could explode if it is not dealt with wisely,” Abushagur told Libyans last night on television.

To those who have watched Libya for years, the political turmoil has come as no surprise. Ethan Chorin, a former U.S. diplomat in Tripoli in the mid-2000s and author of a new book on last year’s revolution titled Exit the Colonel, says the country’s politicians are rived between those who support the Muslim Brotherhood — whom Abushagur had included in his Cabinet — and those who do not, like Mahmoud Jibril, who served as Prime Minister last year and whose liberal coalition was excluded from the new government. There are also divisions between the returned exiles, like Abushagur, and those who spent years living under Gaddafi, as both Baja and Jibril did. Abushagur’s status as a U.S. citizen had also become a source of suspicion among many Libyans. “All have become points of contention,” says Chorin. “The Benghazi attack has heightened the pitch of these quarrels.”

11 comments
Anon777777
Anon777777

Re: Paragraph 5

There is no clear link between the political turmoil in Libya and the attack in Benghazi?

That is a breathtaking display of ignorance. Did you do any research on this issue? Are you unaware that Gaddafi loyalists and NOT al-qaeda are the likely culprits behind the attack? Do you not know WHY?

Anon777777
Anon777777

Re: Paragraph 4

Abushugar is a skilled politician. I would remind readers that he is a HERO for successfully calling the People of Benghazi to rise up and assert authority over the corrupt militias.

Abushugar's warning is a political move.  Though American corporate interests will try to push the idea that a strong man will put things in order, they will not easily convince Libyan Revolutionaries that the new strong man is not like the old strong man.

If anyone thinks this whole political struggle in Libya is not related to the US election, then they do not know which political interests in the US have ties to former Gaddafi regime elites.

TIME would be doing us all an enormous service by clearly detailing those ties. People will know a LOT more about Mitt Romney's deliberately vague opinions about Libya.

Anon777777
Anon777777

RE: Paragraph 3. Readers with little or no familiarity with Libyan Society or it's political factions will be mislead by the statement that Jibril is "more liberal" than Abushugar. It simply does not mean the same thing in Libya as it does elsewhere.

Jibril represents a coalition of political organizations (NFA) with varied interests. Generally, Jibril's coalition leans toward international corporate interests centered in the USA. Their "liberalism" is an internationalist liberalism that is pro-corporate. But it would be misleading to characterize them the same way one would characterize the Republican Party in the USA, because Jibril's coalition also contains groups that have a very strong commitment to socialized services like the kind that prevailed under Gaddafi. Jibril's coalition is premised upon promises by corporate interests that they will not leverage increased ties to corporate interests with political attempts to undermine social welfare.

RIGHT. Here is the USA we know how much their promises are worth.

So does the expat community in Libya, who are mainly Americans. Abushugar's support came mainly from Democratic Progressives in Libya. They want the ideals of the Revolution to prevail. They don't want a strong man. They oppose privatization attempts that will hand control of the economy over to corporations.

Abushugar's balancing act was between democratic progressives and social conservatives, who are primarily interested in the rule of law and social justice. The social conservatives in Libya are Islamists, but the majority of them are moderate and support the Muslim Brotherhood, NOT the extremist jihadists.

Abushugar attempted to build a national unity government. Jibril's refusal to join that government was probably over one issue: Abushugar signed a contract for a pipeline with BASF (his coalition leans more towards Europe and Egypt) instead of Conoco Phillips.

JIBRIL is the one who attempted to divide people over representation after refusing to participate in the process of forming a cabinet. Jibril created the issue, and then used it to orchestrate Abushugar's ouster.

Anon777777
Anon777777

Answer to headline: NO

Corporate interests in the United States want to bring back dictatorship, because they find that so much more efficient for business negotiations. In particular, corporate interests seeking to dominate the Libyan economy via oil, banking, security contracts and travel have dogs in the fight, and they are the elite business class that are former members of the Gaddafi regime. There are also interests representing the expat community, and most of them are Americans. They seek a more diversified economy in Libya, particularly in communications, medicine, and high tech.

Philo2
Philo2

Is it now beginning to dawn on the "democracy" jackasses that command the West's media why Qaddafi was a dictator?

old_athlete
old_athlete

You know what is good about the mess over there?  It is their mess.  We never put boots on the ground.  

Yoshi_1
Yoshi_1

Except at the embassy and the Marines who were killed trying to defend it.

Mysterious_81
Mysterious_81

It's true partly because this mess would never happen if west didn't oust and killed Qaddafi.West portrait Qaddafi as the tyrant but real fact is to the Libyans he's a popular leader backed by over 80% people.Now if 5% people don't like your policy doesn't mean that other country will stoke them to go against the regime.According to  some of my Libyan friends even President Obama isn't as popular as Qaddafi was in Libya,he's just a victim of the world dirty politics and  his country's huge resources which instead being blessing becomes curse for him.

Les Moore
Les Moore

I agree - the US only made a martyr out of him for the Libyan people.

RobertSF
RobertSF

I wish I could express my deep, profound loathing for Libyans without violating the posting guidelines, but alas, I cannot. Since I can't say anything nice, I'll just bite my tongue.

Yoshi_1
Yoshi_1

They fired their P.M.? I wasn't aware they had a functioning government. Live and learn..........