Recent developments in Libya suggest an opening in the country’s otherwise deadlocked political process, increasing the likelihood of resolving several key issues holding back the country’s transition. The Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohamed Sawan, and the National Forces Alliance (NFA), led by Mahmoud Jibril, met on March 14 for what appears to be the start of a broad-based national dialogue bringing together polarized political groups of the General National Congress (GNC).
Cooperation between Sawan and Jibril is significant. The two men stand on opposite ends of Libya’s political spectrum, and have no shortage of personal animosity for one another. Two weeks prior to their meeting, political disagreements in the GNC descended into violence when protestors demanding passage of the controversial political isolation law held GNC members hostage. If Jibril, who opposes the law, and Sawan, who favors it, ultimately find common ground on the issue of political isolation it would prove a major boon, potentially appeasing the Libyan street and thawing what has lately been a hopelessly deadlocked political process. At the March 14 Brotherhood-NFA meeting, the two sides agreed to form several commissions, each dealing with an issue of national significance, in order to forge an agreement on each. The commissions will be open to all political forces, giving them the potential to serve as vehicles for compromise, an area in which the GNC has failed.
Since the July 2012 elections, when the NFA took a plurality of seats in the GNC (including thirty-nine of eighty party-list seats) the coalition has largely faltered, losing membership and influence to more ideologically coherent Islamist groups within the congress. Just one day after national dialogue talks, on March 15, the NFA showed signs of reversing this trend, holding a party convention now being heralded as a possible turning point in the group’s downward slide. Prime Minister Ali Zidan, supported by the NFA but not formally a member, delivered a powerful speech addressing a number of key issues and galvanizing his more liberal-minded cohorts. The NFA convention has reportedly solidified the party’s GNC members, increasing the likelihood that they will work as a bloc on future legislation. A united NFA that can also work constructively with Sawan and other Islamist-leaning members could translate into a reasonably well-functioning GNC, one better equipped to pass legislation addressing the country’s issues rather than simply serving as a platform for political infighting.
Ending political gridlock in Libya has never been more pressing. Militias and revolutionaries are increasingly agitating for the government to do more on job creation and infrastructure development, and accuse Prime Minister Ali Zidan, his cabinet, and the GNC of focusing an exorbitant amount of time instead on reorganizing the army to face down the militias, many of which (as the self-described guarantors of the revolution) consider this effort a betrayal. On March 18 an armed convoy from Misrata surrounded Tripoli to communicate precisely this grievance. The Misratans demanded the removal of Zidan and the formation of a government focused on improving the welfare of the Libyan people.
Like the GNC’s political groups, Zidan too appears to be responding to recent lawlessness with political maneuvering of his own. Last week, at the conclusion of Zidan’s trip to the United States, Libyan authorities announced the arrested of a suspect in the Benghazi incident. The dubious timing of the arrest strongly suggests it may be a gambit by the Libyan government, under pressure from the United States, to buy more time. Nevertheless, it undoubtedly strengthened Zidan’s image domestically because it shows that the government has indeed taken action and its police forces are beginning to work.
In another oddly timed arrest on March 19, Egyptian authorities detained Ahmed Qaddaf al-Dam, Moammar Qaddafi’s cousin in Cairo. Qaddaf al-Dam was wanted under an Interpol “red notice” for corruption charges. His whereabouts were well-known by Egyptian authorities, who he claims welcomed his refuge following the Libyan uprising. The arrest happened shortly after Zidan met with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and demanded all wanted Libyans be extradited in return for greater Libyan investment in Egypt and looser restrictions on Egyptian workers entering Libya. Again, regardless of the quid pro quo or motivation behind Egypt’s sudden, proactive arrest of Qaddaf al-Dam, the end result is Zidan’s elevated position as an international interlocutor.
Cutting through the fog of these disparate events—from Jibril-Sawan negotiations and NFA revitalization to Zidan’s elevated status—one finds a positive trend. In fact, recent developments may collectively be cause for guarded optimism despite an otherwise discouraging few months for Libya’s transition. Never before have Sawan and Jibril, who command the two largest political groupings in the GNC, worked together constructively. A more cohesive NFA that can also work with the Brotherhood and Islamists may thus enable the Congress to finally get back on track. And a functioning GNC capable of addressing the legitimate grievances of still-restless militias, as well as a strong Zidan-led government, may ultimately be the best hope for bringing about the security sector reform that is essential to improving the prospects for a meaningful democratic transition.