Politics—defined here as the conflict of competing factions for power—did not meaningfully exist under the former Gaddafi regime. For some, the fact that they exist now, and in a rather lively fashion, is cause for optimism. However, the fact that they have become this fractious this fast, is cause for concern for many more. In fact, Libya’s latest political infighting suggests that its constitution-writing process—which has yet to even begin—might match neighboring Egypt’s in its sheer divisiveness. Moreover, the consequences of the country’s contentious new political environment may prove even more fatal.
Parsing Libyan politics at the moment is no easy task. As noted earlier, a conflict has emerged beneath the surfaces between Prime Minister Ali Zidan and General National Congress (GNC) head Mohamed Magariaf. At its core, the Magariaf-Zidan conflict, which they have never publicly acknowledged, is a battle over defining the country’s nascent institutions. In the absence of by-laws or a more thorough constitutional declaration, Magariaf has been free to exercise power potentially far outside the scope of his office—even declaring himself head of state—much to the dismay of nearly everyone.
Although Zidan and Magariaf were historic allies—both founders of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya in the early 1980s—their relationship has reportedly deteriorated. Most notably, when Zidan recently secured border agreements with neighboring countries to stem instability in the south, Magariaf countered by pushing the GNC to declare the southern border a military zone beholden to a general subject to his approval. It is unclear whether or not Magariaf had the power to make such a decision.
The Magariaf-Zidan conflict and the institutional paralysis it has caused dims the prospect that Libya will make swift progress on its fledgling security apparatus, yet the country’s political infighting does not end there.
For followers of post-Arab spring politics, the fault lines now being drawn in the Libyan GNC will look familiar. On one side are the relative secularists; and the Islamists on the other. But in a twist, the secularists in Libya have the power, or at least some, and are using it to quietly marginalize the more Islamist powers they defeated in the GNC elections. In December, for example, a quiet decision by Prime Minister Ali Zidan stripped a number of key powers from Housing Secretary Ali Hussein al-Sharif, a Muslim Brotherhood figure, and reassigned them to his deputy. Moreover, in something of a symbolic slap in the face, Zidan passed over a Muslim Brotherhood candidate for the post of religious affairs minister and instead chose Abdulsalam Abusaad. The latter is widely considered part-and-parcel of the former Islamic establishment—the religious figures and institutions close to the former regime— which is distrusted by the Brotherhood and many prominent religious figures, including the mufti of Libya, Sadeq al-Ghariani.
This constant political positioning, exacerbated by GNC members’ political inexperience, has resulted in a legislative assembly failing to move forward on its one primary task—to appoint, or hold elections for, a body to write the constitution. In fact, the deadline for appointing the constitution-writing body passed in early September.
It is in this context, and as the country seeks a larger, unifying force to overcome political differences and rebuild the Libyan state, that the National Forces Alliance, the relatively secular bloc led by Mahoud Jibril, announced its boycott of the GNC on Sunday. Its grievances, unsurprisingly, are largely tied to GNC speaker Mohamed Magariaf. An NFA statement disapproved of Magariaf’s total control of the GNC’s agenda, overshadowing the work of GNC special committees, and delaying the sixty-member constitutional committee. The NFA also criticized the lack of proper security around the GNC building.
Most imminently, the NFA pullout raises the possibility of Muslim Brotherhood-anchored Islamists taking control of the assembly. Of note, the type of vituperative politics played by Zidan vis-à-vis the Islamist groups thus far will likely provide them even greater incentive to take advantage of the boycott and enact as much of their vision while they can. In terms of other contentious issues such as the political isolation law, which the Islamist groups would formulate with a much heavier hand than the NFA, larger Brotherhood influence could have serious long-term impacts on the transition. That said, their stance will be moderated by the influence of Sheikh Ali Salabi, a powerful and charismatic religious figure strongly in favor of a search for national reconciliation. Salabi’s vision for national reconciliation, one widely supported by the population, would include nearly all those who worked with the former regime but did not commit human rights violations.
Beyond measures within the GNC itself, the country’s increasingly embittered political environment has serious consequences for Libya moving forward. If the GNC does not move beyond its current political paralysis, the constitution will remain little more than an idea, and the long-term rebuilding of the state will perpetually be delayed. If the country’s institutions do not mend their relations—and if Zidan’s and Magariaf’s offices do not cooperate—security issues are unlikely to be resolved, terrorist attacks will continue, and incidents such as the recent assassination attempt on Magariaf will be repeated.
It is highly probable that members of the former regime in exile are plotting the destabilization of the country through targeted assassinations and terrorist attacks and may be responsible for last September’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. The modus operandi of these Gaddafi groups is to hire outside guns—often individuals unfamiliar with their benefactor—to carry out attacks. Last week’s assassination attempt on Magariaf in Sebha would seem to match the work of the Gaddafians as well. If successful, these sorts of attacks would cause a rapid shock to state institutions and the possible derailing of the transition.
All of these issues —from institutional paralysis to ongoing acts of terrorism—require the country’s political factions to recognize the urgency in moving forward on the transition’s larger goals, rather than remaining mired in political squabbles capable of tearing the nascent state apart.
Karim Mezran is a senior fellow at the Rarik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
Eric Knecht is a research assistant at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.