The dismissal of prime minister-elect Mustafa Abushagur by the General National Congress (GNC) on October 7 came as a shock. Just days earlier, the prime minister had revealed his much-delayed list of cabinet nominees – an unwieldy twenty-five in total – to the congress and public at large. The proposed government was widely scorned, and on Sunday, Abushagur returned to the GNC to replace his original list with a second, “emergency” mini-cabinet of ten names for approval. Rather than vote on the new nominations, however, the GNC motioned for a vote of no-confidence on Abushagur; an overwhelming 125 members of the 186 present voted for his dismissal.
Some today are questioning whether the government was right to dismiss Abushagur, especially at a time in the transition when strong leadership is crucial, and have called it an act of short-sighted partisan politics. Through conversations with various government actors and other individuals in Tripoli this week, it is clear that the reality is far more complex. The prime minister might be partly to blame for his own dismissal.
Following his victory in the September 13 election for prime minister, Abushagur held numerous consultations with all political components of the General National Congress, including not only those affiliated with political parties, but also independent members. Through these discussions, Abushagur eventually emerged with a list of ministers that was deemed acceptable to the various stakeholders.
Unfortunately, the agreed-upon list was not the one that Abushagur presented to the Congress. Instead, Abushagur submitted a list of relative unknowns. It left out members of the Mahmoud Jibril-led National Forces Alliance (NFA), the largest political entity in the GNC, and proposed only one female minister. It also did not include anyone from the town of Zawiya, one of the first towns to rise up against Qaddafi last year, and more than 100 citizens from the town stormed the Congress protesting this absence. GNC members and citizens alike charged that Abushagur’s proposed cabinet not representative enough and that his selection process was not transparent. Others were outraged that Omar Aswad, seen as closely associated with the former regime, was given the crucial post of interior minister.
Abushagur would later say that he wanted to form a government of national unity, not of regional or political quotas. While there is merit in this argument, it does little to explain why he would present a list so out of touch with both his GNC colleagues and constituents. So what happened?
According to key interlocutors in Tripoli, Abushagur fell under the influence of members of his own entourage, who suggested that he change the initial, pre-approved, list by removing some of the stronger ministers and replacing them with weaker personalities that would be easier to dominate and control. The GNC rejection of this proposal, as well as the shortened emergency list of candidates proposed a few days later, created an opening to dismiss him. It is possible that Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party exploited this as an opportunity to acquire greater control of the GNC and its ministers, but if so, it was the prime minister’s own malfeasance that allowed them to do so.
There are currently three frontrunners for Abushagur’s replacement: the NFA is backing the candidacy of Ali Zidane, who lost out to Mohamed Magariaf in the contest for GNC head; a group of Islamists is backing Issa Tueger, the current interim minister of planning; and a group of independents is supporting Mohamed Harari, the current minister of local government. In the meantime, Abdurrahim el-Keib has been asked by the GNC to continue running the government, which includes preparing next year’s budget and holding a national security council meeting.
Regardless of internal politicking, the complete failure to establish a new, viable government points to a lack of capacity and experience at all levels of the political and administrative apparatus. Unfortunately, this stalemate has serious implications for both the transition timeline and the tenuous security of the state. In addition to voting for a new prime minister, the GNC is also tasked with selecting a committee for drafting the constitution. It is unlikely the GNC will work on establishing the constitutional drafting body before it fills the post of prime minister, thus further delaying this important process.
Perhaps worse yet, the inability to construct a cabinet delays the urgently-needed process of integrating the militias, restructuring the armed forces, and establishing the rule of law. Until this occurs, Libya will suffer from periodic flare-ups of instability, such as the ongoing military standoff in Bani Walid and recent Islamist clashes in Derna and Sousa. Libya desperately needs strong leadership at this moment; if the GNC has determined that Abushagur cannot provide that, it should move quickly to find someone that can. The international community can provide support and assistance, particularly on the security front, but ultimately resolving this situations rests on Libyans, who must develop political consensus and bring a divided nation together.