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Libyan challenge

Kersten Knipp / db
October 16, 2012

Libya's congress has confirmed Ali Zeidan as prime minister. Under pressure to propose a cabinet, the diplomat and human rights activist is bound to have learned a lesson from his predecessor's mistakes.

Ali Zeidan. (Foto:Osama Faisal /AP/dapd)
Image: AP

Starting a new job can be a difficult, but Ali Zeidan will need extra patience and even more skill as Libya's new prime minister. He must assert himself and his cabinet. Libya's General National Congress has to approve both Zeidan and his ministers before the politician can take office.

Just last week, Zeidan's predecessor, Mustafa Abu Shagur, got a taste of how self-assured Libya's congress is. The body twice rejected Abu Shagur's cabinet choices, first a group of 27 nominees, and then a smaller proposal. The legislature rejected the candidates on grounds they were too unknown, did not really represent Libyans and were too closely associated with Abu Shagur himself.

It is now up to career diplomat and regime critic Ali Zeidan to do a better job and choose more carefully. On Monday (15.10.2012), the congress voted him Libya's new premier with a sufficient, albeit not overwhelming, majority. Zeidan, from the secular National Forces Alliance (NFA), won 93 of 200 votes to trump the 85 votes garnered by the only other candidate, local government minister Mohammed al-Hrari of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The credibility question

Authenticity and credibility were likely the traits that convinced congress to vote for Zeidan. He defected while serving as a Libyan ambassador in 1980 and spent the next three decades in exile. He worked out of Geneva to advocate for human rights in Libya.

National Transitional Council (NTC) handover ceremony of power to the national congress in Tripoli, REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori
A powerful assembly: Libya's CongressImage: Reuters

That won him points with Libyans. Quite a few of them harbor reservations about politicians who spent the years of Gadhafi's rule in safe exile, where they were not as concerned with politics as with business.

The prevalent desire for a person of integrity to head the government must be awkward for Libyan politicians, said Andreas Dittmann, a geographer and ethnologist at the University of Bonn.

He told DW that during the Gadhafi era, politicians had two mutually exclusive options: "Either they lived in Libya, had important positions in Gadhafi's regime - and are suspected of being opportunists. Or they spent some time in exile. It can't be both."

Dittmann added that politicians who were firmly entrenched in the opposition are dead today.

In the end, the ethnologist explained, only slight differences determine which Libyan politicians are credible. Who was abroad for how long, and why? What did they do there? In Libya, credibility depends on the answers to these questions.

A man, with an inked finger, flashes the victory sign as he celebrates with the new Libyan flag REUTERS/Anis Mili
Libyans celebrating elections in JulyImage: Reuters

Representing all Libyans

In addition to credibility, Zeidan must convince the congress of his skill to form a government that would representative preferably all Libyans. In other words, members of his cabinet must come from many different regions in order to mirror the country's regional and political diversity as comprehensively as possible.

During Gadhafi's rule, aspects of regional representation played no role at all, Dittmann said. Gadhafi deliberately neglected, and even discriminated against, certain groups within the population.

"That plays a role when people now want to create the feeling of a Libyan corporate identity," Dittmann added.

Libya must develop a new political culture, said Ali Algibeshi, a Libyan political scientist. He told DW the art of smooth negotiation withered among the rough customs of the Gadhafi era.

"The problem is that so far, no party has been in the position or even willing to strike a compromise," Algibeshi said. "But that is what Libya needs."

In order to be accepted, Dittmann said the new government will have to manage to "anchor the different regions, peoples and ethno-linguistic groups in the new parliament in such a way that they at least feel represented."

Benghazi women with banner Bild: Juni 2012, Libyen, DW
A demonstration in Benghazi calls "the Lord, the police and the courts" Libya's three official institutionsImage: DW

Tightrope walk

The new Libyan premier has yet another task, to appease the strong Islamist movements in the country.

Dittmann called the challenge a balance act. He explained that these groups should not be left out, but should not have too much power, either. The imperative is to prevent Islamist groups from heading for a confrontation with the government.

"That's the art: making sure everyone feels more or less represented while at the same time keeping at bay any strong Islamist counter-movement," Dittmann added.

He said future politicians will be measured by their skill at achieving both ends.

Algibeshi said the government can rely on the Libyan people in one respect: most of them reject violence.

"The citizens no longer want to put up with different groups trying to push through their interests at gun-point," the political scientist said. He added that Libyans want to see weapons only in the hands of police and armed forces. "It is up to the government to implement that wish."

After 40 long years of dictatorship, a fundamental change in the country's political culture is on the horizon. Ali Zeidan has been chosen to pave the way to the future.

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