Thursday's brief detainment of Prime Minister Ali Zidan has underlined the chaos currently wracking Libya. Analysts say that unless foreign powers offer the government help, the country could become "a failed state."
The seizure of Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan from a Tripoli hotel on Thursday morning (10.10.2013) has underlined the political chaos currently wracking the country. The action was swiftly condemned as an "abduction" by the Prosecutor General's office, but, according to news agency AFP, was carried out by a group called the Operations Cell of Libyan Revolutionaries - which is supposed to report to the defense and interior ministries.
Zidan was reportedly held at the Interior Ministry's anti-crime department, even though the prosecutor denied that there was an arrest warrant out for the prime minister, before being released later in the morning, Libya's official LANA news agency reported.
The move comes during a period of political turmoil in Libya, which was exacerbated by the capture of suspected al-Qaeda operative Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, alias Abu Anas al-Liby, by US special forces on Sunday (06.10.2013). Though many details are still unclear, it seems that Zidan's abduction is a direct reaction to the US raid.
As became obvious when Zidan appeared on the BBC's Newsnight show on Tuesday, the raid on Tripoli by US forces put him in an invidious position. Even as he insisted that "Libya does not surrender its sons," and that Libyan citizens should be tried in Libya, the prime minister called for foreign help to fight militant groups in the country.
Describing how Libya was being used as a base for gun-runners exploiting the country's long, porous borders, Zidan said, "The movement of these weapons endangers neighboring countries too, so there must be international co-operation to stop it."
Equally ambiguous was Zidan's insistence that relations between the US and Libya would not be harmed by the commando raid. "The US was very helpful to Libya during the revolution and the relations should not be affected by an incident, even if it is a serious one," he said at a press conference in Morocco on Tuesday.
"What he's asking for is what every weak government with militants on its soil wants," said Shashank Joshi, analyst at the Royal United Services Institute. "That is, international assistance without any of the domestic political cost or infringements. There is a similar dynamic in Pakistan - they want international help, but on their own terms. They want things like satellite intelligence, drone capabilities, which only America and Europe has."
No bargaining position
Libya's government is in a precarious situation. The leadership is wary of criticizing its most powerful ally, the United States, but is also desperate to placate section of its population, who believe the government tolerated or even colluded in the abduction of a Libyan citizen.
"We will focus on human and citizen rights and on the necessity that he gets a fair trial," Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani told reporters, having won assurances from the US ambassador that al-Liby was being treated humanely. "The government is putting higher national interests in mind."
Those higher national interests are dictated by the fact that armed militias, including Islamic extremists, each control specific areas of the country. In general, the security situation in Libya is close to catastrophic, said Charles Gurdon, director of the security and risk consultancy Menas Associates in the UK. There has there been a series of assassinations of army officers, thought to have been carried out by Islamist extremists and loyalists to former dictator Moammar Gadhafi. In addition, Gurdon pointed out, "The ports in the east are currently under blockade, so Libya is only exporting a fraction of the oil that it produces. And the government is having to bribe militias to open them up."
Zidan: unpopular technocrat
The government's weakness is also political. "The prime minister is very, very unpopular, particularly with the Islamist political groups," Gurdon told DW. "You have a largely technocratic government run by a technocratic prime minister. The parliament chose him, but he wasn't their first choice - he was a compromise candidate between the different factions. The trouble is there isn't anyone to take over. So it's a mess."
"The last thing Libyans want is foreign soldiers on the ground," he concluded. "At the same time, unless there is some sort of foreign help, Libya will become a sort of failed state."
Meanwhile, Zidan's call for international help couldn't have come at a worse time, with foreign military intervention deeply unpopular in both the US and Europe. Any mission would have to be limited. "Basically they need someone to train the national army to disarm the militias and those with connections to al-Qaeda," said Gurdon.
"There are police and army being trained by the British, by the Jordanians, and by others, but the training takes time. And at the moment the government is trying to disarm the militias by buying their arms from them - and of course they're taking the money and not handing over the weapons, or handing over some of the weapons. Even within the army there are members who are really more loyal to their own hometown and their specific leaders."
Lack of trust
The other problem for Western governments is which Libyans to trust. "There's evidence that the US government informed the Libyans about the raid in advance, but it's likely that they would have been afraid of telling more than a few people, or telling them too far in advance, for of leaks." Joshi told DW. "So there's a lack of trust with sensitive intelligence."
"In addition, no one trusts the Libyan justice system to hand over suspects," added Joshi. "It makes it difficult to provide the kind of assistance that Zidan wants. There will be help with border issues, but the list of areas of where Libya needs help is a very long one."