Amid widespread public dissatisfaction at the performance of the country’s interim rulers, both the Libyan people and the West have grown increasingly fearful. Demonstrations in the Libyan streets are calling for new elections, and more and more countries are offering assistance in training a new Libyan army and police force. But will it be enough?
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan about his government’s attempts to rebuild a functioning state in Libya, what he and his colleagues plan to do to reign in the militias active across the country, and how he thinks Libya will get its oil and gas flowing again.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Do you fear for Libya’s unity in the light of federal, provincial and territorial disputes?
Ali Zeidan: National unity is not a concern for Libya. Those demanding a separate governing body for Cyrenaica are few in number. It is true that the media holds significant power and has the potential to directly influence public opinion, but I assure you that there is no risk of Libya splitting apart. Those in that camp do not have a vision of how to carry out this venture and decentralize the country.
Q: What are the motives underlying the push for federalization?
There are many, some of them personal, others opportunistic, while others still are simply entrenched in ignorance and a lack of political understanding. We should not ignore the fact that, for a long period of time, Libyans did not practice or think about politics. Additionally, those with tribal affiliations have their own visions and want to carve out a place for themselves: personal and factional aspirations abound. We believe that not even 1 percent of the Libyan people are convinced that federalization is the correct path.
Q: More than 30 months after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Libya still suffers from security issues. The new government has been unable thus far to contain the security situation. Why has the state been unsuccessful in imposing its influence?
Everyone is aware of the reality we are dealing with. Many of the Arab elites in the past looked to the Gaddafi regime as being national, revolutionary and progressive. They perceived Libya from a standpoint of bias toward Gaddafi’s regime and his own self-promotion. In reality, Libya lived through 42 years of systematic destruction of the human psyche, education, health, work and state functions. Another important matter to note is that Libya was largely absent from the world for 42 years and became extremely isolated. All of this has led to the devastation of our country. The revolution contributed to this phenomenon as well, thanks to a proliferation of arms among both qualified and unqualified people. I don’t think anyone is qualified to bear arms except for those who are implementing the law—that is, the army or the police. Many confusing factors persist in the wake of the revolution and its aftermath.
Despite the difficulties, we have achieved a lot. We have maintained Libya’s unity while also protecting the revolution from defeat. It must also not be forgotten that Libya is locked in a battle against Islamic groups that have gathered arms and are trying to spread radical new ideas. This poses a major challenge for the government and for the Libyan people.
Since the beginning of the revolution, Libya has had to make democratic decisions in an environment fraught with political polarization. It is understood that the results of such decisions are limited in their ability to effect change. But Libyans are insistent on continuing to move forward in these exceptional circumstances by utilizing democratic tools. This is another of the factors that contributes to slow change. Nevertheless, it was the will of the Libyan people which brought the people of Benghazi to the streets to say no “to” armed militias, which drove the masses in Tripoli to face down the armed gangs—which killed nearly 50 people in one hour—and “yes” to the rule of law, and to the independence of the judiciary and fundamental rights and freedoms. These underlying forces resurface from time to time in Libya, and I believe they carry the potential to pull us through the difficult circumstances of today.
We, as a government, have accepted this new reality. We don’t have an army or security forces, or any means to control the Libyan street. For more than a year, we have striven to resist despite the continued degeneration in security, including the abduction of the prime minister and the detention and assassination attempt on the president of the General National Congress. We are still working toward our goals.
All of these indicators are evidence of the fact that we will be able to overcome the current situation. The problem now is that many people watch what is happening in Libya as though it were a play: one wants to see the scene that has been dreamed up. We live this theater, playing out our roles. We know how long we will be forced to struggle in order to see success.
Q: What is holding Libya back from achieving its goals, and especially those concerning security? Clearly, there is a shared desire to see a stable and secure state. What is required in order for the government to respond to the demands of the people?
What is lacking is that we haven’t formed the army or police after forming our state. We only started the project four or five months ago. We have also been unable to reach our goals due to leadership problems in the military. We had a chief of staff who did not help to move us even one step forward. Then we brought in a new chief of staff, but right now his performance is still not up to par. We brought in a new defense minister three months ago as well. The path we are on requires us to work like real politicians, carrying out our duties efficiently and competently. However, we are also suffering from the effects of a very weak and small administrative body. The revolution has required that we exclude federal employees who worked under the previous regime in accordance with the Integrity Law, and then came the Political Isolation Law.
Those who undertook the revolution see it as necessary to preserve these pieces of legislation. Thus we are a state that lacks an army, a police force, and a capable security apparatus. We must train the army and police while also coming up with a management team that will conduct the affairs of the state. As you can see, all these obstacles are related to the presence of arms. We are constantly trying to put out fires, and this disrupts our attempts to build a new state. People came out to say “no” to the militias and demanding [the creation of] an army and police force. Over the next three months, we will see a clear change in the security landscape of the country as well as in the administration of the state.
Q: Does that mean that you are promising Libyans change within three months?
This is not a promise, but an inference from the reality on the ground. I cannot prepare for what is to come without reflecting on my expectations. Promises are another matter.
Q: Have you found a solution to the militias and armed groups in Tripoli and scattered elsewhere across the country?
We are on the brink of dismantling them. Committees are in session daily, and today one was convened in order to dismantle armed groups in Benghazi. A few days ago, another committee was formed in Tripoli and it succeeded in dissolving 12 militias. The process is, of course, ongoing. The solution is to first remove these militias from the city, take away the group’s arms, and then absorb its members into the ranks of the army and police. On Saturday, a delegation of 500 people will travel to Turkey for military training. Another group will travel to Italy. Approximately 700 people will be trained within Libya and then sent to France for more training with the police there. We are moving along rapidly with our plan to absorb rebels into state, military, security and civilian institutions while also dismantling the militias.
It is clear that all these issues require time [to resolve]. I remember one European diplomat approached us at the beginning of February, and he emphasized that we have to be patient, claiming that we should measure time on our own terms and not by the world’s standards. We need a full month to accomplish what other countries achieve in one day because our circumstances are so difficult. We have to be realistic about what we can accomplish under these circumstances. It is true that our people are in a hurry, but time is an unbending factor that we cannot alter.
Q: I understand the difficulties you face. But, in your estimation, what is the most pressing danger that Libya now faces—groups like Ansar Al-Sharia, Salafist groups, or regional demands?
The widespread use of arms by groups with no ties to the army and police is the most urgent issue we face today. Second is the danger posed by groups which can be labeled as religious extremists. These groups exist all across the country, are comprised of different nationalities, and their numbers are unknown. Other highly dangerous components exist, but these two issues require time for us to find solutions.
Q: Recently, promises were made that the army would swiftly establish a presence in Benghazi and Derna. When will this happen?
The Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Interior have issued orders to bring the army and police to Benghazi. The commands were issued, and now it is just a matter of the orders being carried out.
Q: On more than one occasion you have aired grievances about the oil sector in Libya, which once was the backbone of the country’s economy and now is the underlying reason for the taking of hostages. What is the state of the Libyan oil industry today?
Libya’s oil industry is at a standstill today.
Q: Libya’s not exporting at all?
We are producing oil at perhaps a fifth of our capacity and are carrying out some limited exporting operations. The issue is that the guards who were assigned to protect the oil facilities betrayed their homeland and seized control of the facilities.
Our society is ruled by tribal factions and complex social affiliations. The president of the General National Congress addressed this issue himself with the formation of a Crisis Committee. The committee researched the issue and then presented the report to the government. It is now forming a plan to confront those who interfered in the oil industry.
Q: Will you remove them by force?
If necessary, yes.
Q: Is there a time limit or an ultimatum?
The government is preparing itself, and we hope that this will happen soon. This issue will be taken care of quickly and without mercy.
We have offered compromises many times before, but they are not interested in compromises. They view us as weak, and thus we will not relent. When we find that the time is right, we will impose the will of the state.
Q: Do you feel that today you have enough power and material resources to re-impose the authority of the state on oil installations?
We have no other choice. This is our duty and we must see that it is done.
Q: How is the Libyan state operating without oil revenues?
We are working with what the budget allows. However, we hope for these revenues to return soon.
Q: What about the electricity sector, which has been partially disabled?
The issue is related to oil and gas power plants, as the electricity stations operate on diesel or gas, and during times of scarcity, when the oil stops, so too does the electricity. The electricity situation is not great today, but there is some available.
Q: What is the status of the constitution?
Procedures for electing the Constitution Committee are taking place, and when the committee is elected we will make the constitution.
Q: When will the committee be elected?
Hopefully in January. The General National Congress formed the Supreme Commission for Elections, which operates according to the law that was just created. This is the body that will convene the election of the Constitution Drafting Committee.
Q: In your opinion, will the commission be given a time limit for drafting the constitution, or will the commission first seek counsel?
There is a roadmap within the interim Constitutional Declaration, which is managed by the state and elected by the General National Congress. The law stipulates that there be a Constitution-Drafting Committee, and we are committed to the roadmap.
Q: When does the mandate for the General National Congress expire?
There is no specific deadline for the General National Conference to expire. Libya is intent on passing through this transitional phase as quickly as possible. There is a general desire to expedite elections and the constitution-drafting process as well, because everyone wants to move beyond the transition and rid ourselves of the chaos in the Libyan street.
Q: How do you define “as quickly as possible”?
I mean that transition should not exceed six months, meaning the middle or end of next year. Even if we assume that things will be extended until the end of next year, that is not much, because we want to establish something firm in the midst of a crisis and keep our country’s future in mind. We, as an Arab nation, forget that time is a crucial factor. We forget that the process of perfection is a necessary one. The fervor of the masses is very important, but we cannot rush things: it is more important to deliver a flawless final product for the future. If there are interruptions in the electoral process, we may want to keep revisiting the issue and extend the time to three years.
Q: If we take into account everything that you referred to, then why did the announcement that the constitution and laws have been inspired by Shari’a come so quickly? What is the background to the statement issued by the General National Congress?
Many groups say that they want to apply Islamic law in Libya. The Libyan people are not against this, and we are 100 percent Muslim. We do not have a problem with Shari’a as the main source of inspiration for legislation.
What comes out of the General National Congress are general procedures for the interim period. When we write the constitution, elect a parliament and form a government, the parliament will have the power to amend the constitution as it deems necessary. Writing the constitution is a process that will evolve with time, and each stage will have its own special circumstances that are subject to revision. Thus, nothing is final. I assure you that the Libyan people do not have a problem with Islam as the main source of legislation. But to say that Islam is the only source of legislation, that is a matter that Libyans disagree on.
Q: A few weeks ago, a meeting was held in Morocco on border security in Libya. I also recall that another meeting was held in Paris earlier this year on the same subject. The West, among others, has complained that Libya’s borders are porous. How do you plan to remedy this problem?
The border issue requires regional and international cooperation, as we must deal with illegal immigration, the weapons trade and drugs. All of these issues have an international character. Libya needs counsel and logistical assistance, as well as aid from European countries, if they want to protect their borders from illegal immigration.
Q: Did they not respond to Libya’s requests?
The responses have not reached the level we requested.
Q: The French have said they are open to any requests made my Libya.
This is true, but their openness has failed to sufficiently meet our needs.
Q: What do you want specifically? Facilities, equipment, training, electric fences . . .
We need equipment, expertise, training and money, as well as high-tech machines so that we can respond to these issues properly.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.