Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Zeidan confuses adversaries

Announcing a cabinet reshuffle, Libya’s beleaguered prime minister puts the ball back in his opponents’ court, security deterioration ongoing, writes Kamel Abdallah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Just as the major political blocs in Libya were on the verge of an agreement over the fate of the government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, the premier announced a cabinet shuffle. The move, which will include the key defence and interior portfolios, appears calculated to sow confusion among Zeidan’s political adversaries who are already at odds over the fate of the rest of the interim phase and a candidate to succeed Zeidan. While this storm brews in the capital, armed clashes have been raging between the Tebou and Suleiman tribes since last Thursday in the southern city of Sebha.

 In the new twist in Tripoli, Zeidan announced he would reshuffle his cabinet this week or next. Inclusion of the defence and interior ministries has thrown his political adversaries into disarray and threatens to further complicate Libya’s intractable political woes. The announcement comes at a time when the two largest political blocs — the liberal-oriented National Forces Alliance (NFA) led by Mahmoud Jibril, and the Justice and Construction Party (JCP), the political wing of the Libyan chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood — had been closer than ever in their positions on the fate of the Zeidan government, to which testifies a recently unveiled JCP initiative that contains a number of proposals previously voiced by the NFA. Another indication of their approaching viewpoints is the NFA’s recent harsh criticisms of the Zeidan government and its open apology to the Libyan people for supporting the prime minister whom it described as “autocratic”.

In spite of the general convergence among Libya’s major political forces over the need to replace the Zeidan government and despite widespread anger over its poor performance on a range of issues, most notably the deteriorating state of security in the country and the ongoing closure of the oil exporting ports, Zeidan’s latest move is likely to throw a spanner in the works of attempts to unseat him and appoint a successor. The question of who would succeed Zeidan is already a contentious subject and it appears that it will take considerable time for political forces to reach a consensus over an acceptable candidate. The longer it takes them to overcome this last hurdle before the removal of the prime minister, the more time he will have to outmanoeuvre them.

Meanwhile, in the south the security situation is worsening. Last Thursday, warfare erupted between the Arab Awlad Suleiman tribe and the African Tebou tribes, which have extensions into Chad and Niger. There have already been dozens of casualties in the clashes, in which fighters are using a range of heavy and mid-weight weaponry, according to local and official sources.

In the first official remarks on this development, the chairman of the local municipal council of Sebha, Ayoub Al-Razzaq, told Al-Ahram Weekly that a Tebou regiment had tried to storm the city from three sides on Thursday. Gunfire was exchanged between the attacking forces and the armed forces stationed in the city together with regiments under the command of the general chief-of-staffs. According to Al-Razzaq, there have been numerous dead and wounded, but it is difficult to calculate their numbers in view of the dangerous security situation and the closure of the city hospital as a consequence. Nevertheless, he estimated that 18 people were killed between 9 and 11 January and cautioned that the numbers would increase drastically in the following days unless the government, the National General Congress, and local notables intervened in order to end what he described as “the beginnings of civil war between Libyans, especially in the neglected south”.

On the security situation inside Sebha itself, which is located 750 kilometres south of Tripoli, Al-Razzaq said: “The centre of the city is relatively stable as the engagements are taking place on the outskirts.” At the same time, he noted that the capacities of the national army were “limited”, and urged the use of the air force. “If the air force does not intervene, there will be a catastrophe,” he warned.

The Sebha municipal chief was confident that authorities in the Defence Ministry and the chiefs-of-staffs were monitoring developments in the south where a truce between the Tebou and Awlad Suleiman tribes had collapsed. In his opinion, “special agendas” were behind the breakdown in this fragile truce. “I would not rule out the possibility that remnants of the old regime from outside Libya have a hand in fostering these clashes,” he said.

He is not alone in this suspicion. Various media and a number of Libyan Facebook pages have been circulating reports to the effect that affiliates of the former regime have infiltrated into the south with the purpose of igniting strife, especially between Tebou and the Arab tribes. The reports point to the long and porous borders in the south and tense and fragile relations between the two sides since the fall of the Gaddafi regime. Some of the Facebook pages also noted that the “remnants of the former [Gaddafi] regime” have become more active than ever before in Egypt during recent days, taking advantage of the Egyptian authorities’ preoccupation with the domestic political situation. This, according to these commentaries, has made it possible for those old regime elements to use their private television channels, especially the Khadra channel, to viciously attack the new political leaders in Libya.

“How can the Egyptian government allow Libyan channels to be broadcast from Egyptian territory with the aim of sowing dissension and strife among the Libyan people?” Sebha municipal chief Al-Razzaq asked. He was certain that those broadcasts were using the Egyptian satellite (Nile Sat) and added that if the Egyptian government could close down the Muslim Brotherhood channels in 24 hours it could do the same with those Libyan channels. “The Libyan street is angry now. The revolutionaries too. We expect Egypt to take a very firm stance.”

Egyptian authorities, for their part, have repeatedly denied that any channels hostile to Libya have been allowed to broadcast via Nile Sat. They added that a number of non-Egyptian companies have given those channels access to their satellite facilities which operate on wavelengths very close to that of the Egyptian satellite, which is what has caused the confusion among Libyans.

As the fighting in the south entered its fifth day, officials in Tripoli had yet to issue an official statement. The GNC (the highest political authority) and the interim government headed by Zeidan have remained silent on this issue up to the time this report went to print. The Weekly attempted to contact officials in these two bodies, but to no avail.

The Buraq Aid, a domestic Libyan airline, announced on Saturday on its official Facebook page that, in the interests of the safety of its clients and passengers, it had suspended its flights between Tripoli and Sebha due to the security deterioration and the armed conflicts there. Other international airlines operating out of Sebha have also cancelled their flights to and from that city.

The tribal warfare was apparently triggered by the murder, allegedly by Tebou tribal members, of an Awlad Suleiman militia leader in the village of Tragon, south of Sebha. The Tebou held him responsible for the murder of many of their people.

According to several local press reports, groups of Tebou members also attacked the commander of the southern military zone, Colonel Mohamed Al-Bouseifi, and killed one of his personal guards. They also killed a commander of the Libyan army’s Haqq Regiment that is stationed in Sebha, and they burned the cars and seized the weapons of the southern military zone command headquarters. The reports relate that when the attackers were surrounded, the Tebou mobilised armed supporters who advanced towards the outskirts of Sebha where the fighting has raged since. According to these sources, around 27 people have died and more than 35 were wounded in the clashes. Residents in Sebha report seeing heavy columns of smoke in many places in the city and hearing the sounds of missile fire from the entrances to the city.

A local official has denied that Tebou fighters had taken control of Sebha airport. However, he has confirmed that there have been fierce battles in the vicinity of the airport. Libyan defence ministry sources have stated that urgent military reinforcements are likely to be sent off soon to support army forces in the south in their efforts to end the fighting and bring Sebha under control again.

The Libyan Tadamun news agency cited Ayoub Shara, official spokesman for the Libyan Notables Reconciliation Council, as saying that there are groups of unknown identity that are out of control and that these have been fomenting the crisis. He stressed that the Tebou deny any connection to those groups. He also said that the Tebou leaders contacted the commander of the military zone of the city and affirmed their subordination to the legitimacy of the Libyan state.

The Libyan branch of the Tebou played a prominent role in the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime two years ago. However, their leader, Eissa Abdel-Majid Loh hinted last year at the possibility that they could secede from Libya because of what he described as campaigns of ethnic genocide against his people.

Last week also brought a heartening development in the crisis-plagued country. On Saturday, the city of Al-Baida announced the election of Ali Hussein as its new mayor, making him the first popularly elected mayor in Libya after four decades of Gaddafi rule. The victory celebration was attended by many members of the GNC, government ministers, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who headed the former interim assembly, the chairman and members of the Baida municipal board, and the chairman of the Municipal Assemblies Electoral Commission.

Addressing these and other participants in this occasion, mayor-elect Hussein stated that he would work to serve the city and its citizens, toward which end he would devote his attention to all issues of concern to the people, especially public services and other matters that have a direct bearing on people’s lives. During this ceremony it was announced that Idriss Abdel-Majid was elected mayor of the city of Shahat, making him the second popularly elected mayor in the country’s history.

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