Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Case cracks codes

Gamal Nkrumah notes that the mysterious case of the murder of Abdel-Fattah Al-Obeidi stirs a pot of political animosity in post-Gaddafi Libya

Al-Ahram Weekly

Judicial quandaries, such as bringing to book killers of high-profile political personalities, can transform the political tone of a country like Libya grappling with questions of democratisation. The Libyan public recognises that such dilemmas cannot be settled hastily.

The point is not to disparage the longsuffering Libyan people. The Libyan people snapped up the accoutrements of democracy as soon as it became clear that the regime of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi ceased to exist. Yet Libya’s inability to uncover the real extent of the power of the militant Islamist groups in the country and in particular Al-Qaeda is a case study in the failures of several nascent democracies of the “Arab Spring” countries to combat religious extremism and zealotry. Matters came to a head in December with the search for the assassins of Major General Abdel-Fattah Younis Al-Obeidi, Gaddafi’s former interior minister who defected on 22 February 2011 to emerge as head of the Free Libyan Army and a leading anti-Gaddafi protagonist of the ancien regime.

Amid anger over the misgivings and suspicions of rank and file supporters of Al-Obeidi, Libya is rocked by the conundrum of naming, shaming and punishing his killers. There is considerable concern over the lack of clarity regarding the real perpetrators of the crime, the new interim Libyan administration of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan is loath to make much about the prickly question of the murder of Al-Obeidi.

The case for Zeidan’s government is not solely backward looking. Libya needs to move forward and not be stuck in the past. The country has tremendous economic potential that can only be realised by political stability. Big differences remain between the different ideological strands of Libya’s political forces.

Yet, issues such as the assassination of Al-Obeidi have added to public indignation. The question of whether or not key supporters of the now defunct National Transitional Council (NTC) in which Al-Obeidi, the legendary general was a leading figure, killed him or whether Gaddafi loyalists assassinated him have come to the fore. The Zeidan government can surely put the invented dramas to one side.

However, matters took on an ominous turn. On 28 November, the NTC’s Petroleum Minister Ali Tarhouni announced that members of anti-Gaddafi militias murdered Al-Obeidi. Tarhouni’s declaration set the cat among the pigeons.

The NTC Chief military prosecutor Youssef Al-Aseifer openly proclaimed that the former NTC deputy prime minister Ali Abdel-Aziz Al-Isawi had been named chief suspect in the assassination of Al-Obeidi. Isawi promptly denied the allegation.

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan offered a pragmatic approach to the question of the killing of Al-Obeidi. He adopted a somewhat less sentimental rendering of the assassination. In what was considered a national outrage by many Libyans, a Benghazi military tribunal ordered the questioning of the widely respected ex-interim NTC leader Mustafa Abdel-Jalil over the killing of Al-Obeidi.

What caused much consternation was that the presiding judge Colonel Abdallah Al-Saidi made a victory sign that incensed Abdel-Jalil’s supporters. Abdel-Jalil gracefully answered the questions of his accusers and the case was quickly hushed up before it caused a political furore. Abdel-Jalil in turn accused “Libyan militant Islamists” of assassinating Al-Obeidi. The irony is that Abdel-Jalil himself is widely regarded as an Islamist.

“We are all supporters of the Sharia in Libya and we are all Salafis,” Abdel-Jalil extrapolated. It is against this backdrop that the picture is still rather blurred in Libya as to who exactly is a “militant Islamists” — in other countries of the “Arab Spring” it is far clearer who is and who isn’t a “militant Islamist”. 

The unfolding case of Al-Obeidi seems to be key in decoding the intricacies of contemporary Libyan politics. This is particularly so when it concerns deciphering what it means to be “Islamist” and what brand of political Islam.

There are those who claim that Libya has become the most incendiary of North African political tinderboxes. “The government has noticed attempts by some elements to stagger its work and that of state institutions in an irresponsible way and by advancing unrealistic demands aimed at disrupting the functions of state facilities, blocking roads and breaking into public buildings with the aim of causing material and moral losses,” a statement read by Libya’s Deputy Prime Minister Awad Baraasi at a press conference in the Libyan capital Tripoli last week. What is not clear from the declaration read by Baraasi is who precisely the troublemakers are. Whether they are pro-Gaddafi loyalists or “militant Islamists” is by no means certain.

The Benghazi military tribunal probing the assassination of Al-Obeidi sparked protests in Tripoli. Moreover, following nationwide demonstrations in support of Abdel-Jalil, the Benghazi military court consigned the Al-Obeidi case back to military prosecutors. Ominously, a judge investigating the case, Gomaa Hassan Al-Jazwi was gunned down as he was heading towards a mosque in Benghazi on 21 June 2012.

“They are now collecting and evaluating evidence,” the head of Benghazi military prosecutors’ office Saleh Al-Beshari declared. There are parliamentary moves to ban civilians from being tried in military courts. “Abdel-Jalil is a civilian and if this bill passed, his judgement will be transferred to the civilian courts,” Libya’s Justice Minister Salah Al-Mirghani elucidated. That sounds like a dramatic improvement in the Libyan judicial system in 2013.

So far, only one suspect has been charged with the actual assassination of Al-Obeidi. He has been remanded in custody. His precise identity and political affiliation is disputed. But the clue to his personality and politics was hinted at in a speech made by Abdel-Jalil this week.

“There is no difference between the case of the assassination of Al-Obeidi and the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi,” Abdel-Jalil conceded. Furthermore, he revealed that “the revolutionaries said at the time of the assassination of Al-Obeidi that he should not be permitted to celebrate their victory with them because when Al-Obeidi was [Gaddafi’s interior minister] he ordered the security brigades during the 1980s and 1990s to crush them down”.

Was Abdel-Jalil, a veteran politician with widely acknowledged political acumen that served under Gaddafi as justice minister before defecting along with Al-Obeidi, engaged in a rearguard action? Was he now deliberately distancing himself from the “revolutionaries”? There are those in Libya who believe that Abdel-Jalil should be more forthright and less elusive.

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