Rocky Transition

The Fight Ahead for Ali Zidan, Libya’s Newest Prime Minister

Ali Zidan’s narrow majority makes his challenges even more daunting. Jamie Dettmer reports from Tripoli.

In a narrow vote Sunday night, Libyan lawmakers selected as their new prime minister a diplomat and former human-rights lawyer who broke with Col. Muammar Gaddafi, just a week after they fired his short-lived predecessor. Ali Zidan now faces the challenge of forming a government that can gain the support of fractious lawmakers, a task that proved elusive for former academic, Mustafa Abushugar, whose list of cabinet nominees sparked protests and led to his downfall.

The narrowness of Zidan’s win over the Muslim Brotherhood-supported candidate, Mohammed Harari, the interim minister for local government, suggests he also could face difficulties in finding nominees who can attract the backing of a majority of lawmakers. Zidan won 93 of the 179 votes cast in the General National Congress. Abushugar also only managed a small majority over his challenger, Dr. Mahmoud Jibril, and lasted just 25 days as prime minister-elect.

Abushugar’s advisers acknowledge a lack of political sophistication in his handling of the cabinet nomination process. “He picked technocrats like himself instead of accepting that he had to horse-trade and come up with names that would appeal to the political parties,” says an adviser. In so doing he failed to craft a legislative coalition that could overcome Libya’s regional and tribal divisions, let alone its ideological ones.

“One hopes that Zidan will learn from his predecessor’s mistakes,” says a European ambassador. “Abushugar lacked political savvy. But I had hoped whoever succeeded Abushugar would get a big majority because that is what is going to be needed or we will see more indecision and infighting.” Zidan won three fewer votes than Abushugar did when he was elected prime minister. The ambassador says he believes Zidan should offer a senior government post to Harari, the man he beat for the job.

Zidan, who served as a diplomat for Gaddafi in India for two years before defecting in 1980 and joining the exile opposition group the National Front for the Salvation, has said he wants to move quickly to name a cabinet. He showed early political smarts in a major role in the uprising against Gaddafi by helping to mobilize international support for the rebellion. Says Suliman Zubi, an independent lawmaker from Benghazi, “He can negotiate with anybody.”

Aside from forming a government, Zidan’s immediate challenges include pressing on with an investigation into the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead. With political pressure growing in the United States for answers and the Obama administration facing relentless criticism from Republicans over security lapses, senior U.S. officials have expressed frustration at the slow pace of the Libyan inquiry.

On a visit to Tripoli last week, the top White House antiterror official, John Brennan, offered a public glimpse of that frustration when he urged Libyan leaders to hunt down those guilty of killing Ambassador Stevens. Brennan set out “specific additional steps Libya can take to better assist the U.S. in ensuring that the perpetrators are brought to justice,” said U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor in a statement. Libyan officials insist they are moving ahead but concede they lack investigative experience. “We can’t ask the old Gaddafi intelligence people to help. They hate the Americans,” says Mohamad Al Akari, a Libyan government adviser.

The attack on the U.S. consulate has highlighted the lawlessness plaguing Libya as it struggles to transition from autocracy to democracy. Former revolutionary militias have provided security in the absence of a functioning army and national police, weakening the power of the central authorities, which have been forced to negotiate and sometimes kowtow to militias or powerful towns such as Misrata and Zintan. The lack of a party or coalition majority in the General National Congress hasn’t helped Libya’s leaders to project authority, something Zidan must seek to rectify if he is to have any success as prime minister.