Libyans wait, and worry, as government delays forming cabinet

September 27, 2011

Five and a half weeks after anti-Gaddafi forces took control of Tripoli, Libyans are increasingly worried that their governing council’s delay in delivering a new cabinet could undermine the revolution they worked so hard for.

The country is still in many ways a blank page. A new army, a new police force, a new constitution, a new parliamentary body — all have yet to be initiated. But many fear that infighting on the Transitional National Council, exacerbated by an unfinished war, is stalling the process of nation-building.

Libyans describe themselves as a patient people, who have waited 42 years for a chance at self-determination. But they are getting tired of waiting.

“We are very worried; they are not telling us anything,” said Nazih Aradi, 31, a businessman who, like many Libyans, has jumped into the world of civil-society-building — he and some friends recently formed a nongovernmental organization to demand government transparency. “If they don’t give us the names, we can’t start building the country — and even when they mention the names, that is not enough. We need to know what are the projects, what is going to happen the first month, the second month.”

The murkiness now plaguing the council follows months of intrigue and behind-the-scenes jockeying. The council’s executive committee, a cabinet of about a dozen decision-makers, was disbanded two months ago after the still-unsolved killing of the rebels’ military chief of staff, Abdul Fattah Younis. But a new cabinet was never named, and the old members continued in their posts as anti-Gaddafi forces moved into Tripoli.

Once the country is officially liberated, the council is charged with selecting a prime minister, who will appoint an interim cabinet. That cabinet will have eight months to prepare for the election of a national assembly, which will be Libya’s first legitimately elected body. The assembly, which will replace the Transitional National Council, will appoint a committee to draw up a constitution and move the country toward further elections.

But with holdout areas still fighting on the side of former leader Moammar Gaddafi, liberation has not yet been declared.

In the meantime, the council has been pressured by groups pushing for positions. Fingers are pointed at figures seen as having been too close to the Gaddafi regime. Cities and towns in Libya’s newly liberated west — especially those like Misurata and Zintan that believe their fighters helped turn the battle in the rebels’ favor — are pushing for more representation in the government’s top ranks.

The council’s de facto prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, has become a divisive figure. Although many Libyans still support him, even some of his supporters bristled this month when he proposed 36 names for a new cabinet, including friends and relatives, and retained the prime minister and foreign minister slots for himself. Although he backed off the proposal when council members objected, it left a bitter taste, said a council official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic.

“Mr. Jibril is sowing discontent, he is fueling resentment, he’s putting incompetent ministers in place,” the official said.

Some also have criticized Jibril, a U.S.-educated political science professor, for having worked for the Gaddafi regime before the revolution.

In contrast, the council’s president, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, continues to enjoy wide support. He was justice minister under Gaddafi but is seen by Libyans as trustworthy.

On Sunday, the council decided that the de facto cabinet would remain largely unchanged, said Abdurrahim el-Keib, a council representative for Tripoli, adding that despite “heated discussion,” he is not worried by the council’s inability to announce a lineup.

“I think this is healthy,” he said. “People haven’t had a chance to exercise this kind of discussion. I think in this case people are exercising some real democracy on some level.”

U.S. Ambassador Gene Cretz, who returned to Libya last week after nine months, also said the delay does not worry him. “I think it’s natural that in the first blush of forming a political body there’s going to be difficulties,” he said. “I don’t think that we should be concerned at this point that they haven’t formed a full-fledged government.”

Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at the London think tank Quilliam, said the criticism of Jibril may not all be fair, but he added that the council has failed to adequately communicate with Libyans.

“The thing annoying the man on the street is the uncertainty, the unpredictability,” he said. “They don’t know what is the policy of the officials, so they don’t know what their future will be.”

Some are already making their displeasure known. Jamal al-Haggi, a human rights and political activist who was a political prisoner under Gaddafi, said he is disappointed by the delay and is considering forming an opposition party or watchdog nongovernmental organization.

When Tripoli fell, “we thought people would work together to help the street instead of everybody working for his agenda,” he said. “They’ve used the revolution, they’ve used this victory in the wrong way, and . . . soon I think we will have to take this to the streets.”

There have been a few small demonstrations around Tripoli in recent days by citizens demanding more money for wounded veterans and protesting corruption at the national oil company.

But others say they will remain patient.

“We’re fed up from the term ‘revolution,’ ” said Mohamed El Gamoudi, 33, a dentist who is working with Aradi on building a civil society group. He says he trusts the council but expects answers soon. “These [council] people are human beings. We need to show them that there are living people in this country and tell them to not fool us anymore.”

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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