TRIPOLI: Libya stumbled deeper into chaos on Thursday uncertain over who runs the country after rival prime ministers both claimed legitimacy in a confrontation threatening to turn into violence among rival factions.
Even by Libya’s tumultuous standards, the North African oil producing state has veered closer to its most dangerous crisis in the three years since a NATO-backed uprising helped rebels put an end to Muammar Gaddafi’s one-man rule. After a contested vote in parliament three weeks ago, businessman Ahmed Maiteeq was appointed as Libya’s third prime minister in two months with backing from Islamists and independents in the splintered General National Congress (GNC).
On Wednesday, his predecessor acting Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni refused to hand over power after questioning the legality of Maiteeq’s appointment by a parliament that many Libyans blame for their slow democratic advance. That political standoff is part of a broader and potentially more explosive confrontation among the rival Islamist, anti-Islamist and regional factions vying to shape Libya’s future. The two prime ministers were waiting for further decisions from the GNC or a high court ruling on the election while a special commission mediated between the two parties on Thursday, officials and advisors said.
Addressing the country late on Wednesday, Thinni, a former defense minister who weeks ago announced his resignation because of an attempted attack on his family, dramatised the risks of a failure of negotiations. “Our government warns of the dangers facing our homeland with political differences that may lead to a split in the country, a resort to arms and even foreign intervention,” he said in a broadcast statement. Four decades of Gaddafi rule and the three chaotic years that have followed his demise have left Libya with few state institutions that enjoy legitimacy and without a national army to impose any form of stability.
Brigades of former rebel fighters, many with quasi-official status as state security forces, have stepped into politics, loosely allying themselves with rival blocks to become power brokers. The risk of a broader armed confrontation rose this month when a former Libyan army officer, Khalifa Haftar, began a self-declared campaign against extremists he accuses Islamist parties in the GNC of allowing to flourish. Irregular forces loyal to Haftar — a mixture of militias, regular army and air force units — have bombed Islamist militant bases in the eastern city of Benghazi twice since then, most recently on Wednesday. Haftar, a former Gaddafi ally who defected in the 1980s, spent years in U.S. exile and returned for the 2011 revolt, also claimed an attack by gunmen on parliament. He rejected Maiteeq and told lawmakers to hand over power.
Rival Islamist armed militia, most allied with the Justice and Construction Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, warned Haftar off, accusing him of plotting a coup to overturn Libya’s fragile transition. Amid the standoff, negotiations over the premier’s post are emerging. Ahmed Lamine, Thinni’s spokesman, said he would wait for a ruling on a high court appeal made by lawmakers on the legality of Maiteeq’s election. A five-member commission of former officials and scholars is also trying to mediate. “What is going on is between the ex-prime minister Thinni and the GNC. We are ready preparing our plans and meetings and waiting to move into our offices,” a Maiteeq spokesman said.
An early election is set for June 25 to elect a new House of Representatives as a way to defuse the crisis. But time is short with Tripoli tense, Benghazi under threat of armed conflict and the budget still awaiting parliamentary debate and a government stamp of approval. “This is dangerous in that, who signs the cheques? Who is running the country? We are getting to that point now,” said one Western diplomat. “There is a risk of real confusion over who is in charge.”
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