Libyan Prime Minister’s Abduction Caps Year of Mayhem

The abduction of Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zaidan was only the latest sign that his interim government’s control over the country is slipping.

Zaidan was freed yesterday, hours after he was held by the country’s anti-crime unit at a Tripoli hotel. His seizure followed the killing of the U.S. ambassador, attacks on the French and Russian embassies, and the assassination of top military officers, all within little more than a year. Oil output has plunged, and there’s no sign security will improve any time soon.

Libya enjoyed a burst of unity as the NATO-backed war that ousted Muammar Qaddafi was followed in 2012 by the first free election in more than 50 years. Since then, militias who led the fighting against Qaddafi, including some radical Islamists, have been using force to exact concessions and expand their power.

“If you want to be taken seriously by the government and get your demands listened to, the message being sent is that you have to be in control of an important asset or person,” said Firas Abi Ali, head of Middle East and North Africa analysis at IHS Country Risk, in an interview. “There’s no reason to believe the government’s control over the country will improve over the next year.”

Zaidan’s abductors wrongly believed that a warrant had been issued for his arrest, said Hashem Beshr, head of the Supreme Security Committee for Tripoli. It’s not the first time he’s been targeted. About 30 militiamen attempted to storm his office in Tripoli in March.

Militia Power

Two months later, Libya’s militias showed their power by surrounding government ministries for two weeks, forcing the passage of a law to purge senior Qaddafi-era officials.

Since July, protesters in the east have shut down oil terminals, demanding better pay and jobs, and eventually calling for Zaidan’s ouster, accusing his government of corruption.

HSBC slashed its forecast for growth in Libya this year to 0.7 percent, from 15.9 percent before the oil protests. Oil and natural gas accounts for more than 70 percent of Libya’s gross domestic product and generates almost all government revenue.

The unrest has delayed the drafting of a new constitution and elections for a permanent government.

The group that held Zaidan denied reports the abduction was a response to a U.S. military operation this week to seize alleged al-Qaeda fugitive Abu Anas al-Libi, who was detained in a Tripoli suburb.

Response to U.S.

Abi Ali said the U.S. action probably contributed to Zaidan’s detention, “then the various groups involved realized that linking the capture of the prime minister to the capture of a terrorist put them in a bad light.”

The decline of security in Libya was illustrated by the death of the U.S. ambassador to the country and three other Americans in Benghazi in September last year, as militiamen assaulted the consulate.

Half the French embassy was destroyed by a car bomb in April. A jailbreak freed 1,200 prisoners in Benghazi in July, a police colonel and a retired air force officer were murdered the same month, and Russia’s embassy was attacked by armed men last week. Oil production slumped to an average of 300,000 barrels a day last month, the lowest since the 2011 war and down from 1.4 million in March.

After the failure of efforts to bring militias under central control, the best option would be to devolve power and turn them into regional police forces, Abi Ali said. In the worst-case scenario, foreign companies will flee as violence spreads, and eastern Libya will try to secede, he said.

“When Zaidan came to office, he was seen as taking a hard line against militias and people liked him,” Abi Ali said. “But then he realized he doesn’t have the power required to deal with them.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.