Africa

Gaddafi son's capture complicates struggle over cabinet

Interim PM Abdurrahman al-Keib (centre) and NTC fighters in Tripoli. Photo: 18 November 2011
Image caption Interim Prime Minister Abdurrahman al-Keib must tread delicately in choosing a new cabinet

The capture of the late Libyan leader's second eldest son and heir apparent, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, is a boon for all Libyans - but a complicating factor in current negotiations to form a new government.

A proper trial - either inside Libya or in the International Criminal Court in the Hague - is also likely bring to light the shadowy financial dealings of the previous regime.

This process will not only help bring closure for many Libyans who suffered under the Gaddafis but could also unearth pillaged Libyan assets and corrupt former-regime officials who have until now escaped detection.

However, more important than either of those outcomes may be the manner of Saif's capture.

It grants even more power to the local militias in their bargaining with the central authorities of the National Transitional Council (NTC). That bargaining is now at its most intense.

NTC tested

Since Tripoli fell three months ago, the ruling NTC has struggled to figure out a magic power-sharing formula between local militias and seasoned technocrats.

Its efforts to govern, centralise, and create a unified chain of command have been hampered by its lack of control over the militias and attempt to govern without a cabinet.

Frequent delays in announcing a cabinet since its dissolution on 8 August have called into question the NTC's ability to rein in the militias and steward Libya through the transition phase.

Image caption There have recently been sporadic clashes between different groups of NTC militiamen

According to the NTC's draft constitutional charter, interim Prime Minister Dr Abdurrahim al-Keib has until 22 November to announce his cabinet, which will be subject to a confidence vote by the NTC.

If that passes, the new cabinet will run the interim government until the election of a national assembly in about eight months.

A poorly selected cabinet could fall immediately if public pressure against it mounts or if enraged militias cause chaos.

But ripping up the NTC charter by ignoring the deadline would explode the NTC's carefully constructed constitutional edifice.

Finding the right mix of cabinet ministers is crucial to addressing internal power struggles amongst existing Council members and to including previously sidelined local militia members.

Militia's warning

Key militias groups like the Zintanis, who captured Saif, or the Misratans, who killed Muammar Gaddafi, have both the organisational networks and the admiration of the Libyan people to demand key posts in the new government.

One militia leader in Tripoli, Abdullah Naker, warned on Wednesday that "if we find we have the same dictatorship, we will respond in the same way".

Therefore, the NTC's doling out of cabinet posts to Misratan, Zintani, and Tripolitanian revolutionary militiamen and extension of an olive branch to the former loyalist strongholds of Bani Walid and Sirte is unlikely to be sufficient to unite Libya or even lessen the prevailing centrifugal forces.

The local groupings themselves need to align on a vision of a new Libya in which they feel comfortable giving up their arms and their effective veto on the NTC's ability to appoint a cabinet universally recognised as legitimate.

However, since the start of November these groups have been involved in sporadic military clashes, so the NTC must tread especially delicately to avoid being seen to favour one group over the others.

Yet, having captured Saif, if the Zintanis makes ultimatums the NTC may not be in any position to reject their demands. Leading Zintani militiamen have insisted that they will not turn over Saif to the NTC unless they receive assurances that he will be tried in Libya.

They may also have planned to declare his capture right before the cabinet was set to be announced, to use as a bargaining chip for ministerial positions.

Dilemma

From the NTC perspective, it would seem wise to give ministerial posts to a few popular Islamist, Misratan, and Zintani militia leaders even if they lack managerial experience.

Yet at the same time, the NTC's inner circle of technocrats are clearly hesitant to pick militiamen and popular local leaders to run the ministries, because they know that precisely those groups which need to be appeased lack the skills required to run the ministries.

Libya, much like Greece and Italy, is struggling to balance elite technocrats who bring stability with popular politicians who bring legitimacy.

Therefore, Prime Minister Keib has two options when he announces the cabinet: He can reappoint the same key players that have thus far led the interim government, or he can turn to the local leaders that have gained popularity because of their successes in killing and capturing the Gaddafi clan during the uprising.

Either choice is fraught with peril, and the dilemma has been sharpened in the aftermath of Saif's capture.

It is likely he will take a middle road, attempting to square the circle. It is unlikely that whatever he chooses will be satisfactory to most interested parties.

Yet the price of inaction is far steeper still.

Jason Pack is a researcher at Cambridge University on Libyan history. Shashank Joshi is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.