Why Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan May Have the World’s Toughest Job

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Dec. 8 2013 7:57 PM

“I Started This Struggle 35 Years Ago”

Why Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan may have the world’s toughest job.

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Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan.

Photo by MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

Since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya has been ruled by chaos. Only a month ago Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was kidnapped. Zeidan spoke with Lally Weymouth on Saturday in Paris. Excerpts:

Lally Weymouth: What can you say about the recent shooting of the American teacher in Benghazi? What will you do about it? Will you arrest those responsible?

Ali Zeidan: It is a crime [and] I will do everything possible in order to prosecute them, arrest them, and bring them to justice.

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Do you know who did it?

No, I don't know because I was here in Paris when it took place. But when I go back there I will investigate.

Has there been any progress in apprehending the killers of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens? Is there an investigation, and how is it going?

We have some suspects who are being investigated. While the investigation is underway, we cannot divulge any information. At a certain point in time, we might even invite U.S. investigators to take part in the process, when the circumstances in Benghazi allow it. Because of the security situation in Benghazi, we cannot invite FBI or other American investigators there.

There have been recent protests against the militias in Tripoli, Benghazi, and Darnah. Do you see this as an opening for your government?

Yes, this is a positive development for us. ... In the past, there were different views concerning the militias and the issue of the demilitarization of these militias. Some had a view of militias as positive, but now people believe these are dangerous and [that] we should leave the weapons in the hands of the police force and the army.

What do you believe?

I've always believed that the weapons should be the prerogative of the police and the army. In my mind, the revolution ended with the end of Qaddafi, and the state should be established now. However, we should appease the street. We should try not to run against the current.

Do you mean the Islamic street?

No, I'm talking about the Libyan street.

But some people in Libya want the militias to leave, while others support the militias.

There are a few ideological people who belong to some Islamic groups—a couple of hundred, not even thousands. They want to take over the country. They do not want the state to succeed.

So it's your government versus the Islamists?

There are extremist Islamists who see this as a last opportunity for them. They are extremists who lost in many countries, but in Libya they want to establish a state.

Are you talking about al-Qaida?

Al-Qaida and all the others in the same direction.

Reportedly, al-Qaida has training camps in Libya. Is this so?

I can't say precisely, but there are Takfiri—those Muslims who believe the others are not true believers.

Are they coming from abroad?

Some of them. In the investigations, we find some Tunisians, some Algerians, some Sudanese, some Nigerians.

You were kidnapped in October. You were asleep in your hotel room and a militia came and woke you up?

It was a game that was orchestrated by extremists.

But they took you out of the hotel. They broke your glasses.

They stole my glasses. They were young boys with weapons and guns.

Who were they working for? Some allege that they were aligned with forces in your government.

Not in the government but in the country.

So then who was it that kidnapped you?

Extremists. They told me they were members of the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room.

Were you afraid they were going to kill you?

It was not clear. They wanted to take over the government.

How did you get out of it?

Within five minutes, the news was all over the place. People came and tried to destroy them.

To the place you were being held?

Yes. It was a governmental place.

They held you in a governmental building? In Tripoli?

Yes, inside Tripoli. It belonged to the Ministry of the Interior.

Then, you were freed?

The whole operation took about four or six hours.

Didn't your Congress pass a law recently making sharia the law of the land?

They said as a principle that sharia is the main source of legislation. It was just for a while—to ease the tension.

Are you against this?

Legislation should be done in a way that does not go against the sharia. There are different conceptions as far as sharia is concerned. There is not one single opinion. Extremists would uphold one single opinion and say this is the true path.

What are you going to do to get control of the oil fields away from the federalists? If you give them everything they want, including autonomy, could this lead to a breakup of Libya?

We will try the peaceful solution first. And if we cannot, we will resort to force.

Do you have a force to resort to?

We do have some force, but it will emerge at the right time.

Isn't it a big problem for your government that the federalists have control of the oil?

Obviously it is a major problem, but we have to deal with the issue with wisdom. If we have no other choice but to use force, we will use force.

What do you say to critics who say you don't attack these problems with enough force? Do you have the will to attack these problems yourself?

I do have the will and the desire.

The general-purpose force that the United States and Great Britain [and others] are creating and training—how long will it take to come into being?

A couple of months.

While you are waiting for the general-purpose force ... how do you protect your ministers, your buildings, and yourself?

We have an army, we have a police force that is deployed in the streets. And we are training [new forces]. Those who are guarding us will continue to do so into the future.

But militias go right into the parliament—they seem to control the country.

No. It is true that they are there, but it is not true that they are controlling the situation. They have some might and they want to take over things. We are trying to reach a situation where they cannot take over the country. If they were capable of doing so, they would have done it already. Once the demonstrations [began] and people went out against the militias, things began to get better.

Was it a mistake to start paying the militias? Should that be stopped?

It is not my mistake. The former government faced a fait accompli. When Qaddafi['s rule] ended, there was no government. There was nothing. The National Transitional Council received the power. They had to deal with matters day by day. They didn't always have the possibility to take the decision they wanted to—they had to find the best among the worst.

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