“I Started This Struggle 35 Years Ago”
Why Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan may have the world’s toughest job.
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.
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.
So they had no choice but to put the militias on the payroll?
Yes, and then when I came, I said we have to pay with checks to see who is going to receive the money.
So you're sure who is getting the money?
Yes, and so we won't pay anybody by cash anymore. At that time, they were very upset. They told me “You closed the tap of the money” and “You are our enemy.”
Do you have to try as much as you can to disarm the militias and turn them into a national force?
Yes, this is our plan. It should be done in a wise way.
Has the U.S. let you down? What would you like to see the United States do?
We have to stand on our own two legs. The United States helped us from the beginning, but we can't expect from the others what we wish.
What is your wish? What would you like the United States to do?
Help us disarm the militias, for example.
Why can't the U.S. help you do that?
In America you have the Democrats and the Republicans. Different opinions from different people. So I can't expect just like that ...
If outsiders don't help you, will you be able to disarm so many militias?
It will be difficult.
Then what happens? Does Libya become a failed state?
I don't think so. Libyans, if they organize their power and are united, they can solve any problem.
Did the U.S. SEAL team's capture of [the Libyan militant Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai] spark off your kidnapping or the murder of the American teacher?
The hostility toward America is long-standing among fundamentalists. ... As far as the killing of the teacher in Benghazi is concerned, people were outraged. Because this teacher was teaching their children.
Is al-Qaida planting roots in Libya?
I can't say so because they are rejected by people.
But aren't a lot of Libyans going to fight in Syria? And aren't Tunisians using your country to transit to Syria to fight?
This is said, but we cannot possibly confirm it.
Aren't there jihadi training camps in Libya?
No. There are no permanent camps, but they might stay for one or two days to train.
Do you plan to have parliamentary elections?
January. [First,] a committee to write the constitution. Then we will have elections.
You were criticized by the Islamists for going to visit Gen. [Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi in Egypt after [Mohamed] Morsi's ouster.
It is true that they might criticize me, but I didn't visit Mr. Sisi as such, I visited a neighbor country. It is my duty to visit a neighboring country and to have normal relations with our neighbors. If I closed the door, I would face a lot of problems. It is my obligation to have good relations with Egypt for the security of my country.
It seems like a dangerous job to be prime minister of Libya. Do you worry?
I am not worried. But I started this struggle 35 years ago.
When you left Qaddafi's foreign service?
Yes. And since then I moved from Egypt to Chad, to Algeria, to Iraq, to Sudan and to Germany.
And all the time you were opposing Col. Qaddafi?
Any way I could find I was going to do.
Did you ever think the day would come that Qaddafi would go?
Yes, I was sure about this.
When did you return to Libya?
I went to Benghazi first in February 2011 and from there we started. I was the first person who started the initiative of the diplomatic recognition of the National Transitional Council.
What do you plan to do in the next six months?
I started this matter, and we have to finish it. We can't give up.
You believe you can protect yourself and your ministers?
We have to do the maximum that we can. It is not our choice, it is our destiny. When you live with the feeling of struggle, it is quite different than when you live as a politician. Politicians are normally opportunistic people. The one who struggles is a person who believes in principles and sacrifice. I count myself as a struggler, not a fighter. I have never used a gun.
As a struggler if you see an opportunity ...
I have to use it, even if it has only 10 percent or 20 percent [chance of succeeding].
People criticize you for being weak. What do you say to those people?
I am not weak. I am very strong. I know the situation. Does strong mean using a gun? No, you have to use your wisdom to control the situation and to go through it. If I start with bloodshed and the situation continues and people fight each other, I'm not going to solve anything in 10 years. ... For example, when the kidnappers came to my room, the first thing I told my guards was "Don't shoot. Don't use the guns." And even [though] there were about five guns at my head before they dragged me from my room, I dealt with them as friends. I asked them for tea. I asked them which tribes they were from, from which country. I made jokes with them. They told me you are cold, you are German. I told them no, I know that if God did not write in my book, it isn't going to happen to me. Even if the thought went through my mind, if it is not my day to pass away, I'll be alive.