Ben Fishman: The nine lives of Ali Zeidan – will he get a tenth?

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan is a proven survivor. He fled Muammar Gadhafi’s Libya and lived for years in exile under the shadow of Libya’s exported terrorism. Since becoming prime minister in November, Zeidan has dodged one crisis after another. When militia groups descended on Tripoli in May, besieged government ministries and compelled the General National Congress (GNC) to pass a political isolation law, the GNC president stepped down but Zeidan emerged relatively unscathed. 

Today’s abduction may have been Zeidan’s most dangerous brush with fate. Taken from his residence at the upmarket Corinthia Hotel in the middle of the night by so-called former revolutionaries, he appeared in a hazy photo dressed in a traditional home gown without his trademark stylish glasses. His captors turned the polished diplomat into a disoriented man, imperilling the future of Libya and its coherence as a state. 

Somehow, Zeidan was released and appeared a few hours later back at the prime minister’s office, describing the affair as a ‘political game’ in a press conference and expressing his determination to carry on his duties. Many questions remain about the episode, including who ordered it and what they intended, whether it was a response to the capture of al-Qaeda leader Abu Anas al-Libi, and how a government unable to protect its leaders and institutions negotiated Zeidan’s release in just a few hours. 

For those of us who have followed Libya closely since the 2011 revolution, this is the closest Libya has come to complete anarchy since the fall of Gadhafi. An errant bullet or an overzealous gunman could have set Libya on an irredeemable path toward chaos. Fortunately for the Libyan people and their international supporters, Zeidan survived again. 

Some may look at today’s episode and write Libya off as a lost cause. After all, Zeidan’s abduction is only the latest in a pattern of violent and coercive tactics used every day across the country to extract payments or exact revenge. Kidnappings, assassinations, bombings, strikes and blockades are all too common. But it would be premature to count out Zeidan – or Libya. Public outrage over the abduction may actually improve Zeidan’s popularity. Expect the same brave Libyans who protested against Gadhafi, condemned the murder of Chris Stevens and protested militia violence to stand with Zeidan – not because they necessarily like their prime minister, but because they are fed up with armed groups acting with impunity. 

The real challenge for Zeidan and his fragile government will be translating renewed public legitimacy into concrete initiatives that start demonstrating to the Libyan people that their government can provide services and start to improve the economy and security. Zeidan will require continued international assistance to make that happen. Such outside aid and expertise cannot be the victim of Zeidan’s abduction.

Ben Fishman was Director for Libya and North Africa on the US National Security Staff from 2011 until September 2013.

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