Libya: Election set for June in bid to ease crisis

AP News
Posted: May 20, 2014 3:06 PM
Libya: Election set for June in bid to ease crisis

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Libya's election commission set new parliamentary elections for next month, trying on Tuesday to find a peaceful resolution to a crisis triggered by a renegade general's efforts to crush Islamist militias and his demand that the Islamist-led legislature disband for allegedly supporting extremism.

The announcement of a nationwide June 25 vote came after the parliament met in what lawmakers had hoped would be a secret location. A missile was fired at the hotel where the session was taking place, causing panic but no injuries.

The general, Khalifa Hifter, has launched an armed campaign he says is aimed at imposing stability after three years of chaos since the ouster and death of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. He says he wants to break the power of Islamists, whom he accuses opening the door to Islamic radicals.

Hifter denies seeking power but indicated Tuesday that he would be interested in running for president — an office which has remained vacant since the revolution, pending the drafting of a new constitution.

Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood group, one of the biggest factions in parliament, denounced Hifter as "a counter-revolutionary allying with remnants of Gadhafi's forces." Mohammed Gair, a leading group member, called for dialogue to avert a struggle in which "no one is a winner and the only loser is the Libyan people."

The standoff has developed into a potential battle for power as many of Libya's militias line up behind either of the two camps. Hifter's allied militias are positioned along the road to Tripoli's airport, south of the capital, while Islamist-led militias from Libya's third-largest city, Misrata, have mobilized and are positioned to move into the capital.

Libya has not had an effective government since the fall of Gadhafi in a destructive civil war. The rebel brigades that rose up to fight Gadhafi transformed into armed militias after his regime's collapse and have mushroomed in size, power and armaments.

Some remain rooted in local loyalties but have spread their power to other regions. Others are ideologically based — particularly al-Qaida-inspired extremist militias, which have waged a campaign of violence in Bengazhi, almost daily gunning down military and police officers and other opponents.

The military and police, always weak under Gadhafi, were shattered in the war and have not recovered since. The central government — with almost no authority around the country — has had to pay militias to keep security, and many militias have lined up on political lines in the rivalry between Islamists and their opponents.

Islamists, including the Brotherhood, garner a slim majority in parliament. Earlier this year, they succeeded in removing Western-backed Prime Minister Ali Zidan, despite street protests demanding parliament's dissolution after its mandate ran out. Islamist lawmakers voted to name a businessman, Ahmed Maiteg, as the next prime minister, but their opponents rejected the vote as illegal, saying it was conducted improperly.

On Sunday, powerful militias allied to Hifter stormed parliament and declared it suspended — a move endorsed on Tuesday by Zidan.

The interim government ignored Hifter's declaration but, aiming to resolve the crisis, proposed that parliament find a new candidate for prime minister, then stop its work to allow for new parliament elections. Lawmakers, however, appeared to reject that proposal by calling Tuesday's session for a vote of confidence in Maiteg.

Some lawmakers, especially from the non-Islamist faction, said they were not invited to the parliament meeting.

However, there appeared to be last-minute efforts to ease tensions. Maiteg called for the vote to be postponed for 10 days to allow the creation of a national consensus government, lawmakers said. The session adjourned, and lawmakers were to return to decide on the proposal.

In an interview published in the Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat, Hifter said he seeks to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, calling the group "a sinister disease that aims to get into the marrow of the bones of Arab nations."

He vowed that his forces would achieve control over Libya "soon," saying he had been preparing for an anti-Islamist offensive for the past two years. He denied receiving any support from rich Gulf countries or Egypt, all bitter foes of the Brotherhood, and said he will run for president "if the people see fit."

"If the people ask me (to be president), I won't hesitate a moment to fulfill their request," he said. "We are ready for any duty at any time."