Why Libyan Prime Minister Was Kidnapped, Then Freed

Ali Zeidan was abducted and then released last week after the U.S. raided Tripoli to capture a senior al-Qaida suspect. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin speaks with professor Dirk Vandewalle, author of A History of Modern Libya, about Zeidan's many opponents and the role of militias in Libya.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Insurrection appears to be brewing in Libya. Yesterday, the leader of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood political party told the Associated Press that the country's prime minister has failed to lead and should be replaced. Last week, the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was held hostage briefly by an armed militia. On Friday, in a televised address, Zeidan described his kidnapping as an attempted political coup. The prime minister is accused of giving tacit approval to a recent raid in which U.S. special forces captured a senior al-Qaida suspect on Libyan soil. To help us understand the chain of events in Libya over the past week, we spoke to Professor Dirk Vandewalle from Dartmouth College. He was an adviser during the parliamentary elections in Libya earlier this year. And I asked him what we know about the group claiming responsibility for the prime minister's abduction.

DIRK VANDEWALLE: It seems likely that the group that took him from his hotel room was actually a set of militias that had been asked by the Libyan government who provide his protection - protection from other militias, protection from individuals, you know, for random acts of violence. So, in other words, it was a private militia who was acting specifically as his security detail.

MARTIN: Are there groups out there that would like to see him overthrown?

VANDEWALLE: Oh, very much so. There are several militias and several political figures, including some parties in the General National Congress, Libya's parliament, that have very clearly indicated that they would like to see Mr. Zeidan removed. But particularly the militias, some of the Islamic militias, have said that Mr. Zeidan has not been very sympathetic to their point of view, and as a result have indicated very publicly that they would like to see him removed.

MARTIN: What has he been criticized for?

VANDEWALLE: A lot of the militias are arguing that in a sense they have been sidelined. They see themselves as the revolutionaries, the true revolutionaries that have fought against the Gadhafi regime. And they are arguing that they are being sidelined by people like Mr. Zeidan, who frankly perhaps is a bit more secular than many of his colleagues, but also has a very strong sense of what he thinks the government should do to strengthen itself at the expense of these militias.

MARTIN: There have been certain militias in Libya that have been quite outspoken about a recent raid by the United States in Tripoli in which U.S. special operations forces nabbed someone in the U.S. terrorism list. They've been upset and accused the government of giving the green light for this operation. How does this play into the domestic politics you just outlined?

VANDEWALLE: It's an enormous problem for the government because essentially what is going on in Libya is still a search for legitimacy. So, the kidnapping of Mr. Al-Liby was an affront to what a lot of Libyans, and particularly the Islamists, consider as the sovereignty of the country. Here is a Libyan citizen that has been kidnapped by an outside country on Libyan soil. And in a sense it plays into politics in Libya because it's another point that the Islamists in particular can hold against Mr. Zeidan and his government that they are not doing enough, and furthermore that they are not even able to capable of protecting the sovereignty of Libya against countries like the United States who can simply come in and nab Libyan citizens from a street in Tripoli.

MARTIN: What do the Libyan people think of all the instability that you have outlined?

VANDEWALLE: A number of polls indicate very clearly that the people, the population as a whole is still quite strongly behind the government and more importantly that it supports very heavily a democratic process, that it wants to see these militias removed from the streets. In other words, it is really arguing for a more regular government but, of course, the problem, once again, is that it is the militias that have the arms. And even though the population has come out in the streets on a number of occasions to demonstrate against these militias that, of course, those that have the guns in Libya control the politics to some extent and that remains overwhelmingly the militias.

MARTIN: Professor Dirk Vandewalle is the author of the history of modern Libya. He was an adviser during the recent elections there. Thank so much for talking with us.

VANDEWALLE: My pleasure.

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