TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Western diplomats were left scratching their heads on Tuesday after Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) jettisoned some of the people they expected to join the government and named relative unknowns instead.
The explanation lies in the tensions buffeting the country’s new leaders as they try to rebuild Libya out of the wreckage of Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.
The cabinet, which will run the country until elections are held, appeared to have been assembled with an eye to appeasing rival regional groups who in the three months since Gaddafi was ousted have been squabbling for a share of power.
Prime Minister designate Abdurrahim El-Keib summed up the approach when, announcing the line-up at a news conference, he said: “All of Libya is represented.”
The manner in which the cabinet was chosen told its own story about the difficulties of reconciling competing interests: the NTC, sources said, agreed on a government and then went back to the drawing board after some members dissented.
The final version dropped seasoned officials whom diplomats and some Libyan officials were certain would be in the cabinet and replaced them with relative unknowns.
In the most striking example, El-Keib said the foreign minister would be Ashour Bin Hayal. Little is known about him except that he is a diplomat who comes originally from Derna in eastern Libya.
He edged out Ibrahim Dabbashi, the seasoned diplomat and Libyan envoy to the United Nations, whose appointment as foreign minister had been agreed on Monday night, according to a source in the NTC who was privy to the negotiations.
The last-minute switch appeared to have been a sop to Derna, stronghold of an anti-Gaddafi insurgency in the 1990s which rose up again during this year’s revolt.
The decision to drop Dabbashi was a “surprise” said one diplomatic source.
“When you have to form a government which will have to represent various geographical areas, inevitably new names will come up,” the source said.
Another clear concession to regional interests was the defence minister, Osama Al-Juwali, the commander of the military council in the Western Mountains town of Zintan.
The town was already a significant player because its fighters led the advance on Tripoli in August which brought down Gaddafi, but he was not in contention until units under his command captured Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, at the weekend.
The man named as Interior Minister, Fawzi Abdel A‘al, is from Misrata, another regional powerbase whose fighters played a pivotal role in the rebellion.
Western governments, who have strongly backed the NTC, are likely to accept the trade-off between choosing the most competent candidates and keeping the peace between rival factions.
They will also be reassured by the fact that Islamists, persecuted under Gaddafi and resurgent since he was ousted, have not secured posts which they were coveting, especially the defence ministry.
The appointment of Al-Juwali will be seen as dealing a blow to Abdel Hakim Belhadj, a former Islamist militant who is now the NTC’s military commander for Tripoli. His allies had been in contention for the defence job.
But it may only be a temporary set-back.
Analysts say Libya’s biggest political heavyweights, Belhadj among them, have deliberately kept out of the government because they have their eye on winning the elections, scheduled to take place within eight months.