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Upheaval In Libya Makes New Prime Minister's Job A Challenge


Muamar al Gadhafi, the longtime dictator of Libya, held that country together by brute force. Now, since he was deposed in 2011, there has been a battle for power, often violent, among competing tribes and many of the armed groups who had worked together to remove Gadhafi. And so the first challenge for Libya's new prime minister, who took office this week, is keeping the country from descending into total anarchy. Making things even more difficult is the fact that the previous prime minister still claims that that job is his. NPR's Leila Fadel is in the capital, Tripoli, and joins us on the line. Leila, good morning.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: When we spoke last week, you were in Cairo. Before taking this trip, you said the political situation in Libya was really in shambles. I mean, now that you are spending some time in Tripoli, how are things looking?

FADEL: Well, it really is, as I said, in shambles. You have two prime ministers - one in Tripoli, one in the East - both claiming the job. You have a country that is divided between these two figures. And you have really the worst violence since the war that ousted Muamar al Gadhafi.

GREENE: Which brings us to one of the two people you're talking about, one of these men, the new prime minister, officially sworn in Monday. Tell me about him.

FADEL: Well, his name is Ahmed Maiteeq. He's a young businessman, just about 41. He owns a hotel here in Tripoli, but he's a controversial figure. He was voted in by the country's parliament in a chaotic vote that people say was unfair. The old prime minister saying, we are going to wait for a ruling from the court in order for me to hand over power. So although Maiteeq is in the prime minister's office - that was also a controversial moment, when he went into that office in the dead of night - it isn't clear who's running the country.

GREENE: You also told me last week about this renegade general, who you were sort of seeing as a strongman that some people were gravitating to, maybe in the style of Muamar al Gadhafi. Is he still out there?

FADEL: Yes, the rogue General Khalifa Haftar is in the East. He survived an assassination attempt this week. He was slightly injured. And he is conducting what he calls the dignity operation. And he's getting a lot of support from certain factions of the Libyan society who say they're tired of the violence in the East. Many people we spoke to who support his operation don't say we support Khalifa Haftar specifically. But we've been waiting for somebody to come in and fill this vacuum. His opponents saying he's operating outside the law. He's conducting an operation that could be detrimental for Libya and make it descend into a civil war.

GREENE: Are you feeling the effect of these rival political factions on the streets and in daily life in the capital?

FADEL: Well, in Tripoli, less so. The main battle is happening in the East, in Benghazi. And the two realities are really divorced from each other. There are clashes happening in Tripoli between rival militias here and there. But life goes on. People are out at cafes, families out at the park.

But the real violence is happening in the East. And it has been happening for a long time - assassinations, killings, bombings. And that's why you're seeing a lot of people rally behind Haftar, whether they like him or not, because there has been no accountability for these crimes. And people saying they are these militias, among them, extremists, who are making life difficult and deadly for people in the East.

GREENE: How close is this country to civil war?

FADEL: You know, when you speak to Libyan officials and Libyans, people say it's not civil war, it's violence right now. But it's a war that's necessary among some factions of the Libyan society saying they need control. But it's also a country that has never stabilized since the war that ousted Gaddafi.

So there isn't a place where, if you have a crime at your house, you can pick up the phone and call the police. They're not going to come and help you. This is a country where everybody has a gun. The rival militias all want their sort of say in power. And it's a place where politicians have used a lot of these militias that fought Gadhafi and now are still on the streets with guns to get their political aspirations realized.

GREENE: A war that's necessary. I mean, what a sort of sad thing to hear about, people feeling like you have to go through a war to come out in some different way, in the end.

FADEL: Yeah, I mean, we spoke to one young, 18-year-old activist from Benghazi, who left under threat from a group called Ansar al-Sharia that many people blame for violence in the East, an extremist Islamist group. He's going back now, even though there is that danger, because he has faith in this fight. And he's quite a pacifist, but he says, you know, I'm tired of sitting and watching this militia control my city. So I'm going to support Haftar, for now, because I feel like it's the only option. I'm caught between him and this militia. And I'm going to choose him.

GREENE: This is the strongman general you're talking about who people seem to be gravitating to in some ways.

FADEL: Yes, that's right.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Leila Fadel, speaking to us from the capital, Tripoli. Leila, thank you.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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