Libya tilts to hardliners, threatens Italy

The conventional wisdom is that Libya’s Mommar Qadaffi is defanged and domesticated. Recent events, however, indicate a strategic tilt back towards the bellicose on the part of the savvy despot. A cabinet shake-up favoring the hardliners comes on the heels of barely-veiled threats of terror attacks against Italy. From Reuters, March 5:

Libya’s top legislative and executive body on Sunday appointed al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi as prime minister, replacing the reform-minded Shokri Ghanem who was put in charge of the country’s oil sector.

The General People’s Congress also said in a statement that Fathi Omar Bin Shatwan, who was oil minister during Ghanem’s premiership, lost the oil portfolio in the cabinet reshuffle, with his department renamed the Industry, Electricity and Mining Ministry.

Ghanem was appointed chairman of the National Oil Corporation, replacing Abdallah Al Badri and giving him effective control over oil policy, it said…

Deputy Interior Minister Salah Rajab Al-Masmari was named as the new interior minister, replacing Nasser al-Mabrouk Abdallah, who was fired last month.

The congress had blamed him for the “disproportionate use of force” on Feb. 17 when police killed 11 people and injured more than 60 to prevent youths storming the Italian consulate in the eastern coastal city of Benghazi in protests over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi said last week the protesters had sought to kill the Italian consul and his family.

The statement, read out on state television, gave no reason for the government reshuffle.

But diplomats in Tripoli said Ghanem, who has been pushing a broad programme of reforms with the support of Gaddafi’s son Saif Al Islam, was sacked after he lost a fight with dominant conservatives who control the congress and the revolutionary committees, the de facto single ruling party in Libya.

Ghanem planned to privatise most state-owned companies, slash subsidies on consumer goods and give the private sector a broader role in the economy.

The conservatives — who fear the reforms will undermine political stability — have assailed Ghanem over the last year, casting doubt over the success of the reforms, but he had held onto power thanks to the backing of Gaddafi.

The diplomats said the central bank governor and finance minister promotions showed the conservatives had gained the upper hand in the battle for control of the government.

Economy and trade minister Abdel-Qader Omar Belkheir was replaced by Tayeb Safi Tayeb.

These changes may be, in part, precipitated by Libya’s embroilment in the cartoon crisis—with Qadaffi figuring he had better tilt back towards the hardliners and nationalists (“conservatives”) to head off an Islamist upsurge such as threatened the Algerian regime after it loosened up.

This would also explain Qadaffi’s recent bellicose threats against Italian interests in Libya. From VOA, March 3:

Italy’s foreign minister sought to minimize a warning by Libyan Colonel Moammar Gadhafi about possible reprisals against his country’s former colonial ruler, if no compensation is forthcoming. But some Italian politicians reacted coldly to the comments made by the Libyan leader.

Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini played down warnings by the Libyan leader that Italian interests in his country risked new attacks, unless Rome pays compensation for its behavior during 30 years of colonial occupation.

Fini said the Libyan leader’s words were made for domestic political purposes, and should be viewed in that context. He was referring to comments made by Mr. Gadhafi to the Libyan People’s General Congress Thursday night in Sirte.

The Libyan leader spoke of the events in Benghazi two weeks ago, when rioters broke into the grounds of the Italian consulate, setting fire to vehicles and part of the building. Police struggled to contain the riot, which killed 11 and injured dozens more.

Mr. Gadhafi said the regrettable events were the result of accumulated wrongs since 1911 of repression and injustice suffered by the Libyan people under Italian occupation. He called on Italy to compensate the Libyan people for the deaths and refugees, to avoid a social explosion against its interests, companies and nationals…

Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of wartime dictator Benito Mussolini, who declared Libya a part of Italy in 1938, defended the colonial rule, saying that, without her grandfather, “Libyans would still be riding camels.” She called on the international community to intervene in the face of Mr. Gadhafi’s threats.

It is almost as if the media are too intimidated to even mention it, but for Rome’s elite these rumblings from Tripoli can only bring back memories of the days of yesterdecade when Qadaffi was sponsoring Red Brigade terrorism on Italian soil. And the Red Brigades have made some tentative signs of a comeback in recent years. See WW4 REPORT #31.

And here’s a telling irony. The past few years, in which Libya has been tentatively embraced by Europe (if not the US) as once again a member of the civilized world, have coincided with a harsh crackdown on Islamists. Now, in another signal of a strategic tilt towards appeasement and cooptation of the Islamist opposition, Libya has won applause from Amnesty International for freeing Islamist prisoners of conscience. From Amnesty, March 2:

Amnesty International welcomes the release today of some 130 political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, and sees it as an important step towards the improvement of the human rights situation in Libya.

Those released include some 85 members of the Libyan Islamic Group (also known as the Muslim Brothers), many of whom had been held since June 1998. Sentences imposed on them in 2002 by the now abolished People’s Court were overturned by the Supreme Court in September 2005. They included two death sentences and long prison terms. An ad hoc lower court subsequently retried the cases and last month upheld the original sentences.

Also released was Abdurrazig al-Mansouri, a writer and journalist who was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment in October 2005 for possessing an unlicensed pistol. The gun was apparently found the day after he was arrested in January 2005 at his home in Tobruk. The real reason for his imprisonment was believed to be critical articles about politics and human rights in Libya that he had published on the Akhbar Libya website shortly before his arrest.

The release of the Muslim Brothers had been expected for several months. Last year a committee established at the behest of Libyan leader Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi reportedly concluded that they had neither used nor advocated violence and should therefore be freed. It also recommended the release of dozens of members of other Islamist groups who, it said, had renounced violence. The committee included members of the Gaddafi International Foundation for Charitable Associations (since renamed the Gaddafi Development Foundation), headed by Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi.

While welcoming the releases, Amnesty International is concerned that many of them appear to be conditional. The Muslim Brothers, in particular, were reportedly made to sign pledges that they would not undertake any political activities. Amnesty International calls for this restriction to be lifted.

Amnesty International is also urging the Libyan authorities to take urgent action on the cases of other political detainees. In particular, the organization reiterates its appeal for the immediate and unconditional release of prisoner of conscience Fathi el-Jahmi, a political activist who has been detained without trial since March 2004, when he was arrested after criticizing Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi and calling for political reform in international media interviews. He is currently held at an undisclosed location understood to be a special facility of the Internal Security Agency. He has reportedly been denied visits by family members for several months.

In addition, Amnesty International calls on the Libyan authorities to clarify the legal status and reasons for detention of Mahmoud Mohamed Boushima and Kamel el-Kailani, who were arrested last year after they returned to Libya following years of residence in the UK.

How does this square with little-noted claims in the Spanish press that Libya has actually been the destination for secret CIA “rendition” flights?

See our last posts on Libya and Italy.