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We must support Libya in these troubled times

There are not many places in the world where simply to make a political point you kidnap the prime minister for a few hours.

But, then again, Libya is no normal place right now. It was yesterday just before dawn that armed militiamen hauled the country's Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, from the luxury hotel in Tripoli where he lives despite a substantial security presence.

Rather ironically, next week marks the first anniversary of Mr Zeidan being elected by Libya's interim legislature, pledging to bring the rule of law to this post-revolutionary North African country. That Mr Zeidan has failed to do that was more than underlined by his brief abduction yesterday, and because Libya continues to wrestle with the anarchic aftermath of the uprising that overthrew the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. In all, its been a hectic few weeks across Libya as it teeters, according to some analysts, on the brink of becoming the world's next failed state.

So, just what does Mr Zeidan's kidnapping tell us about what is going on inside Libya right now? Just how accurate are the claims by analysts that Libya is tipping towards the dubious status of being another Somalia or Afghanistan?

The answer to the first of these questions lies in understanding the extent to which a complex network of armed groups and militias still holds sway across the country, determined on carving out a role in Libya's post-revolutionary society.

So powerful are such militias that a few months ago in May you could have been forgiven for thinking a coup had taken place in Tripoli, after militiamen arrived in their technicals - pick-up trucks bearing heavy machine guns - and besieged government ministry buildings in the Libyan capital.

Declaring themselves defenders of the revolution, these militias find themselves with competing prerogatives to those of many politicians and bureaucrats in the Libyan government. Given such a stand-off, the transitional government faces something of a dilemma. On the one hand it does not want to aggravate the situation through any head on military confrontation with the militias. On the other hand though, it cannot sit back and allow the militias to get in the way of its drive to form new laws and a constitution.

Adding a further layer of complexity is the fact many of Libya's current politicians held posts in the Gaddafi government. To give in to many of the militia demands would effectively mean removing a number of vital technocrats instrumental in helping Libya's transition since 2011. This, in turn, would send out signs of weakness whereby popularly elected government members kowtow to the demands of self-designated guardians of the revolution.

Following the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, Tripoli out of necessity established a complex and uneasy relationship with its revolutionary fighters in order to help maintain some semblance of security. That arrangement though has become increasingly fraught of late, and yesterday's abduction of Mr Zeidan is only the latest escalation.

It is estimated up to 1700 different armed groups have emerged from the disparate Libyan rebel forces that toppled the Gaddafi regime. Power, money and what they see as just rewards is what primarily drives them. To give just a few examples, in the eastern city of Benghazi where the uprising against Gaddafi began, some local leaders feel little has changed since the days when the dictator's regime marginalised them.

Further west in the city of Misrata which bore the brunt of the fighting during the revolution, militias there feel they deserve special recognition for their contribution and sacrifices. South-east of Tripoli in Zintan, militias which captured Gaddafi's son Saif al Islam continue to use him as a bargaining chip with the transitional government.

While disgruntled, all these groups at least have some links to the government unlike those militias with an Islamist agenda and links to al Qaeda which inhabit other parts of the country. These jihadist elements most likely will have been stirred up again by the US raid a few days ago to capture terror suspect Anas al Liby in Tripoli.

It has been suggested the ­abduction of Mr Zeidan was indeed a response to this US operation. That allegation is refuted by The Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room (LROR), which says it kidnapped the prime minister and insist they did so because he had to answer for financial irregularities. They did however, condemn the US raid as a criminal act.

Certainly, the LROR was among two groups named by the prime minister's website as being responsible for his seizure. The other was the Anti-Crime Unit affiliated with the Interior Ministry.

Whoever was responsible and whatever their motive, Washington certainly made things considerably worse by announcing Libya had "tacitly approved" their raid. As if the militia challenge was not enough for the transitional government to contend with, Libya faces other major problems. Oil exports have plummeted to one-fifth of their Gaddafi-era peak, after guards at eastern oil facilities and ports went on strike. There have also been attacks on several foreign diplomatic missions including the Italian consulate in Benghazi, the French embassy in Tripoli and the EU ambassador's convoy.

The country is also awash with weapons looted from ammunition dumps during the revolution, with one intelligence estimate suggesting that only 20 out of 400 arms depots are controlled by the Libyan government.

Much more worrying from a counterterrorism perspective is that around 3000 shoulder launched Man-portable air-defence systems capable of bringing down civilian airliners remain missing despite intensive Western efforts to track them down.

Given all of these problems and challenges it is hardly surprising some analysts have said Libya is already a failed states. But as Christian Caryl, a contributing editor to the influential Foreign Policy magazine, rightly pointed out in a recent article, there are real dangers in jumping prematurely to that conclusion.

Mr Caryl also warned of how bad a move it would be should the drones be let loose against Islamist fighters as some hawks in Washington are in favour of.

Libya may be close to tipping into a political abyss, but it has not done so yet. It has not become another Somalia or Afghanistan.

Mr Caryl points out: "It's a ­country whose people, with a bit of help from the outside world, fought for eight bloody months to overthrow their dictator. It's a country whose people then voted in a fair and free election for a government led by secular political parties.

"It's a country where opinion polls show that a majority of the population - a solid 83% according to the latest survey from the National Democratic Institute, believe democracy is the best form of government,."

Libya is a country where people are still well disposed towards the West.

Yes, it is undergoing difficult times, but what else can we expect only a few years after a revolution that toppled a dictatorship that lasted 42 years? For now, Libya deserves our continued support. The alternative would indeed mean a failed state and all the dangers that come with it.

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