TRIPOLI – Libya’s interim assembly said it was facing an impending “coup” Tuesday after ex-rebel militias gave it a five-hour deadline to hand over power.
The potential crisis comes exactly three years after the start of the Arab Spring uprising that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi but left the sprawling North African country with a weak central government that has struggled to impose order on former rebel brigades.
Powerful militias comprised of former rebels from the western town of Zintan gave the General National Congress, the country’s highest political authority, an evening deadline to quit Tuesday, threatening to seize any lawmaker who ignored it.
“We are giving the (General National) Congress, whose mandate has expired, five hours to hand over power,” commanders of the Zintan militias said in a televised statement, indicating a deadline of around 7:30 p.m.
“Any member of Congress who stays will be… a legitimate target and will be arrested, then judged.”
The assembly stirred widespread criticism earlier this month by extending its mandate, which had originally been due to expire on Feb. 7.
The militias said the Muslim Brotherhood and “ideological and extremist groups are the origin of the problems in the country,” which has seen near-daily attacks on security forces in recent months, many blamed on jihadist groups.
Speaker Nuri Abu Sahmein said the GNC “strongly denounces this attack against the authorities and categorically rejects the content of this statement, which it deems a coup d’etat.”
“Congress has given the necessary instructions to take measures against the authors of this statement,” he said, adding that the army and other former rebels had promised to defend the assembly.
However, by Tuesday afternoon no troop movements had been observed in the capital.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s government later issued a brief statement saying that a crisis meeting was being held to try to “calm the situation and avoid escalation.”
Libyans are set to vote Thursday for a panel to draft a new constitution, but the polls have aroused none of the enthusiasm that attended its first free election in July 2012.
The charter is to cover key issues such as Libya’s system of government, the status of ethnic minorities and the role of Shariah law.
But only 1.1 million people have registered to vote, compared with more than 2.7 million in the 2012 polls for the interim parliament, from an electoral roll of 3.4 million.
Zintan, in the mainly Berber highlands southwest of Tripoli, was one of the bastions of the NATO-backed uprising that ended four-decade rule of Gadhafi, who was captured and killed by rebels.
The militias issuing the ultimatum included the Al-Qaaqaa and Al-Sawaiq brigades, two of the most powerful and well-disciplined militias in the country, both nominally loyal to the regular army.
Ambassador Deborah Jones said the United States, which took part in the NATO air campaign that helped topple Gadhafi, “supports fully the legitimacy of the transitional democratic process.”
“Use of force is not a legitimate means of changing democratically elected institutions,” she wrote on Twitter.
The U.N. mission in Libya meanwhile called on all sides to “refrain from resorting to force to resolve political disputes.”
Last week, a retired general who had commanded ground forces during the 2011 uprising called for parliament and the government to be suspended.
But the prime minister — who was kidnapped and briefly held by armed men last year — dismissed the subsequent rumors of a coup as “ridiculous.”
Yielding to popular pressure in the wake of street protests, the GNC agreed Sunday to hold early polls to elect new transitional authorities rather than wait for the constitution to be finalized.
Discussions are still under way on institutions that might replace the GNC — a new congress, or a parliament and a president.