PROFILE-Libya's PM was embattled even before his brief capture

Reuters

* Zeidan presides over increasingly lawless state

* Former diplomat and Gaddafi opponent helped rebel cause

* Criticised over crippling strikes, unrest in oil industry

By Lin Noueihed

Oct 10 (Reuters) - Even before he was briefly snatched by anarmed group on Thursday, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan hadcut an isolated figure, struggling to fend off Islamist rivalsand stamp his authority on an increasingly lawless state.

A former diplomat, Zeidan defected in the early 1980s tobecome a long-time exile and outspoken critic of MuammarGaddafi, involved for a time with a now-defunct dissident groupcalled the National Front for the Salvation of Libya.

He was living in Geneva when the 2011 rebellion againstGaddafi broke out. As a member of the National TransitionalCouncil, Libya's opposition government-in-waiting, he helped towin the rebels international recognition that ultimately led tobacking for the war that toppled Gaddafi later that year.

Running as an independent, Zeidan won a seat in Libya'sparliament when the country held its first post-Gaddafi electionin 2012 though he later lost a race to lead the house.

But with support from the National Forces Alliance, the mainliberal force in Libya's parliament, Zeidan was elected primeminister in a televised count on Oct. 14 2012, a week after thelast prime minister was dismissed in a vote of no confidence.

Though Zeidan is considered a liberal, he was able to clinchparliamentary backing for his government lineup by includingboth liberals and members of the Justice and Construction Party(JCP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

During his year in office, however, Zeidan has faced growing pressure from Islamists and independents displeased with hishandling of an unprecedented wave of strikes by oil workers andarmed guards that has paralysed the country's oil production andled to billions of dollars of lost revenues.

As the country's post-Gaddafi woes worsened, with the weakcentral government struggling to contain rival tribal militiasand Islamist militants, analysts said he has looked increasinglyisolated, lacking a tribal base and relying mainly on governmentlargesse to appease strikers and other critics.

UNDER PRESSURE

The former rebel militiamen who captured him on Thursdaywere angry at the weekend capture by U.S. special forces of aLibyan al Qaeda suspect in Tripoli, appearing to hold Zeidanresponsible.

"This could be the opening salvo in a coup attempt againstZeidan or it could be a demonstration of discontent with hisrule," said Geoff Porter, of North Africa Risk Consulting.

"It fits a pattern in Libya where a group takes a person orfacility hostage and use them to negotiate their demands."

Zeidan, who is in his early 60s, has faced repeated demandsto step down from Islamists and other critics of his rule.

In September, JCP head Mohammed Sawan told Reuters thatZeidan should resign after failing to tackle corruption or builda unified army in a country riven by regional rivalries.

Sawan said there was growing support within the 200-memberassembly for a vote of no confidence in Zeidan's governmentwhile the JCP was considering withdrawing its five ministersfrom his cabinet.

JCP's secular and liberal rivals say the Islamists, whosemain strongholds are in coastal cities such as Misrata, havegrown in influence in a parliament that was assuming moreexecutive powers and influence in state institutions.

"He makes a tired and somewhat lonely figure in his office -I saw this again when I met him there ... having shoutingmatches with people on the phone who then ... want to continueto pursue their own route, despite what the prime minister hassaid," a diplomatic source told Reuters last month.

Zeidan's brief capture by a semi-official armed force loyalto his political opponents, analysts say, will only make itharder for him to govern.

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