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Libya taxi talk: experiences and expectations of democracy

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Many are questioning why the congress appear to be doing nothing, while for their part parliamentarians seem reluctant to make the necessary decisions for fear of making the wrong ones.

Rhiannon Smith
17 December 2012

As someone who frequently takes taxis in Libya’s capital Tripoli, I have come to appreciate that ‘taxi talk’ functions as a valuable barometer for the current state of affairs in this country. Over the last few weeks, the three main issues which have come up time and again during my taxi journeys are the constitution, the integrity commission and of course the perennial problem of ‘zahma’ (traffic).

Although at first glance it may seem that these are all separate issues of varying importance, I would argue that in fact they are all equally significant indicators of a broader theme within Libya’s post revolution society; that is an increasing awareness of democratic principles characterized by a growing gap between the expectations of the public and the capacity of the current authorities to deliver.

Drafting a new Libyan constitution is a crucial phase in Libya’s transition, yet so far the Constitutional Committee tasked with writing it has yet to be formed. Debates about the constitution are raging in Congress and in various public forums, yet the topic of discussion is not what should be included in the constitution but how the drafting committee should be formed. The Constitutional Declaration of August 2011 stated that the committee should be made up of experts appointed by the GNC, however two days prior to the July 2012 elections the NTC amended this in favour of a publicly elected committee. The end result has been a stalling of the drafting process, eating into precious time which would be better utilized engaging the public on the contents of the new constitution.

There are strong opinions on both sides of the debate, but given the current Egyptian debacle and the fact that the Libyan process is already several months behind target, there is growing pressure from media, civil society and citizens themselves for a decision to be made so that the truly critical work can begin.

Many are questioning why the congress appear to be doing nothing, while for their part parliamentarians seem reluctant to make the necessary decisions for fear of making the wrong ones. There is an expectation from the public that, as elected politicians, congress members should have the knowledge and confidence to make such important decisions. However, while in theory this is true, a lack of experience, support and democratic institutions means this is not as straightforward as many believe it to be.

The second issue concerns controversy regarding recent decisions by the Integrity Commission to disbar certain Ministers and state officials. The Commission is charged with investigating those seeking high office for having ties with the Gaddafi regime, yet it has drawn criticism from international organizations such as Human Rights Watch for its lack of transparency, as well as sparking several large protests across Libya both for and against its rulings.

The commission was set up as a mechanism to try and ensure members of the previous regime, and therefore their practices, did not infiltrate new Libya. However the process by which the commission makes its decisions and the evidence it uses is shrouded in secrecy, spawning rumours that the commission is being used by foreign powers such as Qatar to influence Libyan politics. Undoubtedly this screening mechanism was set up in the interest of new Libya, but in employing the same opaque tactics as the previous regime it has engendered more suspicion than reassurance and is an example of just how difficult it is to overhaul deeply institutionalized ways of working, despite best intentions.

The final issue of ‘zahma’ is nothing new or unusual in Tripoli, yet its dimensions have changed subtly in recent weeks and months. Pre-revolution people complained about the traffic frequently, but offered little in the way of cause or solution. Now the issue has been upgraded to something which merits serious discussion, analysis and finger-pointing, which often results in questions being asked of the government as to why they haven’t done anything to improve the mess that Gaddafi left behind. 

On the one hand this shows the strides forward being made in Libyan society whereby people can now say what they think without fear of recrimination, yet on the other it illustrates the overwhelming pressure the authorities are under to perform despite in most cases lacking the necessary expertise, resources and institutions to do so. Of course the electorate has the right to demand better public services from their representatives, but where politicians are unable to deliver immediately there is a tendency to dismiss them as inefficient, incompetent or closet Gaddafi supporters - which is unfair given the enormity of the tasks ahead of them.

The open discussion and debate around these three issues represents the seedling of democracy which took root in Libya’s Arab Spring and which is now starting to push its way to the surface. However while there is growing public pressure on the congress and government to act on a whole host of issues, few Libyans seem to appreciate the obstacles which their newly elected politicians face and their limited capacity to act efficiently at this early stage in Libya’s transition. That said, drafting Libya’s constitution cannot happen soon enough and those in power must show they have what it takes to lead their country forward to a new era of constitutional democracy, stability and freedom.

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