Libya: tests of renewal

The impending elections in Libya are a signal of the country's progress since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. But the post-revolution landscape is filled with challenges - of region and ethnicity, violence and authority - that must be addressed if Libyans' future security is to be assured, says Alison Pargeter.

Alison Pargeter
2 June 2012

Libyans are due to go the polls on 19 June 2012, in what will be the country’s first national elections in over four decades. There is a possiblity of postponement, but even if the elections take place at a later date they will still represent a remarkable achievement for a country that was fully liberated only in October 2011 and until then had been in the grip of one of the strangest political experiments of modern history (see Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi, Yale University Press, 2012).

Libyans will be voting for members of a 200-seat General National Congress that will appoint a new government as well as a committee to draw up a new constitution and oversee a referendum on it. Some 310 political parties and 2,476 individuals have registered as candidates, so Libyans are clearly seizing the transition to democracy with both hands in the belief that they now have the capacity to determine their own future.

There is also a strong sense that the elections will bring about an end to the chaos and uncertainty that has dominated the country since the fall of the former regime. The country’s self-appointed ruling body - the National Transitional Council (NTC) - and its interim government have hardly served as shining lights in the new Libya. These bodies, peopled partly by those with links to the former Gaddafi regime, have struggled to garner any real legitimacy or control on the ground, where the revolutionary militias continue to reign supreme. Moreover, the benefits promised to Libyans - jobs, service improvements and institutional overhauls - remain as elusive as ever. Many Libyans, therefore, see these elections as a fresh start.

The localist dynamic

But these elections are unlikely to be the panacea that some are hoping for. Even if they bring a new set of faces to the fore, the polls are unlikely to result in a reconstituted centralised power that will be able to pull the country beyond the muddle it has found itself in (see "Libya: a hard road ahead", 8 March 2011).

Post-Gaddafi Libya is increasingly becoming a land of the local. Such a development is predictable enough: after four decades of an all-consuming authoritarian state that revolved almost entirely around the personality of one man, the desire for some sort of decentralisation is hardly surprising.

However, this newfound localism is also related to the way in which the revolution unfolded, with each locality forming a militia to liberate its own area. The post-Gaddafi era has seen, therefore, the rise of a plethora of local power-centres - ranging from militia leaders and local councils to tribal sheikhs (and alliances between them), each claiming legitimacy on the basis of their achievements during the revolution. This has resulted in a new jostling for power at the local level and a new assertion of local identity.

In some cases, this assertion has taken a radical form. There is a growing movement in the east of the country, headed by the Cyrenaican Council, that is pushing for semi-autonomy of the region within a federal Libya. This movement is largely the articulation of a perception among many in the east that following years of marginalisation at the hands of the Gaddafi regime, the region is still being sidelined by the country’s new leaders. The Cyrenaican Council has already announced that it is boycotting the upcoming elections on the basis that it considers the distribution of seats within the General National Congress to be unfairly tilted towards the west of the country. At the same time, there are growing calls in the south, particularly in the city of Sebha - driven by similar concerns about domination by Tripoli - for the country to go down the federal route.

Most Libyans view federalism as a step too far, many even linking it to colonial plots to break up the country. Yet there is still a very clear push by local elements to have a greater say over what goes on in their own areas. The cities of Misrata and Benghazi even forged ahead independently and held their own local council elections, in February and May respectively. This turn of events is all the more extraordinary given that there was no legislation in place for such elections, meaning that the newly elected councils do not yet have any mandate to govern. But the real message of the operation was to send a strong signal to Tripoli that from now on, these areas were going to be masters of their own destiny.

The authority test

There is an attempted counter-trend to localism, in that as the power of the periphery rises so the discourse of national unity is also intensifying. Many of the new political parties that have sprung up in recent months are desperate to demonstrate that they have a national reach, though in reality most have a strong local flavour (not least because many are grouped around one or two individuals). It is for this very reason that many of the parties have had to come together to form alliances.

Perhaps the only political grouping that can truly transcend these growing regional divisions and extend beyond the country’s political elite is the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice & Construction Party. The party’s ideology might have a more national appeal, yet the Brotherhood has little chance of serving as a key focus around which a strong centre can be forged. This is primarily because of the way in which the electoral system has been devised: only eighty of the 200 seats in the General National Congress have been allocated to political parties, with the remaining 120 going to individuals. Indeed, such a system is likely to favour those local militia chiefs, tribal leaders and businessmen who have flourished since the toppling of the former regime. As such the coming elections will do more to reinforce the sense of the local.

It is clear, therefore, that for all the best intentions, Libya's elections are not going to see the establishment of a strong central authority with a unity of purpose. Moreover, it remains to be seen how the competing local interests represented in the General National Congress will be able to agree upon a constitution.

Here as elsewhere, Libya's experience in responding to the challenges of the new era is grounded in its own particularities. The role that sharia law should play in new legislation should prove straightforward enough, given the broad consensus in Libya that sharia should be the basis of the new legal framework. But agreeing on the degree of power and resource-allocation that each local area should have will prove far thornier. For example, there is a strong sense in Benghazi - where most of the country’s energy reserves are located - that the city and region should be granted a larger share of revenues. Other areas feel that after years of neglect, they, rather than those bastions of the Gaddafi regime that had money lavished on them in the past, should be first in the queue for reconstruction and development funds. There are already disagreements over whether the country’s ministries should be scattered around the country, as if "divvied up" as rewards for the levels of achievement attained during the revolution.

There is a risk, therefore, that drawing up the constitution will result in one of two outcomes: protracted stalemate, or (more likely) a requirement to meet the lowest common denominator of consensus in which the constitution will end up being such a vague document that (as has occurred in Iraq) the real battles will be fought out further down the line.

In addition, the elections are unlikely to do anything to change the fact that the country is still in the hands of a mosaic of revolutionary forces and militias that see little benefit in bringing themselves under official state-security structures. Interestingly, those militias that have been persuaded by government sweeteners to sign up to official security bodies have done so as groups rather than individuals, effectively meaning that they are still operating as militias (albeit under an official command). The NTC has been unable to rein in these militias; indeed, its weakness means that it has had to rely upon them, calling upon their services to contain periodic outbreaks of unrest. In the ongoing absence of a strong national army, the country’s newly elected body will be as reliant on these forces as its predecessor.

The exclusionary impulse

The issues of local vs central authority, regional claims and armed militias are but three of the new Libya's unresolved problems which the NTC has yet to deal with in any robust fashion. There are others, including the tensions between Arabs and ethnic-minority groups such as the Tebu and Tuareg that continue to flare up in places such as Sebha and Ghadames. These minority groups are widely regarded as not being "true Libyans", and - in campaigns justified by the ostensible aims of fighting mercenaries and pro-Gaddafi forces - have found themselves targeted, forced out of their homes, and worse.

The related question of Amazigh (or Berber) rights is also increasingly coming to the fore. Amazigh activists, silenced for decades by Gaddafi’s insistence that Libya was an ethnically homogenous society, are voicing their demands for recognition ever more forcefully. Unless Libya’s new political leaders move quickly to address these realities of ethnic diversity, more serious problems in the longer term could accumulate.

Perhaps even more importantly, Libya has still to tackle the difficult issue of national reconciliation. While the NTC has engaged in a number of showy conferences on national reconciliation, these have resulted in more talk than action. This is to a degree understandable, in that the brutality of the former regime over four decades means that reconciliation is a somewhat taboo issue. In addition, the NTC is somewhat hostage to an agenda driven by revolutionary forces which are determined to make national reconciliation very much a side-issue.

It is for this reason that the NTC’s election law made the overly hawkish decision to ban anyone with the slightest links to the former regime from standing as a candidate. Those who had a professional or commercial relationship with any member of the Gaddafi family or senior regime figures (something necessary to get on in the former Libya), those who attained an academic qualification in Gaddafi’s "third universal theory" or his Green Book, and even opposition figure who entered into talks or negotiations with the former regime are all subject to bans and exclusions. Yet to shut out people even remotely connected to the old regime from the transition process will hardly help the country to heal. It has certainly done little to encourage those areas traditionally associated with the former regime, such as Bani Walid and Sirte - still controlled by the revolutionary militias that "liberated" them - to feel they have any part to play in post-Gaddafi Libya. Again, unless the new authorities tackle this issue, resentments can only increase.

It is important not to detract from the very real progress that Libya has made in the most difficult of circumstances. For a country scarred by forty years of the extreme ideology of "Gaddafism", it is in a way remarkable that Libya has avoided a descent into full-scale violence or widespread revenge killings. The elections - whether held on 19 June or later - will mark a major achievement and should propel the country further down the path of transition. But the country still has a very long way to go before it can reach any true degree of normality and be confident that the bitter legacy of the recent past is behind it.

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