North Africa, West Asia

Libya's Constituent Assembly: light at the end of the tunnel?

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While the registration process for elections and an apparent political commitment to 'dialogue' represent tentative progress, there are still substantial obstacles to be overcome before the committee is formed, let alone the constitution drafted.

Rhiannon Smith
11 November 2013
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Pre-trial for former Gaddafi officials, 19 September 2013. Demotix/Maryline Dumas. All rights reserved.

As Libya's long, hot summer draws to a close, the shifting season brings with it both the promise and threat of change in a country which has spent the past few months struggling under the oppressive weight of growing insecurity, political paralysis and militia rule. Two years after the death of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is a long way from the utopia of freedom and justice envisioned by those who risked their lives to free their country from forty two years of dictatorship during the 2011 uprising.

The celebratory atmosphere which marked the first anniversary of Libya's official Liberation Day on October 23 was glaringly absent this year, the night passing with barely a firework to be heard in the capital Tripoli where pyrotechnics are normally a daily feature of city life. Apathy, despondency and distrust seem to have silenced Libya's streets, reducing what was once an insatiable river of revolutionary fervour to isolated puddles of disappointment, resentment and frustration.

Nevertheless, as the welcome winter rain finally begins to fall, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Mechanisms for the national Constituent Assembly (CA) elections have finally been put in motion and over the past few weeks candidates have been registering to stand for the so-called 'Committee of Sixty', tasked with drafting Libya's new constitution. The sixty seats are equally divided between Libya's three constituent regions, Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan, although the respective populations of these regions are far from equal. Ethnic minorities have been given six seats in total, two each for the Amazigh, Tebu and Tuareg communities, while women have also been allocated six seats.

The issue of representation, in terms of region, ethnicity, gender, religion and political ideology, and how it is dealt with in the constitution-drafting process is crucial to the success of Libya's transition. The ability of the legislature, the General National Congress (GNC), and its government to balance the competing demands and aspirations of different interest groups during the upcoming elections and drafting process will largely determine how the resulting constitution will be received by society upon completion. If handled badly, the CA may find itself pushed and pulled between the wills and whims of different interest groups, pressured by powerful (and most probably armed) actors to produce a document which is likely to be divisive and controversial, a constitution which may well create more problems than it solves. On the other hand, if handled with care and intuition, these upcoming elections have the potential to provide a degree of popular legitimacy and broad-based participation to the drafting of Libya's constitution, creating the conditions for constructive dialogue on Libya's identity, self-perception and vision of the future.

Indeed, with the registration period finally under way, the phrase 'national dialogue' has become the buzzword of the moment with a huge range of actors attempting to create space where Libya's many groups can air and address their challenges, grievances and aspirations. Unfortunately, this national dialogue process appears to have fallen victim to the very same problems which made participative community discussion so vital in the first place, namely political polarisation, lack of communication and duplication of efforts by different actors with different agendas. The GNC and government have been struggling in recent months to maintain even a semblance of control over the country, with decision-making hamstrung by infighting between opposing political blocs while different arms of the state squabble among themselves over whose job it is to do what.

It has become increasingly clear that the elected authorities are not, and probably never were, the ones calling the shots in the new Libya. Militias operating under the umbrella of various government ministries use force to ensure their agendas are followed and their interests protected, whether that means passing legislation at gunpoint and calling it 'democracy' or deploying heavy weaponry in residential areas for the sake of getting one-up on a rival group. The recent one-day kidnapping of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan from his hotel residence by an armed group supposedly operating under the auspices of the state highlights all too well the central government's loosening grip on power, even in the capital which has traditionally been their stronghold. Indeed, just last weekend Tripoli's waterfront became the stage for an armed battle between rival militias resorting to violence to settle their differences. Despite using heavy weapons in the centre of town, killing two and injuring many more, there was very little the government could do to prevent the fighting nor to punish those responsible for instigating it.

In Benghazi, Libya's second city and the cradle of the February 17 Revolution, an unrelenting spate of assassinations and attacks has continued, wreaking havoc on the safety, security and wellbeing of the east and underlining the inability of the government and security forces to establish even the skeleton of a functioning state outside Tripoli. Strikes, protests and armed blockades at oil fields and terminals across the country have reduced Libya's oil outputs to a trickle as protestors attempt to pressure the government into granting them concessions. Demands, which initially included better job opportunities and wages, have taken on a more political character. Most oil terminals in the east have been shut for the past three months by protestors who refuse to move until the government grants autonomy to Cyrenaica, while oilfields in the west have recently been closed by Amazigh protestors demanding more seats in the CA. So far the central authorities have been unable to end these protests and blockades, whether through force or negotiation.

Needless to say, trust in Libya's elected representatives is waning, and with it the enthusiasm for elections which was so pronounced only a year and a half ago. Many are increasingly sceptical of the practical benefits of elections, while others cite the inevitable partiality of elections in an environment dominated by armed men acting in their own interests rather than those of the state. Calls for the GNC to be re-elected or abolished entirely have become more vocal recently, reflected by movements such as the '9 November' movement which called for nationwide demonstrations to reflect public discontent at the GNC, government and general state of affairs. The demonstrations were not particularly large in the end, but this was not so much an indication of satisfaction with the GNC as a reflection of the apathy of the Libyan streets and the underlying suspicion felt towards political parties and their divisive role in Libyan life.

As things currently stand, the CA electoral process and corresponding national dialogue initiatives are being greeted with wary apprehension. The drafting of the constitution has already been severely delayed, yet that time has not been used to engage actively with the public on the fundamental issues and challenges likely to arise. The key to producing a constitution which will be widely accepted by the Libyan people does not depend solely on how the CA is formed or by whom, but rather on how deeply and broadly this assembly can engage with the public and balance competing demands for representation and recognition. Given the limited success of the interim authorities so far, this will be no easy task. While the registration process for elections, and the apparent political commitment to 'dialogue', represent tentative progress, there are still substantial obstacles to be overcome before the committee is formed, let alone the constitution drafted. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but it remains to be seen whether it is a gateway to a brighter future or the warning signal of an impending collision set to derail Libya's transition. 

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