Steps to a democratic Libya

This misguided but determined focus on the ‘continuing’ threat of Sha’ria law in Libya and other North African counterparts is obscuring the real twin issues of freedom of expression and equal rights for all.
Sara ElGaddari
9 November 2011

Abderrahim Al-Keib, the recently appointed Libyan Prime Minister, is facing the difficult task of steering a new Libya to full, free and fair elections. In seven months' time the aim is for the Libyan National Transitional Council to have introduced a democratically elected National Congress followed by a multiparty electoral system. With these concrete aims, and Mr. Al-Keib in post, what is next on the agenda of such a hard-fought and bitterly costly revolution?

Free and fair democratic elections in Libya, if they are to be as successful as the recent elections in Tunisia, will be contingent upon several issues, not least a secure and stable Libya. Whilst the regular army and police forces were never disbanded, they remain unpaid and in disarray. Libya’s 6118 kilometres of borders (land and coast), and particularly with Algeria and sub-Saharan Africa, remain open and unchecked. To make the situation considerably more destabilising, there remain unknown quantities of heavy armaments and artillery hidden throughout the country. Only recently, large amounts of uranium and mustard gas were uncovered in the Fezzan to the south, whilst another warehouse was discovered full of tanks and what is suspected as either nerve or yet more mustard gas. These are just two warehouses. The Libyan NTC has repeatedly stated that it does not have the funds to pay essential wages, let alone begin locating Gaddafi’s weapons stores which would entail a huge and hugely expensive logistical and security operation.

Border security and chemical weapons caches aside, what of the civil society infrastructures so vital to underpinning a successful democratic government? Whilst there is energy, enthusiasm and will-power on the ground, the NTC finds itself continuously and desperately short of cash. Cash to build local infrastructures, rebuild communications, restore full oil production and crucially, to begin answering the hopes and dreams of young Libyans who have fought so hard to gain their freedom. They want opportunities; to work, to travel and to build a viable future for themselves and their families.

European states holding frozen assets need to work hard to begin releasing funds to the interim Libyan government. Meanwhile, the NTC needs to create a system of checks and balances to ensure that corruption does not take hold of a new government. Abderrahim Al-Keib needs to ensure transparency at the highest levels and to be balanced and decisive in his response to any attempts to subvert democratic goals. There is also a potential threat to accountability posed by senior former Gaddafi loyalists who now play a decisive role in the transitional government.

Having won a consensus vote by fellow NTC members to become Prime Minister, Al-Keib is attempting to address these real concerns realistically. At home, the PM is engaging with rebel militia and is winning their practical support in maintaining a relative level of security inside the towns and cities. However, while there is no money to pay salaries, Al-Keib is finding it an uphill challenge to persuade militia members to return to their former lives and to resume business as usual.

Externally, Al-Keib is fighting on several fronts and many do not envy his position. Primarily, he is busy meeting with European counterparts to try to unfreeze Libyan state funds, and in engaging foreign expertise to develop a new Libyan constitution and legal code. He is also fighting what seems to be a losing battle against a determined (if uncoordinated and disparate) game of media propaganda in Europe and the United States. Rachid Ghannouchi of the successful Tunisian Ennahda party, and a current Libyan NTC member, Abdelhakim Belhaj, have both recently described themselves as Islamists. By this, it is clear that they mean ‘pro-Islamic’ in personal and state identity, not ‘fundamentalist’ as western media and politicians continue to claim. In a similar vein to Rachid Ghannouchi, NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil has talked of the importance of Islamic jurisprudence and of the identity of a new Libya as an Islamic one. Again, these aims for a new constitution and system of government are simply not the same thing as imposing a strict Sha’ria code and blurring lines with the executive, judicial and other government departments.

This misguided but determined focus on the ‘continuing’ threat of Sha’ria law in Libya and other North African counterparts is obscuring the real twin issues of freedom of expression and equal rights for all. We should not underestimate the positive symbolism of the NTC in holding press conferences for foreign media in Benghazi using a female (Libyan) translator. There are significantly higher numbers of men in Libya who speak English and would no doubt be available to undertake this highly public role.

But in the rest of the country there are thousands more women that need a voice and want to play an active role in a new Libya. What role would they like in this future government and in wider civil society structures? Listening to tiresome scaremongering about an Islamist take-over, or suppression of liberties by Sha’ria, only serves to prevent awareness and engagement with the real issues facing the current interim leadership.

Only a few days ago the Libyan Prime Minister, in an interview with France 24, re-iterated a sentiment felt in Tunisia and recently promoted by Ennahda’s Ghannouchi, that a newly emergent democratic state follows the path taken by secular Turkey. Muslim (Islamist) in identity and cultural values, but with an independent government and judiciary. This is supported by Al-Keib’s enlistment of European (and it is rumoured British) expertise in creating a new and permanent legal code that will respect and uphold the internationally recognised human rights of Libyan citizens.

Finally, Libya can be clear about what it does not want. Abdulrahman Shalgam, formerly a Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the United Nations under Gaddafi, has decried further Qatari involvement in Libya. The National Transitional Council, under the leadership of Al-Keib is entering a new phase where it is attempting to do more than juggle immediate competing demands. The interim leadership is also attempting to reformulate its relations with current and former partners, which is proving a difficult task, given that a number of Arab League and African Union counterparts (namely Algeria, Qatar, Niger and Mali) have provided safe havens to Gaddafi family members and loyalists.  Ultimately, while heavily reliant on external logistical and financial support, the NTC will have to carefully pitch its battles to fulfil immediate internal demands. 

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