Libya’s widening gap between politics and the people

The outcome of the elections is indicative of the degree to which the majority of Libyans have become disjointed from the political process

Amanda Kadlec
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This weekend unarmed Libyan protestors were kidnapped and tortured. Some suspect the Libya Revolutionaries’ Operation Room (LROR), a government-aligned umbrella militia grouping. The next day two members of the national legislature were shot inside the assembly building. A French national and seven Egyptian Copts were murdered. Such incidents are becoming the norm in Libya, rather than an aberration.

Yet it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when things began to sour. From the outset, the nascent state certainly had its work cut out; a dark dictatorial legacy, deconstructed state institutions, and hundreds of unfettered militias presented inordinate challenges. In late February, Libyans marked the anniversary of the uprisings that initiated the new national narrative just over three years ago. But a darker mood eclipsed the atmosphere of hope that until recently managed to pervade negative perceptions of where Libya was heading.

Amid the gloom, elections for the committee tasked with writing the constitution were held, with fewer than 500,000 Libyans casting ballots. The High National Elections Commission (HNEC) publicized a misleading 45 percent turnout, which is true in relation to the mere 1.1 million who registered. In reality, with an estimated voting population of 3.3 million, only 15 percent of Libya’s total voting population voted in order to have a voice in the constitution-drafting process. Keep in mind that public participation in government processes is inextricably linked to the sense of safety and effectiveness of outcome that citizens perceive as a result.

One reason for the tepid interest is languid delay. The National Transitional Council’s (NTC) constitutional declaration called for the selection of the 60-member body; this changed several times before a final procedure was settled upon. Originally, the General National Congress (GNC) was to nominate the members within 30 days. Within 120 days of its first meeting this body was to have presented a draft for public referendum. Then Federalists’ threats to boycott the 2012 GNC election worked in favor of their demand to select the body by popular vote, 20 per each of Libya’s provinces. The change further stalled and complicated the process. Promulgation of the constitution, if it comes, will be well over a year overdue.

A full transition to elected government based on a popularly approved constitution was meant to be completed in June 2013. Fingers point in all directions but no one takes the blame

Amanda Kadlec

The GNC extension of its mandate beyond the February 7 deadline – still with no constitution – has left Libyans frustrated and disillusioned. A full transition to elected government based on a popularly approved constitution was meant to be completed in June 2013. Fingers point in all directions but no one takes the blame.

The lackluster showing of public support could indicate that Libyans are losing hope that they have the power to change Libya for the better. Deference to power-brokers – militias, the GNC and government – will only widen the citizen-state disconnect that defined the Qaddafi era. The government’s lifeline – oil production – is now constantly disrupted; closure over the weekend of the 330,000 barrels-per-day el-Sharara oil field is only the most recent incident.

Armed groups nonetheless continue to exert force in attempts to secure either political power or their own portion of the state’s coffers. And militia power still dominates security institutions despite the desperation among ordinary citizens and many government leaders to demobilize and integrate them into national army and police forces. The GNC, like the NTC before it, has repeatedly cowed to their demands in response to uses or threats of force. The legitimacy of any existing central authority is depleted as a result, creating a cycle of dependence on the parts of both.

The low turnout could also indicate that the majority of Libyans will perceive the constitutional committee and its product as illegitimate. The election was not inclusive: the Tebu and Amazigh minorities boycotted despite a quota, and Islamist-controlled Derna was unsafe for voting.

If the constitution – as the institution most fundamental to establishing rule of law at the national level – fails to connect with the expectations of most Libyans, the relationship of the citizen with all subsequent written law will be flimsy. Given the general lack of public interest, the committee could draft a constitution that uses language broad enough to at least appear inclusive, and defer to legislation to fill in uncomfortable gaps. Indeed, ambiguity may prevent an immediate public backlash, but it leaves too much to interpretation to an even more diverse, ideologically fractured body; the responsibility of constitutional design would simply be passed off to the GNC. Neither scenario bodes well for a successful transition to democratic governance.

Yet there may be a silver lining; Libya is indeed a mess, but it is not a failed state. The NTC’s overly ambitious timeline was always going to be difficult to adhere to, and this should be recognized. Moreover, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s government has taken steps toward improving the national army and police forces. Less ideological militias are essentially driven by the desire to secure autonomy and steady income, just like most other Libyans. The problem has always been chicken-and-egg situation: Until a central security framework is present, they will not feel their positions are secure enough to lay down weapons.

They are well aware, however, that refusal to do so continues to further empower them to control both local and national political outcomes. The effects of government efforts are not yet visible to the extent that militias are convinced that their interests are protected without arms, and the gridlock tightens over time.

Jihadist militias such as Ansar al-Sharia – the group suspected in the U.S. Benghazi consulate attack – and the dozens of others like it, also remain a growing concern. Training camps keep popping up in the south and east and its trainees are enmeshed in the Syria conflict. Some collaborate with al-Qaeda affiliates AQAP and AQIM, while others do not. Regardless, ideologically-motivated groups are bent on destroying whatever progress is made toward establishing stability. Non-Islamist armed groups are focused on obtaining political and economic leverage. Yet even the most committed of Libya’s leaders have persistently borne the complicated task of distinguishing relationships in and among them, as well as those willing to work within existing state frameworks. The legal lines and inter-militia connections are most often murky – it is important to acknowledge and respect this complexity, for which there is no silver bullet.

The majority of Libyans have become disjointed from the political process. Without a voice in the construction of this fundamental institution, the gap is sure to widen

Amanda Kadlec

This week Libya experts will convene in Rome in an attempt to address the security challenge. And under pressure from popular protest driven by opposition to the February 7 extension, GNC President Nouri Abusahmain has called for new GNC elections within the next few months. Without a public relationship with and commitment to the content of the constitution, and hence the rule of law, can the security dilemma be adequately addressed? Can the potentially negative impacts of the poor election showing somehow be mitigated?

Perhaps. Seeds planted in the past year may one day provide a better sense of security and trust among Libyans in the state to protect them and their will to participate in a democratic system. Nonetheless, the outcome of the elections is indicative of the degree to which the majority of Libyans have become disjointed from the political process. Without a voice in the construction of this fundamental institution, the gap is sure to widen. And the country’s self-interested power-brokers will continue to dominate legal frameworks, and the entire direction of the transition.


Amanda Kadlec coordinates the Chatham House Libya Working Group. She is the author of several publications on the Libyan transition.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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