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March 5, 2013
Recent developments in Libyan politics demonstrate a remarkable regression in terms of both institution-building and security. Unfortunately, the latest political polarization has the potential to make the situation deteriorate further.

Indicators suggest that the paralysis and incapacity to act witnessed months earlier within the government and the General National Congress (GNC) has returned in full force, meaning both are barely functioning. The streets of Libya’s main cities are filled with garbage and the roads are pocked with potholes. Worse, yet again a series of unfortunate events has underscored the lack of progress in securing the country and building a sustainable security apparatus: clashes between militias on Saturday temporarily closed the Mellitah oil refinery; the ministry of defense has been unable to quell another outbreak of violence between Mashashia and Qantrar tribes in Mizdah; and an attack on a Coptic church in Benghazi on Sunday is the latest reminder of the Eastern city’s lawlessness.

Inadequate government services and tenuous security are not new in Libya. Extreme political polarization, however, is, and has the potential to make Libya’s path to progress far more difficult. The recent debate around the political isolation law is a case in point; last month the GNC drafted a highly controversial piece of legislation designed to disbar anyone with links to the former regime. The ensuing bitter debate has demonstrated the complete inability of political forces to work together to produce reasonable legislation. Underlying much of this polarization seems to be an inherent problem within Libya’s new institutions: both the GNC and the government lack the skillset to carry out dynamic decision-making. The GNC’s political blocs lack skills in mediation, consensus-development, and negotiation typical of more successful parliamentarian democracies.

Moreover,much of the current paralysis is intensified by the conflictual nature of the GNC’s blocs, which seem to have irreconcilable visions on almost everything. The Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party (JCP), supported by Abdelwahab al-Qaid’s new bloc al-Wefaa, are intransigent in their demand for maintaining a harsh political isolation law, while the more liberal bloc comprised of Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA) and many independents is pushing for a narrower version of the law. The two sides have thus far shown an unwillingness to seek a middle ground. The same is true for the debate over the future role of Sharia in the constitution, the role of militias, the forming of Libya’s national army, as well as several social issues.

This political gridlock has handicapped the ability of GNC president Mohamed Magariaf and Prime Minister Ali Zidan to move forward on various fronts. Some critics have even suggested the two leaders are fostering these political divisions to increase their own power. Regardless, it is clear that the current polarization is greatly inhibiting the progress of the country’s political transition . Given these blocs’ staggeringly poor track record of working together, one must ask: is there any hope in overcoming such a situation?

The greatest hope may lie in negotiations already underway. An attempt to overcome the current paralysis is underway by eminent religious figure Ali Sallabi, who is trying to develop contacts between the various blocs in order to find common ground on a broad range of crucial issues, such as the political isolation law, election of a constitutional committee, the role of Sharia in the constitution, and the importance of national reconciliation. Meetings are taking place with leaders of Mahmoud Jibril’s NFA in Rome; former regime members in Cairo; and with Islamist leaders and militia commanders in Tripoli, Benghazi, and other cities. While not entirely secret, most of these meetings are happening behind closed doors, which may prompt criticism among those seeking greater transparency. This may be true; however, if the current talks prove effective, they may be the last hope for progressing in an otherwise stalled transition.

Only through dialogue and compromise between political forces can the enormous difficulties facing the Libyan nation reach a positive outcome. Thus, while it is easy to find fault with this method of mediation, behind closed doors, it is far better than the complete absence of dialogue up to this point, and may set an important precedent for multi-stakeholder negotiation moving forward.

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, and recently returned from a research trip to Libya.

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