A Tale Of Two Libyas

Libya’s High Election Commission, in charge of organizing the elections for the constituent committee, has yet to clearly communicated an election date. In the midst of deteriorating security and increasing political polarization, however, Libya is unlikely to vote anytime soon. With popular malcontent having already come to a boil—as seen by the civilian push against militias in Tripoli that culminated in bloody clashes—such uncertainty regarding the democratization process is likely to further frustrate the public. Yet, the political elite display no sense of urgency to assuage citizens’ concerns for concrete steps forward, creating a deep divide between the “real” state and the “legal” state. It is essential that Libyans bridge this divide to effectively address the country’s challenges and resolve the gridlock that hampers any progress toward democratization and pluralism.

There are many possible ways to obtain such a result, but most importantly, the lack of legitimacy of Libya’s elected institutions must be addressed. Besides the abysmal track record of the government, the poor performance of the General National Congress (GNC) greatly impacts the public perception of these institutions and demands urgent attention. How can this negative trend be reversed? There is only one way: forming a new legislature.

While political theorists generally argue that a constitution should precede elections, Libya could conceivably turn the theory on its head. The delegitimization of both the government and legislature is cause enough for drastic measures: instead of electing a constitutional drafting committee, Libyans could elect a new national legislature to replace the GNC. The new legislature would have the mandate to appoint a constitutional assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution and to appoint a new unity government responsible for undertaking necessary reforms. This proposal, however, would offer no guarantee that the newly-elected legislature would not be plagued by the same problems as the current GNC since it would likely be elected under the same electoral law.

There is another, perhaps more organic, option that would achieve similar results but respond more to the post-revolutionary Libyans’ proclivity toward local governments. Under this framework, once all Libyan localities have elected municipal councils, as some towns have already begun doing, each such council could then appoint a representative to a general assembly that would serve as the new legislature. This assembly, legitimized by the wide ranging representation, would be in a powerful position to deal with the issues of security, militias, and reforms. The body could then appoint a constitutional committee to draft the constitution. This progression would respond to the issues debated in recent months between Libyans who favor a highly-centralized government versus those who support decentralization. In fact, while all polls indicate there is little support in any region for federalism, decentralization is widely popular, and Libyans strongly support a role for local institutions.

Either of these may seem like a drastic measure, but a bold move is required to bridge the divide plaguing the landscape that today tells a tale of two Libyas. On one hand, civil society and ordinary citizens struggle in their daily lives with fuel shortages, power outages, a collapsing healthcare system, and unkempt infrastructure as manifested by the yet unpaved roads and dangerously high piles of garbage on the streets. Criminal activity has increased, militias clash with each other and civilians, security personnel continuously fall victim to assassination, and individuals feel vulnerable to threats against their lives and property. Daily headlines indicate just how gloomy and dangerous the situation has become.

On the other hand, there is the delegitimized political system. The GNC is a fractured body, with opposing blocs shifting positions based on ever-changing interests. The only point of consensus within the fluid legislature is discontent with Prime Minister Ali Zidan’s government and efforts to attack and take him down. While this might be a legitimate course of action for a political assembly, it has become an obsessive pastime in Libya marked by a fixation on power positions rather than developing concrete programs and strategic plans for improving the situation for the Libyan people.

Zidan’s government seems to be going nowhere, and it is very difficult to determine the degree of support he has among political groups and the public. The confusing and often contradictory interviews recently conducted with various media outlets indicate Zidan’s lack of focus and ideas, which stand in stark contrast to his obstinate cling to power. His latest spate of hyperactivism seems to be directed toward foreign capitals as he searches—perhaps clamors—for support, even military support, to restore order in the country. He has had little success in bolstering Libya’s infrastructure and building its weak economy.

Unfortunately there is limited intellectual sophistication in the political establishment’s efforts to make up for Zidan’s inability to lead. The “leadership” is distracted with new political players rather than focusing on how to jolt the process back on track. Anecdotal proof of this sorry state of affairs is the chatter in the streets of Tripoli and online revolving around the political bid recently begun by the previously-unknown Basit Igtet. This self-defined businessman, originally from Benghazi but having apparently spent numerous years as an ex-pat in Europe and the United States, is building his profile among Libya’s political circles with the assistance of the US public relations firm of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres, & Friedman LLP and former Senator Joe Lieberman. According to the Foreign Agents Registration Act documents, these entities will arrange meetings for Igtet, who “may be seeking political office in Libya,” with members of Congress, executive branch officials, and other high-level policy stakeholders. In an effort to obtain support in foreign capitals for his political candidacy, Igtet has also hired other consultants in Europe.

That Libya’s political establishment feels threatened or forced to focus on the political maneuverings of someone practically unknown among the population is a clear indication of how dysfunctional the system has become. Most of Igtet’s critics address his character and family, the ambiguities surrounding his CV, and the shadiness of his business enterprise. It would be better if they took aim at the vagueness of his plans for the country. This is true with every candidate so far; the attack is personal. The political establishment personalizes the issues, superficially seeking individuals to whom to direct problems and from whom to seek solutions rather than tackling the challenges at the institutional level.

Now is not the time to focus on petty political maneuverings. Given the malcontent in the streets and the citizens’ readiness to take their destiny into their own hands once again, bold actions must be undertaken to revamp the political institutions, which are pivotal for the functioning of every political system. The aforementioned bold strategic changes would help to re-legitimize state institutions in the eyes of the population and keep the transition on course. However, these alone are not enough. Libya must continue its national dialogue, recently initiated under the auspices of the prime minister, who has established an independent commission that began its work last month in Tripoli. This step, independent of the GNC’s future, should proceed unhindered. The national dialogue, coupled with new assembly elections, would bridge the divide between the political institutions and the Libyan people. If not done promptly, Libya could plunge back into authoritarianism or chaos. 

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on North Africa’s political and economic transitions.

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Image: The General National Congress hall in Tripoli. (Photo: Libya Herald)