Libyans are anxiously anticipating what might happen this week, on February 17, the second anniversary of the Libyan uprising; the streets are tense and the government is preparing for the worst. Libyan officials are worried that citizens upset with the poor performance of the government, Qaddafi elements seeking to destabilize the country, and Cyrenaican federalists calling for greater autonomy will coalesce on the anniversary to wreak havoc. At the center of the storm is Mohamed Magariaf, the General National Congress (GNC) speaker, who is trying to win back the approval of a population increasingly critical of his heavy-handed rule.
With their feet to the fire, the Libyan government recently took preemptive steps to prepare for any unrest. In Tripoli and throughout the western region, the government set up more than 1400 checkpoints, and repaired scores of Qaddafi-era closed-caption TV cameras to monitor the streets. On Saturday, the government took matters a step further with a public show of force, organizing a long military parade that fanned through the streets of Tripoli. The minister of defense and deputy minister led a motorcade that was trailed by uniformed troops and blaring horns. The well-organized march served its purpose: the explicit message was ‘the state is here and has the power to face down any internal threat.’
The parade left a deep impression on observers, and I left the parade legitimately impressed. The sense of a greater state presence was undeniable, particularly when I was pulled over by Tripoli traffic police and ticketed for not having a rear license plate. Instead of feeling annoyed for receiving a ticket, I was overjoyed by this simple yet meaningful act—the long-absent traffic police were back on the streets and aggressively enforcing the law.
More good news came when the local council of Misrata—the city long-characterized as a quasi city state, only loosely in line with the central government—unanimously pledged its loyalty to the government and Libyan unity. In other words, a restive city that had once been problematic for centralized state authority is now backing the government ahead of any threat it may face on the anniversary. This move holds key importance, since Misrata is where Libya’s Supreme Security Committee, the militia-cum-auxillary-police force the state has relied on since Qaddafi’s fall, is based.
After the parade, Mohamed Magariaf appeared on television to deliver a national address. The speech touched on a broad range of issues from national reconciliation to economic development. In conversations with individuals following the address, it was anecdotally clear that even those generally critical of Magariaf considered it a strong speech.
Although the government has engendered some credibility among Libyans with these overtures, it still has a long way to go. Shows of force and words on television will likely do little to placate a population upset with the glacial pace of the GNC and the lack of progress on the most critical issues. The assembly remains months behind schedule on its primary task of preparing a committee to write the constitution. Perhaps fearing the wrath of public backlash, the GNC finally took a tangible step in the constitution-writing process last week, officially deciding to hold direct elections for, rather than appoint, the constitutional committee. Based on conversations, media reports, and the constant chatter of Libyan political talk shows, it has become clear that much of the population has lost faith in the competency of sitting assembly members to draft the constitution, and thus favors holding a direct election for a constitutional committee; direct elections were also a key demand of eastern federalists. In this way, the move is yet another way to quell tension among the populace ahead of the second anniversary of the Libyan uprising.
The GNC’s decision should not, however, be viewed simply as an olive branch to a restive public, as the assembly had its own interests in mind as well. The logistical complexity of elections and the need to reassemble the High National Elections Commission implies that the GNC will now remain the governing body for a much longer period than initially anticipated. Moreover, the decision preserves Magariaf’s position as the de-facto head of state and builds on a growing consensus that he is perpetually seeking greater power. In fact, Magariaf’s Saturday address to the nation was as much a call for unity ahead of the anniversary as a defense of his own performance. An increasing cacophony of voices within civil society in Libya has grown anxious and ambivalent about the GNC head, and many Libyans on the street note that the real target of February 17 demonstrations is Magariaf and his heavy-handed rule.
In other words, although many of the recent government measures—from securing the streets to deciding on an elected constitutional assembly—are unambiguously positive for the momentum of the country’s transition, they cannot be viewed independent of Magariaf’s persistent political maneuvering to exert his influence. Whatever may transpire on February 17, fear of popular backlash has moved the government to act as it never has before. What remains unclear is whether Magariaf can assuage a suspicious population that he has their best interests in mind—and not only his own advancement—while continuing to move the transition process forward.