July 24, 2013
Libya’s constitutional committee law an imperfect step forward
By Lara Talverdian
The constitutional drafting process presents Libya with an opportunity to cement within a legal framework the vision for an inclusive political system that safeguards rights for all. Calls for broad participation in committee elections by GNC President Nuri Abu Sahmain, however, do not exactly correspond with certain provisions of the law. Women and minorities – namely the Amazigh (Berber), Tibu, and Tuaregs – were allocated only six seats each on the committee. That is, ten percent representation for half of the population and ten percent representation for the minority communities that were disproportionately marginalized and oppressed under the former regime. GNC members also voted overwhelmingly in favor of the individual electoral system to select the constitutional drafting committee, rather than the horizontal and vertical zippered system, in which political parties alternate between male and female candidates both within and across the tops of their lists and which is cited as having contributed to the remarkable success of female candidates in the GNC elections last year (they comprise 16.5% of the GNC).
By sidelining women and minorities at this pivotal juncture, the GNC has done damage to its credibility. Civil society groups have been vocal about their dismay. A non-governmental organization known as Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) criticized the minimal allocation of seats for women, calling it "insufficient" (women's groups had been persistently advocating for fifteen seats). One day after the law's approval, lawmakers and civil society members from the minority groups announced their intention to boycott the constitutional committee election, arguing that a committee elected by popular vote would not be fully representative.
Representation of women and minorities were reportedly the most hotly contested articles of the election law. Women's groups, including the leading Libyan Women's Platform for Peace, campaigned tirelessly to secure fair representation on the constitutional drafting committee. Parliamentary debates swung back and forth between allocating six or ten seats for women. In the end, women parliamentarians – occupying a historic place in a decision-making body but still in the minority – faced mounting pressure to approve the draft electoral law despite the fact that it would stifle the gains made thus far. Minorities have been no less active in their quest for fair and equal treatment. Since taking part in Qaddafi's ouster, the Amazigh, who did not neatly fit into the former leader's notions of either pan-African or pan-Arab identity, have repeatedly and persistently called for cultural and political recognition.
The latest developments reveal that the rights of certain segments of society are presumably considered secondary and are hence placed on hold for the supposed sake of the overall good – in this case, making progress in Libya's constitutional process. The reality is, however, that the overall good is sacrificed in the long term if the foundations are not set correctly and if there is no consensus building. It sets a poor and shameful precedent when civil society engages in peaceful advocacy only to be elbowed out, while armed demonstrators can pressure officials to bend to their will (as seen most notably with the siege of ministries culminating in the passage of the Political Isolation Law in May 2013).
Thus far, the Libyan government has utilized mere tactics to alleviate some – not all – of Libya's divides: last week, Prime Minister Ali Zidan appointed deputy culture minister Abdussalam Sabri Sharif of Benghazi as government spokesperson; earlier this month the GNC decided that the eastern city of Beida would be the seat of the constitutional drafting committee; and the GNC elected the first Amazigh to power when it voted in Abu Sahmain as president of parliament. Efforts to placate regional and ethnic tensions to demonstrate Tripoli's inclusiveness are drowned out by the white noise of heightened instability. These tactics are necessary but not sufficient in instilling and maintaining a widely shared sense that, despite the differences, the public is invested in the critical decisions that will determine the country's course. The constitutional drafting process presents a strategic vehicle for mending Libya's many cleavages and channeling the society's shared goals.
Passage of the electoral law is a step forward – an imperfect one that carries many risks. Handling the process from this point onward is an opportunity of tremendous weight and responsibility that will determine whether Libya's transition succeeds or is set back. As the process unfolds, lawmakers will have to demonstrate their commitment to protecting and upholding the right for fair and equal treatment for all Libyans. Strategic and systematic public consultations will be essential to incorporate the ideas and perspectives of those with little to no representation in what will likely become the elite club of sixty constitutional drafters.
This hurdle in Libya's rocky transition will test the patience of Libyans and observers alike, but practicing patience is not synonymous with staying silent when human rights are sacrificed for the sake of political expediency. Women and minorities were fundamentally involved in the war that paved the way for this transition. Their post-war activism and advocacy may not steal the headlines, but they are no longer on the political sidelines. If confidence-building measures toward an inclusive process are not undertaken, the constitutional drafting process will plant the seeds for growing discontent, its loss of legitimacy, and even its own demise. Such a failure could cede political space to certain militias and extremists all too eager to fill the vacuum. If that is to be avoided and if Libyans aspire to achieve a democracy that truly inhibits tyranny of the majority, then those steering the constitutional drafting committee will have to practice transparency and make the public an integral part of the process.
Lara Talverdian is the assistant director for research with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East where she researches the political transitions in North Africa.