Libya’s Parallel Tracks Could Avert a Train Wreck

For months now, Libya has found itself in a deteriorating security situation that hampers political progress. Since the revolution in 2011, Libyan authorities and their international partners regarded the country’s security challenges as the source of the problem rather than a symptom of deeply rooted political woes.  They focused primarily on disarmament, training, and building a national security apparatus. In the lead up to the upcoming international Friends of Libya conference to be held in Rome this week, however, it appears that Libya and its allies realize that security is a political problem and can be addressed through good governance and the strengthening of political institutions. The multitude of political tracks underway in Libya paint a picture of a messy transition, but they provide opportunities that, if properly seized, could lead Libya out of its current crisis.

The Constitutional Committee. It has been several days since Libya held two feeble rounds of voting to form the committee that is expected to draft the country’s new constitution. Grievances came to the fore in the aftermath of the electoral law that passed last summer to guide these elections. Objecting to the allocation of two seats for each of the three minority groups, the Amazigh boycotted the process from the very start, and the Tebu withdrew their candidates in the few days leading up to the vote, disrupting elections in the south and demonstrating a rejection of a process deemed non-inclusive. Whether a result of public apathy or insecurity, only about one million citizens registered to vote and, of that, only about 500,000 people cast their ballots. With several polling centers unable to operate, only forty-nine of the total sixty seats have been filled.

Libyans are asking: should this body, elected by only 15 percent of the population, with no Amazigh or Tebu delegates, move ahead? If so, how? The constitutional committee could continue its work, regardless of the flaws in its formation, so as not to stall the drafting of Libya’s new national charter. If it does, however, it will produce a constitution that may be rejected outright by marginalized constituencies who have felt no proper sense of inclusion or investment in the process. Informal discussions put forth the alternative to cancel the formation of the committee and prepare immediately for legislative elections. The new legislature’s sole mandate would be to draft the constitution and appoint a new government. Although the alternative process has not been comprehensively thought through, the conversations reflect recognition of the inherent weaknesses of the constitutional committee and a willingness to correct and compensate if given the proper support.

  • The General National Congress. The GNC has been paralyzed by partisan infighting and an inability to legislate or implement sound policy since its formation in the summer of 2012. In the days leading up to the controversial February 7 expiration date, the GNC adopted a roadmap that could allow the legislature to extend its mandate indefinitely. The new roadmap would condition the GNC’s dissolution on the constitutional committee’s ability to draft a constitution, banking on the fact that the committee would pursue painstaking efforts that would prolong the GNC’s term. The struggle over the GNC’s survival has escalated as militia-political bloc alliances manifested in failed coup declarations and five-hour ultimatums for the legislature to dissolve.

    Such efforts, while not meeting their more immediate objectives, have culminated in a consensus to hold early elections for which a fifteen-member commission is currently drafting an amendment to the transitional constitutional declaration. The February Committee voted in favor of direct presidential and legislative elections if a draft constitution cannot be completed by July 2014, but it remains to be seen how the decision will be received, as polarization spills over into this debate. With a strong presence in the GNC but limited popularity among the general public, Islamists contest direct presidential elections, favoring only parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Jibril and the National Forces Alliance want elections for both branches of government with the precondition that the Political Isolation Law be repealed, paving the way for the likes of Jibril to run for office.

    Amid protests in support of the Political Isolation Law (and, undoubtedly, fear of retribution given the continued targeting of judicial personnel), the Supreme Court has postponed an appeal hearing against the law until April 18. The move raises questions about whether and how the track pertaining to a new legislature would move forward, as it could be seized as a win by the Islamists, further entrenching their position and amplifying the divisions.

  • The National Dialogue. In the coming weeks, the advisory committee to the National Dialogue Preparatory Commission will travel throughout the country to engage citizens on expectations regarding the dialogue, and to galvanize broad support for the initiative. In a parallel track, the preparatory commission intends to tackle the question of criteria for selecting (or electing) delegates to credibly and accurately represent Libya’s many constituencies. The goal, always a moving target given the current environment, is to embark upon phase one of the dialogue to debate a national charter in May 2014.

    The national dialogue would complement the constitutional committee, compensating for its weakness in representation, helping to restore the population’s involvement in determining the country’s direction, and re-instilling a sense of ownership of the future of their country. Should the constitutional committee not move forward, however, the national dialogue process may find itself operating in legal limbo. Discussions among the power players in Libya suggest an inclination to include the constitutional committee members in the national dialogue process. The parameters of such an arrangement are not yet clearly defined, but the idea is that the elected body would lend legal weight to the national dialogue process and create a mechanism to ensure that its findings would be absorbed into the constitutional writing process. As an example, the national charter’s principles could serve as a basis for the constitutional preamble.

The tracks delineated above underscore the fact that, as confused and disorganized as the transition may be, it is just as much characterized by a sustained and growing desire to find possible ways forward. If utilized wisely, the upcoming conference in Rome could serve as the necessary platform for the international community to explore these interwoven and entangled tracks and help the Libyans navigate their way to a resolution. The conversations within the Libyan polity reflect a homegrown desire and attempts, albeit weak, to rebuild and strengthen the country’s political institutions. Libya’s allies could make a two-pronged contribution in this regard. First, as Zidan will appoint and lead the delegation, the international community should impress upon him the need to not exacerbate the partisan politics gripping the country by dismissing the GNC as illegitimate, but rather play a decisive role in bridging the divides in order to resolve the political paralysis. Second, the international community could provide technical expertise to ensure that, whether the country moves ahead with its constitution writing or decides to set new elections for the legislature, it does so in as effective a manner as possible to maximize the tracks’ positive impact on the transition.

While the landscape in Libya seems marked by political dissonance, opportunities to better coordinate and strengthen Libya’s political institutions can and should be harnessed. These parallel tracks offer a unique opportunity for international partners and Libyans to consolidate political efforts that target the sources of instability in the country and lead to a more stable and prosperous future.

Karim Mezran is a resident senior fellow with the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 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. 

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Image: Shahat residents on February 2 held placards calling for the ouster of the General National Congress. (Photo: Magharebia/Flickr)