Libya’s road to democracy is shaky at best. Security is deteriorating, with targeted killings, criminal attacks, and bombings on the rise and clashes between rival armed groups—some apparently with government legitimacy and others not—growing more frequent. While these negative trends put tremendous pressure on the transition, Libya’s political process, albeit fickle, manages to keep moving. The efforts at institution building in Libya present a nuanced landscape: for every step forward in one aspect, there are steps backward in others.
Two years ago, expectations and hopes were high in Libya regarding the constitutional committee, considered the most important transitional body involved in institution building. Originally, the National Transitional Council (NTC) mandated that the General National Congress (GNC), elected in July 2012, was to serve as the constitutional drafting committee. A few months before the GNC elections, however, in an effort to appease the eastern federalist movement—which is weak but nevertheless vocal—the provision was changed so that the GNC would appoint the 60-member constitutional committee. Just a few days before the elections, the NTC changed its mind again and, in another act of appeasement toward the federalists, decided that the constitutional committee would be elected by the people. The federalists were mistrustful of a nationally elected body and claimed the right for the people of the eastern regions to elect their own representatives to the constitutional committee directly. These decisions created a conflict insofar as they deprived the GNC of its original mandate to draft a constitution and left it as a legislative body with no clear areas or limits of authority and responsibility.
It took the GNC more than a year to draft the electoral law for the election of the 60-member constitutional committee. It was a much-debated process but one that took place behind closed doors, lacking transparency and inclusiveness and setting the tone for how the track would proceed. The biggest question pertains to the electoral law’s failure to uphold fair representation; this has to do with minorities, which were allocated six seats without distinguishing among the minority groups. The Amazigh minority effectively boycotted the elections from the beginning, as did the Tebu minority in the days leading up to the February 20, 2014 vote. Even more unjustly, ten percent—also six—of the seats on the committee were set aside for women, a demographic that makes up more than 50 percent of the population. In the end, approximately one million Libyans registered to vote for the constitutional committee, and only half of those actually cast their ballots. Violence kept many voters at bay and disruptions prevented several dozen polling centers from opening. Efforts to hold makeup elections proved futile. In the end, only 48 seats on the committee were filled, representing no more than 15 percent of the electorate.
The most significant consequence of this development was the failure to bestow upon the constitutional committee the credibility and legitimacy necessary for a state institution to succeed, which was the whole point of having the people elect the body. The question now is whether it is still worth having a committee draft the constitution or whether that responsibility should fall to the new house of representatives that is supposed to be elected in the summer of 2014 to replace the GNC. Based on the realities on the ground and the absence of a secure political space to rethink the process, the latter is unlikely. Therefore, despite its flaws, it is more probable that the country will move ahead with this committee.
There is another important political process, one that is long overdue and that provides the best hope for relegitimizing the other transitional initiatives: the National Dialogue that seeks to tackle critical questions regarding national identity, national unity, reconciliation, and the values that ought to shape the new nation state. The notion of a national dialogue was endorsed in August 2013 by then Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. Since then, an independent preparatory commission has been established to lay the groundwork and prepare for an inclusive national conversation. Currently, the preparatory commission is conducting a public outreach and awareness campaign, holding meetings in cities all over the country to engage various demographics about what Libyans wish to see addressed in the national dialogue. The commission has met local authorities and citizens in various cities such as Tobruk, Derna, Tripoli, and Awbari, and is arranging visits to several others. Participation by citizens in virtually all locations has been vigorous and civil. If this process continues to move forward it might provide a mechanism for communication at a national level as yet unseen in Libya.
What is unclear at the moment is whether the volunteers coordinating the national dialogue effort will be able to maintain momentum after Zeidan’s March 2014 removal. It remains to be seen whether the interim government of Abdullah al-Thinni and the GNC, currently dominated by Islamist-leaning factions, will support the dialogue initiative. It would be a huge setback if they stifle the process, as it is currently the only mechanism galvanizing popular support on issues that serve as the foundation for the post-revolutionary, post-conflict Libya. In particular, one idea that has been floated is to somehow incorporate the members of the constitutional committee into the national dialogue, which would serve two important purposes: it would provide a way for the charter produced by the national dialogue to be adopted into the constitutional drafting as a preamble, and it would give the constitutional committee the popular legitimacy it lost by the way it was formed.
The progressive delegitimization of the GNC, rooted in its ambiguous jurisdiction and devolution into political bickering, has contributed significantly to Libyans’ dissatisfaction with the political process. The next few weeks will mark a turning point. The GNC has finally decided to dissolve itself and has called for new legislative elections to fill a house of representatives, set possibly for June 2014 though the law to elect the house and a date has not been set. New elections are extremely important in relegitimizing the transitional institutions and rekindling among Libyans a sense of investment in the construction of the new state. This is particularly necessary when considering how the GNC has handled decision-making.
For example, the GNC had charged a 15-member committee (the February Committee) to draft a roadmap, which it was supposed to accept or reject in entirety only. Instead, making an exception to its own rules, the GNC adopted a modified version of the committee’s proposal. As a result, instead of having both legislative and presidential elections, the GNC decided that there would only be legislative elections for a 200-member body comprised of independent list candidates (no political parties allowed) and that the new legislature would decide whether to hold presidential elections or to appoint someone to the position. Such shady political maneuverings have raised concerns that new elections will not necessarily galvanize the population and that the new legislature will be plagued by some of the same problems—namely, lack of transparency, legitimacy, and inclusiveness.
Overall, while there are political processes underway in Libya, there remain many questions about how effectively they will address critical grievances and lay the proper foundations for the new nation state. There is too much at risk for the processes not to succeed. Libya’s security problems are consequences of the state’s weakness, its loss of credibility, and its continued policy of appeasing its adversaries rather than confronting them. Only the restoration of a credible political process can substantially reverse the negative trends currently gripping the North African country.
Karim Mezran is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on North Africa. This article was originally published on April 22, 2014 on the Middle East Institute website.