During a discussion hosted by the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East on March 9, participants from the US government, think tanks, and the Libyan American community raised concerns about how the Libyan government will incorporate armed fighters, particularly before elections scheduled for June.

Calls for federalism in the eastern region are a legitimate expression of different visions for a new and democratic Libya, according to Dr. Saad al-Shalmani, spokesman for the Libyan Foreign Ministry. Al-Shalmani was in Washington accompanying a Libyan delegation led by Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib and Foreign Minister Ashour bin Khayal. Karim Mezran, adjunct professor of Middle East and North African Studies at SAIS, and Essam Omeish, director of the Libyan Emergency Task Force, offered commentary during the discussion moderated by Michele Dunne, director of the Rafik Hariri Center.

Al-Shalmani began with an overview of the current political situation in Libya, highlighting the significance of a new electoral law issued in January that paves the way for the selection of a constituent assembly in June. Drafting a new legal framework is a critical component of Libya’s democratic transition, and the next constitution will need to reflect societal changes in Libya over the past four decades under Qadhafi’s rule, al-Shalmani said. He also noted several challenges still facing Libya’s transitional government: absorbing militias, whom he referred to as “freedom fighters,” rebuilding schools, and compensation for medical expenses incurred by Libyans injured during the conflict. 

Commenting on the Libyan delegations meetings in Washington, al-Shalmani said that Prime Minister el-Keib’s meetings at the UN and with President Obama and Secretary Clinton were an important step toward building the foundations for a strong bilateral relationship. Al-Shalmani also noted that the United States had signaled its willingness to provide economic and development assistance for Libya’s reconstruction efforts including investment in education and business. He said that Libya’s oil production levels were returning to pre-war levels, which will provide a critical source of revenue to sustain the reconstruction process. Regarding the declaration of a semiautonomous region in Eastern Libya, al-Shalmani said Cyrenaica’s aspirations for self-determination did not present a serious threat to the National Transitional Council (NTC) and stressed that such movements are a normal feature of pluralistic and democratic societies.

Michele Dunne asked al-Shalmani how he viewed upcoming elections in light of rising unrest among Libyans in Cyrenaica and elsewhere, including militias, over the legitimacy of the provisional legal framework and particularly the electoral law. Al-Shalmani said that as long as the economy was providing for ordinary Libyans, they would accept the legitimacy of the NTC and the electoral process. He said that the government was working hard to ensure free and fair elections and that Libyans will eventually accept the NTC as the only legitimate and capable authority in the absence of viable alternatives.

Essam Omeish agreed with al-Shalmani that the Libyan delegation’s visit to the US was timely and successful in helping to lay the groundwork for a new US-Libya relationship. Noting that Libyans overwhelmingly supported the U.S. role in the NATO-led intervention, Omeish said Libyans admire the American model of governance and will be amenable to U.S. assistance and technical advising on the transitional. U.S. assistance in creating stronger governance structures, reining in weapons proliferation, establishing security and stability, sustaining civil society, and promoting private sector growth would all be welcome, he said.

Referring to the situation in Eastern Libya, Karim Mezran challenged al-Shalmani’s assertion that eastern Libyans in Cyrenaica would eventually accept the NTC’s legitimacy by default, for lack of viable alternatives. He also questioned the NTC’s overall effectiveness as an interim government and its ability to address challenges on the ground. Mezran posed a question about Libya’s post-war relations with its North African and sub-Saharan neighbors, asking whether Libya would reevaluate links with nations that were pro-Qadhafi during the revolution, such as Algeria and Niger. He also posed a question on the future of Italy-Libya relations and if the new Libyan government planned on pursuing a “business-as-usual” relationship with Italy.

Al-Shalmani responded that eastern Libyans would have to air their concerns within the framework of the constituent assembly after elections. He said that the leadership in Cyrenaica could not impose a solution on the rest of the country before the assembly convenes. He recognized that an agreement would not be easy but said he remained optimistic that the constituent assembly would ultimately succeed in drafting a constitution embraced as legitimate by all Libyans. He also said that Libya sought to fully end its past as pariah nation under Qadhafi and embrace the international community and that Libya would not rule out relations with countries that previously held pro-Qadhafi sympathies. He did mention that Russia’s attempts to use Libya as an example to advocate the status-quo in Syria would not be successful. On government effectiveness, al-Shalmani stated that the NTC was doing its best to manage the situation with its limited resources and knowledge, noting that it has only within the past few weeks been able to begin accessing assets from abroad.

During the question and answer session, several participants raised questions about the NTC’s ability to host free and fair elections for a national assembly in June given the presence of armed militias, which were beginning to align with certain parties. Further concerns were raised about the NTC’s ability to mount a successful DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration) with a limited technical capacity and budget. Participants also discussed the electoral framework for the June elections, questioning if the NTC would have to reconsider the breakdown of regional representation in the proposed National Assembly to better account for eastern Libyan concerns. Some expressed hope for a positive legal framework for a growing Libyan civil society and international NGOs operating in Libya, in light of recent developments in Egypt, where foreign-funded civil society groups were facing criminal indictment.