October 23, 2012

Having recently returned from trips to Libya and Tunisia, Rafik Hariri Center senior fellow Karim Mezran and non-resident fellow Duncan Pickard shared updates on the two countries’ respective transitions as part of a roundtable discussion on October 23. The talk was moderated by Hariri Center director Michele Dunne and touched on the latest developments in the countries’ constitution drafting processes, institution building, security challenges, and economies.


Discussing developments in Tunisia’s constitution drafting process on the one year anniversary of Tunisia’s liberation, Pickard said that the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) has been held back because of its dual legislative and drafting responsibilities. Now that most of the writing process is finished, the majority of the remaining work will be done by the coordinating committee.  

The type of political system Tunisia will follow has not yet been decided, but the system of government has a fundamental impact on the rest of the constitution and the drafting process, Pickard said. The Ennahda party is pushing for a parliamentary system which would allow them to use their plurality in the NCA to their advantage. The liberal and secular opposition parties are advocating for a presidential system which would allow them to check the power of Ennahda in the NCA. Although several media reports have indicated that a mixed system has been accepted, the issue has actually not been settled.

There is also a troubling lack of participatory mechanisms in the drafting process. There is no means, for example, to ensure that NCA members are gathering input from their constituents. On the one hand, if the two-thirds majority of the Assembly required to adopt the constitution is reached, then the degree of political participation will be low. On the other hand, if the process reaches the stage of a referendum it implies that the elected assembly was unable to reach an agreement, which could lead to a challenge to their legitimacy in the future.

The drafting process comes amidst ongoing economic and security issues. Unemployment is high and economic opportunities few – some statistics indicate 25 percent unemployment, with youth unemployment as high as 50 percent. A recent report indicated that 80 percent of Tunisians think that employment should be the government’s first priority. Regarding security, controversial articles in the constitution and government policy has drawn protests by both the secular opposition and Salafi movements and the security situation, according to Pickard, is only getting worse. Tunisian security sector reform, moreover, remains a top public policy concern.

Shifting focus to Libya, Dr. Mezran stated that “in this historic moment, Libya is at its most dangerous time in its transition.” Earlier analysis of Libya projected that progress in institutional development would positively spill over into the security sector. Mezran pointed out, however, that the externality may work in the reverse direction, noting that weakness in the armed forces has negatively affected institutional development.

Mezran continued by painting the picture of a broad and organized opposition pursuing the destabilization of Libya. This oppositional force includes resurgent Qaddafi loyalists, mysterious jihadist groups actively assassinating military officials, Salafis who have infiltrated the security forces and have links to Saudi businessmen, and organized criminal networks engaged in smuggling. These groups have the same purpose: to undermine the state. It is difficult, Mezran argued, for Libyan institutions to progress as weak state security forces cannot adequately contain these various groups. According to Mezran, Libya needs adequate security forces and must request foreign support in order to train a core army force and police force of 3,000 to 4,000.

Moving beyond security issues, Mezran noted that the caretaker government of Abdurrahim El-Keib, has done nothing. The interim government’s “lack of capacity to act has been a plague to the Libyan state,” Mezran insisted. In addition to security, Libya must pursue national reconciliation and transitional justice–which also means trying Saif al-Islam in Libya.

Unfortunately, the constitutional declaration did not equip the General National Council (GNC) to deal with these issues. The GNC, for example, is not a constituent assembly intended to write the constitution, but it was also not designed to act as a parliament, which prevents it from addressing issues such as national reconciliation, judicial reform, or institutional development.  Mohamed el-Magariaf, the head of the GNC, was never intended to be the head of state, but the ambiguity at present has allowed him to take this role.

A key difference in the cases of Libya and Tunisia is that the latter’s transition is complicated by a history of institutions – these institutions must now be reformed. In the case of Libya, which is arguably much more difficult, the state must build these institutions from the ground up. Viewed in a more favorable light, this allows Libya to be more strategic about what kind of institutions it wants to design. Both Pickard and Mezran agreed that at present what is holding many of these institutions back is a troubling deferral of responsibility among leaders and decision makers.