A ‘Hung Democracy’ in Libya
Libyans want elections; however, elections may not be ready for Libyans.
The reasons are legion and call for special attention and discussion.
The Significance of the Electoral Process
The plan was to hold the Libya’s first nationwide elections of the post-Qadhafi era on 19 June. Due to logistical problems and a near absence of order, however, polls have been delayed until 7 July .
Upcoming elections in new Libya provide a specific moment of twin rebirth: national and democratic. At the end of it lies a 200-member National General Congress—a transitional parliament—to be tasked with drafting a constitution before new elections are held in 2013.
In a way, the new Libya is the gift of bullets. The ouster of the Qadhafi regime was made possible by a rare instance of successful NATO-led intervention executed from the skies combined with armed resistance by Libyan fighters—both Islamist and tribal—on the ground.
This is not specific to Libya. The “troubled birth” of Kosovo in 2008 features large in the study of international relations, and is dealt with specifically by Charles Simic. It attests to a quintessential example of a state borne out of war and conflict. The difference, of course, is that intervention in Libya was UN-mandated to protect civilians. Kosovo was carved out of Serbia under different circumstances, necessitating a classic case of liberal interventionism due to the absence of collective international action against ethnic cleansing.
Can the ballots silence the bullets? This is not the type of question that lends itself to an easy answer with regards to Libya. Politics are overlaid with all kinds of divisive dynamics, old and new: the cleavages are both regional and tribal, and today there is a prevalent sense of victimhood amongst many.
The feuds between the communities of Misrata and Warfalla will not fade away. Misrata and Tarhuna are also at loggerheads. In Zuwara, in the north-west, Al-Jumail tribes are pitted against the Amazigh. The Zintan, who are currently in possession of Libya’s former heir apparent, Saif Al-Islam Qadhafi, are not the only group with weapons and a familiarity with Mao Tse-tong’s dictum that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun.”
Various militias have flexed their muscles and squeezed concessions from the weak interim National Transitional Council (NTC). One significant display was the invasion of Libya’s international airport in early June by the Al-Awafia Brigade from Tarhouna, 80km southeast of Tripoli, in reaction to the kidnapping of one of their commanders. Today, close to 40,000 Tuareg are stigmatised on account of perceived complicity with the Qadhafi regime and are not only afflicted with displacement from their homes, but also with political exclusion. This adds to the woes of democratic reconstruction in Libya.
The ideological rise of Islamists—which echoes trends across the Arab Spring arena—is an additional ingredient in the potentially explosive political cocktail of post-Qadhafi Libya.
Nonetheless, prospective elections represent a milestone in the process of democratic reconstruction in Libya, which, unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, begins with a practically clean slate given the almost complete absence of institutions associated with Qadhafi’s Libya. Elections were conspicuously absent in that Libya, and their return comes after an electoral hiatus of nearly fifty years. The last elections took place under King Idriss in 1965. They were by no means perfect and hardly meaningful, but they sustained a modicum of political contestation under the monarchy that Qadhafi’s1969 coup dissolved.
Elections, but no Road Map?
Shared political values have always been the essence of democracy; this is equally so with plurality within that democratic unity. However, four competing processes make political reform and renewal in Libya almost the antithesis of democratic reconstruction. This is one reason why one or several elections do not necessarily equate to a sustainable democratic road map.
The validity of this point is given confirmatory verse in the still-unfolding and fluid chapter of post-Qadhafi Libya. Tribal solidarity is ubiquitous and most political alignments will be organised around the pivot of co-sanguinity; the east-west divide refers to Benghazi-Tripoli polarity deriving from federalist claims not without substantial popular support, and of late signs of military organisation in Libya’s oil-rich province. Praetorian tendencies in the form of militias inhibit the rise of a unifying centralised locus of power. Last but not least, a democratic train building momentum aided by a nascent civil society, and recently newly-formed and licensed political parties ready to contest Libya’s first elections in 47 years.
Thus, the electoral process in Libya—like the democracy it is intended to serve and sustain—seems to be compromised by circumstantial frailty owing to the contradictory pulls of margin and centre, democracy and revolution, order and disorder, and nation and tribe.
Empirically, Libya is ready for its taste of democratic elections, and the country’s High Electoral Commission has, within the time constraints given to it, paved the road for elections in a reasonably short time. Libya seems to be treading in the footsteps of Tunisia: elections to create a constituent assembly tasked with constitution-framing being the centrepiece of Libya’s fledgling democratic project. The elections loom at a time when significant processes and forces are pulling Libya in different directions and marking their presence by quasi-negation of a durable state and smooth democratic reconstruction.
On the ground, however, all indications seem to show that Libya is pushing ahead to be ready for this most significant democratic test of free and fair elections. Voter registration closed at the end of May, and a total of nearly 2,730,000 citizens have their names on newly created electoral rolls in 13 electoral districts. With an estimated total of 667,097 voters, Tripoli is the largest district; it is subdivided into five electoral zones, Tripoli 1 to 5.
The bulk of voters reside in the west of the country. If effectively observed, the boycott campaign in the east, where Federalists in Benghazi are pushing Tripoli for concessions regarding administrative decentralisation, would affect more than 700,000 voters allocated to four electoral districts: Benghazi (305,052 voters), Tubruk, Al-Bayda, and Ajdabiya. This is one of the four contradictory pulls that could potentially throw a spanner in the works for Libya’s democratic reconstruction.
Enter Libya’s Party Politics
Multi-party politics is being inaugurated with the recent legalization of more than a dozen parties with a strong penchant for Al-Nahdah (renaissance), Al-ummah (development), Al-Adl (justice) and Al-Watan (homeland) serving the dictums of Islamist politics. These parties can be expected not to labor too hard to draw wide support. The Islamist vogue is proving contagious, with or without solid programmes. Like Islamism, regionalism—and more importantly, tribalism—will overlay Libya’s entry into democratic contests with a heavy dose of affective politics. What can be expected if a reasonable number Benghazi citizens heed the call for a boycott is that the 2639 candidates will most likely lean on tribal rather than on partisan support. In some cases, the boundaries between the two are too blurred to separate.
There is a Libyan Democratic Party espousing liberal ideas; but these will not resound well in a post-conflict Libya where religion and a form of tribal-patriotism is being generalised as a prime template of identity. In these elections, the key players besides the Justice and Construction Party—with its Muslim Brotherhood credentials—will be figures who have substantial political capital.
Of these, the newly renamed National Front Party (NFP; formerly the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, NFSL) could emerge as one of the key contenders. The NFP has a 31-year history of opposition to Qadhafi, and the newly elected NFP president, Muhammad Magariaf, struggled before and during the Libyan uprising to end the Qadhafi dictatorship. Through the NFSL he was instrumental in orchestrating international action, relief for the civilian population during the uprising, and weapons for anti-Qadhafi fighters. Dr. Magariaf, for a long time an exile in the US after he rebelled against Qadhafi in 1981, will play a big role in leadership. Mahmoud Jibril, who resigned his leading post in the National Transitional Council (NTC) last year, is contesting the elections through his National Forces Coalition. Both are not anti-Islamist; their parties champion a kind of democratic synthesis. The only difference is that Magariaf has the added advantage of not being tainted by association with Qadhafi, precisely Jibril’s Achilles’ heel.
Personality, tribe and region will feature largely in these elections, and thus be expected to make a huge difference in the outcome of the scramble for representation in the council that will write the most important document in Libya’s democratic trajectory.
An Arab Spring supplementing democratization seems to be an idea whose time has come—even if it was initially violent (and now slow) in Libya in comparison with neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. However, such democratization will remain utopian if the revolutionary ethos and the democratic ethos do not reconcile into a synergy that grants representation to seemingly irreconcilable interests and fissiparous forces ranging from tribe to region. We can only hope that ‘hung democracy’ does not subvert Libya Al-Hurrah (free Libya).