Tasbeeh Herwees
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on : Friday, 9 Aug, 2013
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Libya’s Most Vulnerable

Will a new constitution address minority rights in Libya?

SIROCCO The Mediterranean wind whipped up in the Sahara and blown across the Maghreb region. In North Africa, it is known by its Arabic name, qibli. ‘Sirocco’ provides a blow-by-blow account of events occurring in the Arabic-speaking countries west of Egypt.

A Libyan Amazigh Berber boy takes part in a protest outside the prime minister's office in Tripoli on November 27, 2011. (mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

A Libyan Amazigh Berber boy takes part in a protest outside the prime minister’s office in Tripoli on November 27, 2011. (mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

The Libyan General National Congress (GNC) finally made headway on the formation of the new constitution last month, though detractors representing Libya’s minorities may delay the process once again.

The year-long saga of forming a new constitution has frustrated Libyans and complicated an already difficult transitional phase. It is Article 30 of the transitional constitution, which outlines the constitution-forming process and transfer of power to the GNC, that has stymied further progress on the new document. Article 30 had originally delineated a process by which the GNC would select the sixty members of the committee responsible for writing the constitution. A National Transitional Council amendment—added on the eve of the elections in July—meant that voters would instead elect this committee. The change had the GNC mired in contentious discussions for months.

The year-long saga of forming a new constitution has frustrated Libyans and complicated an already difficult transitional phase.

By mid-July, however, the GNC finally made a decision: they passed a bill authorizing the NTC amendment and the divvying up of chairs of the sixty-strong committee by geographical regions. Twenty of the chairs would go to Cyrenaica, the eastern region of Libya; twenty chairs would go to Fezzan, the mountainous region in the south; and twenty chairs would go to Tripolitania, in Libya’s western side. The bill also made provisions for women and minorities: women will receive six of the sixty chairs, and the Tuareg, the Tebu and the Amazigh (all ethnic minorities) will receive two chairs each.

It is this last stipulation that has compelled some minority members to resign from the GNC and to boycott the election in protest. Amazighi congressman Shaaban Abou Setta, who was among those who handed in their resignations, told the Magharebia news website that these numbers don’t sufficiently represent Libya’s minority communities.

“The representation of minorities should be done by consensus,” he said, “giving minorities a few seats in the constitution-drafting panel won’t enable them to express their ideas and opinions in a manner that would serve their areas’ populations.”

Issues of minority rights have only recently entered the realm of public political discourse in Libya. The ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi promoted a pan-Arab doctrine that he strictly enforced through the “Arabization” of minority groups like the Amazigh, who were banned from speaking their language or learning their history in school. The Amazigh community suffered harassment from Gaddafi’s Revolutionary Guard. A Wikileaks cable brought out the details of a 2009 attack on the city of Yifren, an Amazighi town, in which Revolutionary Guards threw rocks at the home of Amazighi rights activist Salem Madi, spray-painted his home and chanted ant-Amazigh slogans. The guards threw stones at protesters and vandalized Amazighi businesses with graffiti.

The Tebu, a once-nomadic people living in the south of Libya, were denied land and citizenship rights by the Gaddafi regime. They had difficulty accessing state institutions, including higher education and housing resources. They were considered foreigners in their own country, unrecognized by the state. These structural exclusions limited the breadth of their participation in the socio-economic and political realms.

Post-revolution, these minority groups are struggling to create a different reality for themselves in Libya. There is fear that without adequate representation, the legacy of the Gaddafi regime’s persecution of their communities will continue, under shiny new revolutionary rhetoric. While Libya is finally recognizing the contributions of the these communities to the revolution and to Libyan culture itself, remnants of the xenophobia that marked the Gaddafi regime’s treatment of minorities still blemish Libyan political and cultural discourse.

It is difficult to change what has been the conventional wisdom of the last forty years. Gaddafi’s rule was characterized by the promotion of Arab nationalism at the expense of ethnic minorities. Many Libyans did not even realize ethnic minorities existed in Libya until members of those groups joined in the rallying calls for democracy and change. The Amazigh, the Tebou and even the Tuareg helped destroy one structural impediment to their prosperity—the Gaddafi regime—but it is the tyranny of history, not of one man, that is building up the same structures again.

It is difficult to say whether a boycott will improve the situation or just exacerbate it —there is the old argument about working within oppressive systems to change them from the inside—but it is promising to see that some in the GNC are not willing to stand for more of the same. After all, the measure of a democratic, civil society is how it treats its most vulnerable members.

Tasbeeh Herwees

Tasbeeh Herwees

Tasbeeh Herwees is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, CA. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Kifah Libya, an independent online magazine. She tweets @THerwees

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