Since the toppling of Mu’ammar Al-Qadhafi’s regime in October 2011, the people of Libya have been impatiently waiting for the desired results of their revolution. However, the waiting may be almost over: On July 7 many of the over 2.7 million registered voters are likely to make their voices heard in Libya’s first free election since 1951. At stake are seats in a 200 member General National Congress (GNC) to replace the increasingly unpopular National Transitional Council (NTC). The hope is that the election will facilitate a move out of the current state of transitional stasis. Sceptics fear, however, that it will only bring about a ‘transition to transition.’
NTC’s Failure to Act
In their eight month tenure, Libya’s current interim government — which was appointed by the NTC — have not been able to deliver on the long list of Libyans’ needs, promised by the National Transitional Council: a functioning justice system, a reconciliation process for officials who served the old regime, the disarmament of militias, the building of functional national security forces, rebuilding of destroyed areas, and delivery of basic services such as healthcare. Outside of the oil sector much of Libya’s economy is barely moving. Lacking the government’s go-ahead to restart public sector infrastructure contracts, the cranes have not started moving. Moreover, international advisors and foreign investors are reluctant to return to an environment where the government will not sign long term agreements and cannot guarantee security.
Still, this should not be surprising. Eight months is hardly sufficient to build functioning institutions from the rubble of Qadhafi’s legacy of dysfunctional bureaucracy, idiosyncratic rule, and anti-institutionalism. Additionally, due to pronounced incompetence and lack of will to take unpopular decisions, the NTC also failed to make progress in the few areas where it could have achieved meaningful change.
To justify these failings, the interim government has often pointed to its lack of an elected mandate as a reason for making no decisions that would have had a key long- term impact. Only the July 7 election can remove this excuse for political (and by extension economic) paralysis.
After the elections when the GNC selects a new president, prime minister, and cabinet, Libya will have its first post-Gadhafi ‘legitimate’ government. The GNC is also responsible for selecting a constitutional committee, subject to a public referendum to approve the committee’s draft to become the new constitution of Libya. The constitution will be followed by general elections for a parliament and president.
It is crucial that the already-delayed July 7 election for the General National Congress take place without further delay — provided that it is largely free and fair and not interrupted by violence, recognizing that there may be some imperfections. Egypt and Tunisia held their post-Arab Spring elections on time. Only Libya has delayed its election. Should elections be further pushed back until after the month of Ramadan (which begins on July 20th) this window of opportunity for post-war political progress, once missed, may never re-appear. First of all, the election itself, even though based on an arbitrary draft constitutional declaration written by the NTC, would maintain faith in the political process. More importantly, in the continued absence of a legitimate central decision-making authority to disarm and demobilize Libya’s remaining armed brigades, there would be a greater potential for current local isolated incidents of violence to devolve into a state of chaos and stagnation.
Legitimacy and Delays
A common reason given for postponing the elections is the importance of ensuring that it produces a legitimate government. It is unclear if more time could help. Would voters better understand the nature of the political process and the meaning of the momentous decision in front of them if they had more time to receive voter education? Would they be better able to evaluate candidates if the campaign period were extended? Yes, but as the first national election in living memory for most Libyans, it is not expected to be perfect.
In a post-conflict situation it is an unfortunate yet recognized fact that not everyone will fully understand the nature of the electoral process or even be able to participate in the election. For example, thousands of people from Sirte and Tawargha lost their homes in last year’s conflict and have been living in temporary camps with limited ability to register and vote in their home district. Will supporters of former dictator Muammar Qadhafi in his hometown of Sirte be included in the future political processes of the new Libya if they are unable to vote? Continued fighting between Arabs and Tubu in Kufra threatens to prevent any voting there. Additionally, members of the official National Army are not being allowed to vote or run for office, which is a curious disincentive for armed militia brigade members to become legitimate soldiers.
Despite these flaws, the new government created by the July 7 election will have the mandate to take the difficult decisions that would create a reconciliation process to facilitate the overcoming of historic grievances. Hopefully this would create a virtuous cycle which would rebuild homes and restore sufficient law and order to allow those in Sirte, Tawargha, Kufra, and indeed the whole country, to live in their hometowns in peace while also producing an environment that would be conducive to civil society. This is the great hope.
Local armed militias listen neither to the local councils nor to the central government, as demonstrated by the capture of visiting ICC official Melinda Taylor in Zintan. Some militias may even deliberately pose a threat to the conduct of free and fair elections in order to prevent their opponents from reaching the polls.
Libya’s interim officials have been forthcoming in acknowledging that the central government’s top priority is security and that they have not always been able to provide it. They have pledged 30,000 to 40,000 security personnel for special security on election day to prevent similar incidents as the July 1 attack on Benghazi’s election headquarters that burned ballot papers and destroyed ballot boxes, and the suspected arson on July 5 that burned down Ajdabiya’s main storage centre for election materials. Although those responsible for the Benghazi attack were pro-federalist, it has not been proven that they are members of the self-appointed Cyrenaican National Council (CNC), whose military arm set up a roadblock in Wadi al-Ahmar on Libya’s major East-West highway to demand that Cyrenaica get an equal number of seats to Tripolitania. Thus far, neither the CNC nor any other group has publicly stated that they intend to use violence to disrupt the elections.
It is impossible to forecast the election results with any degree of certainty. 120 of 200 seats will go to individual candidates, and with the campaign period only three weeks long and only minimal voter education in place, the new General National Congress will presumably contain a fair share of local leaders who lack political experience but possesses name recognition through professional, tribal or familial ties. The other 80 seats will go to the closed party lists. Libya’s new political parties — a mix of Islamists, nationalists, technocrats, and parties headed by former Militia leaders with Islamist leanings — are yet untested in a democratic system. Both Islamists and non-Islamists seem to agree that Libya is to be governed as a moderate democratic civil state with a legislative system founded on the Sharia and a governing process based upon in freedom, justice, democracy, development, and national unity.
Many outside observers have predicted that the electoral success of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt portends the same fate for Libya as well. This is not unreasonable. However, no matter what personalities and parties come to dominate the GNC and the new cabinet, what really matters for Libya’s success is the government’s ability to take decisive decisions, and then follow up with the difficult steps involved in implementing them.
Not Overstating the Importance of the Election itself
It should be recognized that simply completing the election for the General National Congress and fulfilling a list of proper democratic milestones may not create a true democracy. The GNC’s primary task is to appoint the Constitutional Convention and it is unclear if this will happen according to the current template. Moreover, the new government will face all of the same challenges as its predecessors in trying to work cooperatively with the legislature, conjuring up the willingness and ability to take the necessary decisions rather than postpone them, and being better able to deliver on the people’s expectations for quick positive results through improved communication and delivery of services. There is no guarantee that the General National Congress and the new government will be any better at rapid action and coherent decision-making than their predecessors, but the public perception is that the July 7th election can create that chance.
The 2011 Libyan Uprisings created a temporary government whose limited revolutionary mandate is rapidly expiring. While the General National Congress election will bring new top level leadership, it will not itself change the balance of power between the central government and the local militias. Additionally, mid-level bureaucrats serving since the Qadhafi days are expected to remain in place in most government agencies and ministries. These realities raise many questions. Will the election herald the start of a new era of government efficiency, or not? Will the militias be more likely to heed the commands of the central government once they acknowledge that it has been democratically elected?
Regional bickering and wrangling will no doubt continue, but will those dramas play out with the most powerful armed groups — those of Zintan and Misrata — again using coercive means to guarantee securing important posts in the new government and potentially ruin it? Will enough of the framers of Libya’s new constitution favor federalism (i.e., local control) to derail the forging of national unity? Will they choose a presidential or parliamentary system?
Neither the most informed outside pundits nor the Libyans themselves can state with any degree of confidence what the future may hold. Libya, like the other Arab Spring countries, remains a work in progress whose results cannot be foretold and are likely to be decisively affected by honest mistakes, fortunate and unfortunate circumstances and coincidences, and disappointing false starts.
Jason Pack is a researcher of Libyan History at Cambridge University and author of In War’s Wake: The Struggle for Post-Qadhafi Libya.