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    Middle East
     Jul 11, 2012


Libyan election joy darkened by divisions
By Victor Kotsev

"Election Results in Libya Break an Islamist Wave," read a New York Times headline on Sunday. While only interim results are currently available, it seems that the most votes, by a considerable margin, went to the Alliance of National Forces, a broad coalition of 40 parties and hundreds of non-governmental organizations and independent political figures.

Headed by Libya's former transitional leader, the American-educated 60-year old political scientist Mahmoud Jibril, the Alliance is often described as secular and liberal, despite vowing to uphold Sharia law as its main source of legislation.

The Islamist parties reportedly softened their rhetoric considerably in the run-up to the election, further signaling that Libya might

 

once again stand out in the regional trends. According to the British daily The Guardian, even the alleged hardline Islamist, Abdul Hakim Belhaj, attempted to court women's rights and clothing choices in his recent campaign messages. [1]

However, while the victory of liberal pro-democratic forces in the National Conference (parliamentary) elections is seen as a positive development in the West, it is one of not so many good tidings coming out of Libya these days. This trend is aptly illustrated by the most recent edition of the Failed States Index, released by the Fund for Peace last month, according to which the country experienced the worst yearly decline in the history of the index. [2]

To be sure, the election is an important step forward, and the very fact that it was held successfully throughout the country, despite considerable challenges and a number of violent incidents, is a positive sign for democracy in Libya. The National Conference is tasked with forming a new government to take over from the Transitional National Council (TNC), which has ruled since the fall of Libya's former dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, last year. The TNC has come under increasing criticism in the last months, and many look to the new government to correct its shortcomings.
Still, the challenges that remain are formidable at best - and at worst threaten to tear the country apart across lines of tribal, clan and criminal affiliation. Belhaj and the Islamists, who command formidable military forces, have threatened Jibril in the past, but they are only one of a number of challenges his coalition will have to confront. Tellingly, Jibril, who as a former leader of the transitional government is barred from taking a seat in parliament, announced Sunday that he would seek a "grand coalition".

To the east, a federalist movement came close to torpedoing the elections; to the west, where the main Libyan power centers lie, the government institutions have reportedly been split up, much in the manner of war booty, between rival militias. In a country whose population is armed to the teeth and different groups frequently battle each other with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars, it is hard to imagine that the process of transferring power will go smoothly.

According to most sources, the main cities - such as Tripoli, Misrata, and Benghazi - feel relatively safe, despite periodic gunfights. Much of the countryside, however, is in a true state of chaos, and scars from the civil war last year are fomenting new divisions.

Revenge killings and raids by the victorious former rebels have sown terror in a sizeable part of the population - specifically, though not only, in those who supported Gaddafi. The atrocious crimes his forces committed in rebel population centers - such as the city of Misrata to the west, which saw some of the worst street-to-street fighting - are being repaid by similar atrocities.

Tawergha, an entire town of 30,000 whose inhabitants were accused of mass rape, was depopulated and burnt to the ground (its population forced into refugee camps), while a particular complex in Misrata, ironically named "Heaven Hotel", gained infamy as the grounds of hundreds of brutal executions. [3]

In part as a response, forces sympathetic to the late dictator - himself murdered without a trial by the rebels - took over Bani Walid, a town in the northwest of the country, earlier this year, and have held it ever since. During the election on Saturday, two journalists from Misrata were kidnapped there, and negotiations for their release are taking place, backed by threats by the powerful Misrata militias.

The TNC has thoroughly failed to start a national reconciliation process, instead choosing to criminalize and punish by up to a life in prison any acts or statements that praise the former regime. The law in question has provoked outrage among many Libyans. [4]

The issue of how to deal with the past also threatens to unravel Libya's relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC), and by extension with parts of the international community. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the dictator's prominent second son, is held by rebels in the Western Mountains, and is wanted by the ICC for suspected crimes against humanity. However, the transitional government has refused to extradite him, and an attempted visit by ICC lawyers last month turned sour when the delegation was held for 26 days by the militia that holds him. On her release, the Australian defense lawyer of the ICC claimed that it would be "impossible" to hold a fair trial for him in Libya. [5]

On the other hand, Gaddafi family members and former regime officials, some of whom are held in neighboring countries on uncertain terms, are widely rumored to be using their smuggled riches to foment unrest. In the thinly populated south, Arabs, Berbers and African tribesmen intermittently battle for control of a desert territory that stretches between several towns hundreds of kilometers apart. The fighting has spread beyond Libya, too - most notably in neighboring Mali, whose government was overthrown as a result of the chaos earlier this year.

Some analysts caution that in the long run, the loosely defined Berber identity, also known as Amazigh or Imazighen, will gain political prominence. "Of all the ethnic movements that have surfaced since Gaddafi's overthrow, that of the Imazighen has the greatest reach," writes Nicolas Pelham in an article published by The New York Review of Books. [6] (The Berbers are spread throughout North Africa, including over a million in Libya; the Touareg, one of the most militant tribes in the south, are a famous example of a desert Berber people.)

In the shorter-term, however, a breakup along the traditional regional boundaries in Libya-Tripolitania in the West (including the cities of Tripoli and Misrata), Cyrenaica in the East (including Benghazi) and Fezzan in the south-is a far more urgent threat, perhaps the most urgent one facing the country. The TNC narrowly avoided a widespread boycott of the election in the east, where a homegrown federalist movement launched a campaign of violence, even shooting down a helicopter of the High National Election Commissions days before the poll.

The divisions between eastern and western Libya, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, date back for centuries; although less densely populated than the west, Cyrenaica boasts of being the cradle of last year's uprising against Gaddafi, as well as the former power center of the country from the time before Gaddafi overthrew its monarchy. A number of people with symbolic family ties to the last king of Libya, such as the longest-serving political prisoner under Gaddafi, Ahmed Al-Zubair al-Senussi, have joined the federalists, attesting to the deep roots of the splits.

The immediate issue at hand between the federalists and the TNC was the distribution of seats in the parliament. According to the rules drawn up by the TNC, 102 seats in the 200-seat National Conference would go to Tripolitania, compared to 60 for Cyrenaica and 38 for Fezzan. This angered the eastern federalists, who blocked roads, sabotaged oil production and unleashed other forms of violence. Arguably, only a last-minute compromise by the TNC, which gave Cyrenaica an equal representation, along with Fezzan and Tripolitania, in the commission tasked with writing the new Libyan constitution, saved the election. [7]

In the end, the high voter turnout - over 60% of registered voters, or 1.7 million people, turned up at the polling stations (94% of which opened on Saturday) - shows that the new parliament, if anything, will have a popular mandate to rule. There are some encouraging signs at the grassroots level as well. Non-governmental organizations have mushroomed in the country, and the number of independent candidates in the election also suggests that a considerable effort is underway to create a functioning civil society.

However, the process of drawing up a constitution, which has not yet even started formally, is just as important, and perhaps even more so, than the parliamentary election for the formation of stable democratic institutions in Libya. Besides, the challenges ahead are not limited to the bitter political divisions and the militarization of the population, just as the difficult legacies of the past are not limited to the scars from last year's civil war.

Creating a civil society, for example, is much easier said than done. The cases of many of the Eastern European countries, whose totalitarian regimes were toppled in the early 1990s, suggest that even in societies that stick together fairly well, it may take a generation. The examples of several failed states in Africa and the Middle East (closer to home in Libya) suggest it may take even longer.

In an article published by Foreign Policy magazine, Sean Kane analyses the general sense of confusion that has often baffled foreign observers in Libya. He writes:
This lack of state institutions, and above all, a national identity, is perhaps the most lasting and pernicious legacy of the Gaddafi jamahiriya. In fact, Gaddafi's spasmodic state of perpetual change was a deliberate construction. His populace was kept perpetually off kilter by the near constant reshuffling of cabinets, provincial boundaries and systems of administration. Street names, place names, universities, and even the names of the months were always in flux, creating an almost physical feeling of disorientation. This pious Muslim country even started fasting for the holy month of Ramadan on a different day from the rest of the Middle East.

There was a method to this madness. Throughout all the chaos, the only fixed point for the Libyan people to take a bearing from was the unchanging axis of Gaddafi himself. And on a certain level this anti-system made sense. Gaddafi hailed from the remote desert town of Sirte in central Libya. He had no connection to the country's western economic elites in Tripoli or the prominent families in the east that made up the court of the Libyan monarchy that he overthrew. His own tribe, the Qadadfa, is small and holds little sway. Since Gaddafi had no natural allies among the Libya's elite networks, he set out to unmake and unmoor them. [8]
It is hard to imagine that the Libyan society would emerge from the confusion created by its prolonged isolation easily or quickly. A positive example, albeit a distant one, can perhaps be gleaned from Albania, an even more secular Muslim-majority country, which came out of prolonged isolation 20 years ago. Its communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, held the Albanian population for decades in terror of its neighbors, cutting off ties even with the Soviet Union and most of the Eastern Bloc. (As a further point of comparison, clans were also prominent in Albanian society not that long ago.)

Albania is still one of the poorest countries in Europe, and the transition there has been far from smooth, yet Libyans could only dream of such good fortunes. While hopeful scenarios are possible to imagine, reality remains grim: at present, Libya resembles more closely a gunpowder keg waiting to explode in more violence.

Notes:
1. Libya's politicians finally wake up to the power of women, The Guardian, July 7, 2012.
2. 2012 Failed States Index Released: Libya, Japan and Syria Tumble, Market Watch, June 18, 2012.
3. Back to bloody anarchy: Andrew Malone revisits Libya and finds a country riven by torture, mass murder and savage vengeance, The Daily Mail, July 7, 2012.
4. Former justice minister roasts “glorification” and amnesty laws, Libya Herald, May 14, 2012.
5. Fair trial for Saif “impossible” in Libya, says ICC’s Taylor, Libya Herald, July 6, 2012.
6. Is Libya Cracking Up?, The New York Review of Books, June 21, 2012.
7. NTC takes responsibility for constitution from National Conference, Libya Herald, July 5, 2012.
8. The Libyan Rorschach, Foreign Policy, June 12, 2012.


Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)





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