Libya’s Elections Hold Vast Promise, Pose Hard Challenges

Libya goes to the polls on Saturday for the first time since 1965. Since in that 1965 election parties were banned, and since King Idris’s establishment tampered with the ballots, it wasn’t an election very much like the one to be held on Saturday. There is a sense in which this election is unprecedented in modern Libyan history, with at least a prospect of being free and fair.

Libyans have already pulled off successful city council elections in Misrata, Benghazi, and elsewhere– elections that went off virtually without a hitch.

There could be some security issues on Saturday. In Benghazi, a few days ago an angry crowd of 300 or so persons attacked one of the buildings of the electoral commission in Benghazi and ransacked it. They are the equivalent of states’ rights activists who want more decentralization of authority away from the central government. (In Arabic, these decentralizers are, confusingly, called federalists; but they are reacting against a French-style centralization of power, so that federalism actually involves a step toward greater local autonomy.) There is also a tiny terrorist organization in Benghazi that has on three recent occasions attacked Western targets, though they did it amateurishly and the attacks had no effect. I suspect it is just like two guys and a cousin.

As for the decentralizers, the fix for their discontents is an American-style senate. They are upset that the parliament will be elected on the basis of the population of the provinces, which gives an advantage to Tripoli, the most populous area in the country. A similar dispute occurred in the early American republic, and it was resolved by having a lower house (the house of representatives) elected according to population, and an upper house (the Senate), which has two senators from each state regardless of the state’s population. The authorities in Libya should just promise the decentralizers a senate.

On the eve of the establishment of a representative parliament, the outgoing National Transitional Council announced that the newly elected parliament would not have the prerogative of appointing a constituent assembly to craft a new constitution. Rather, the NTC insisted, the constituent assembly would also be elected, with 20 representatives coming from each of Libya’s three major historical regions.

The measure is high-handed on the part of the unelected NTC, but the idea itself has some virtues. It is more likely that the constituent assembly will be representative of the whole population if it is directly elected. Ideally, quotas for women and minorities should be established. In parliament, some parties will do slightly better than others, and a narrow coalition reaching 51 percent of seats can impose its will on all Libyans even though it represents only about half of them. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which only had 46% of the seats, tried to make its own MPs and supporters a majority on the constituent assembly. The Egyptian courts struck down this attempt at a tyranny of the minority.

In the meantime, people in the western town of Zawiya say that they would be glad for Benghazi to get the seats allocated to them, if that would add to national reconciliation. It is just a gesture but it is a grand gesture.

The new parliament will elect a prime minister. Assuming that the winner is a decisive and capable person, this acquisition of an elected head of state will be the best thing that could happen to Libya. The Transitional National Council has been accused of not doing enough, but in some cases they feel their hands are tied by their lack of legitimacy. An elected prime minister won’t be so timid, or won’t have to be.

There will be some security issues in the election. Some small towns in the south and west have seen tribal faction-fighting in recent months. The government has sent in troops to keep the peace, but doesn’t have enough troops and police to handle all the problems that could arise on election day.

Libya has some things going for it. Since the army split during the revolution, with almost all units in the east of the country defecting to the revolutionaries, Libya has much more of an intact military than did post-invasion Iraq. It has an armored division and thousands of men. The troops are being ordered to help preserve order during the elections.

Security is for the most part just fine in the string of cities along the Mediterranean coast where 90% of Libyans live. when I was there about a month ago, I saw people circulating normally, traffic jams, sidewalk cafes, offices open, gold and jewelry shops and high-end clothing stores brazenly open until 8 pm. In Tripoli there was an amusement park with a ferris wheel where children were still taking the rides and squealing at 9 pm. I never saw any armed militiamen at all, just uniformed police– though many of the police may have recently been militiamen. The militiamen are still there in some neighborhoods, and sometimes they gather and essentially hold a demonstration. But these demonstrations tend to be relatively peaceful despite the brandishing of guns, and the TNC authorites always seem to be able to jawbone them into standing down. Over time, as more professional police are graduated, I expect the militias to decline in importance.

Since I lived in Beirut in the early years of the civil war, and in Pakistan during the era of the Mujahidin, I know what real militia societies look like, and the northern Libyan cities don’t look like that. The towns of Fezzan in the south and west are a different matter. Zintan and Kufra have seen heavy fighting with hundreds dead. But they are small and distant from the main population centers and have been feuding societies for a long time. Their feuding may interfere with elections, which would be a shame. But the Fezzan faction-fighting is an outlier in the new Libya, which is mostly pretty peaceful.

6 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    I wonder if you are missing the point. Libya may be more or less pacified, but in a similar way Bohemia after the Battle of White Mountain the displaced losers are destabilising the surrounding area.

    link to en.wikipedia.org

    With the Bohemian army destroyed, Tilly entered Prague and the revolt collapsed. King Frederick with his wife Elizabeth fled the country (hence his nickname the Winter King), and many citizens welcomed the restoration of Catholicism. Forty-seven noble leaders of the insurrection were tried, and twenty-seven were executed on what is called “the Day of Blood” by Protestants at Prague’s Old Town Square. Amongst those executed were Kryštof Harant and Jan Jesenius. Today, 27 crosses have been inlaid in the cobblestone as a tribute to those victims. An estimated five-sixths of the Bohemian nobility went into exile soon after the Battle of White Mountain, and their properties were confiscated.[8] Before the war about 151,000 farmsteads existed in the Lands of Bohemian Crown, while only 50,000 remained after the year 1648. The number of inhabitants decreased from 3 million to 800,000.[9] The Thirty Years War had still another 28 years to run, and Bohemia was often the scene of much bloodshed.

    But there was still a strong Protestant army in Silesia under the command of Johann Georg of Hohenzollern, Duke of Brandenburg-Jägerndorf which continued fighting the Imperial army in Moravia and in what today is Slovakia until 1623.

    In 1621, the Emperor ordered all Calvinists and other non-Lutherans to leave the realm in 3 days or to convert to Catholicism. Next year, he also ordered all Lutherans (who primarily had not been involved in the revolt) to convert or leave the country. By 1627, Archbishop Harrach of Prague and Jaroslav Borzita of Martinice set out to peacefully convert the heretics as they were termed; most Bohemians converted, but a significant Protestant minority remained. Spanish troops, seeking to encircle their rebellious Dutch provinces, seized the Palatinate electoral lands. With the prospect of Protestantism being overrun in Germany, Denmark entered the struggle. Sweden was to join the Protestant forces in 1630.

    Africom may yet rue the day they won their first victory, and sowed dragons teeth.

    link to bbc.co.uk

    • Should oppressed peoples not overthrow their oppressors, for fear of what the oppressors’ hired goons might do after being turned out of power? Are to blame the Libyan people for Gadaffi’s decades-long history of cultivating terrorists and mercenaries?

      Also, Africom wasn’t involved in the U.N. Protective Mission. It was a NATO-led effort, with headquarters in Italy, under French and British command.

      You seem to be reading the United States into events too much, and reading the Libyan people out of those events.

      • Correction: “wasn’t involved with” overstates the point. The initial three-week period of the operation was routed through Africom, before it was handed off to a European NATO command.

  2. Was it true that Libya had the highest standard of living in Africa?

    Did Obama say NO REGIME change prior to the invasion?

    • I was shocked when I went around Libya in May and June that there was no sign of the sort of prosperity one associates with oil states. Qaddafi stole and squandered all those hundreds of billions. It looks like small town Jordan. The poor Libyans could have been living like the people in Dubai but instead were in squalor.

      Per capita income figures are illusory. Libya’s oil money wasn’t divided among the population! Sent to foreign banks and to foment African wars.

    • Did Obama say NO REGIME change prior to the invasion?

      What invasion? Do you mean the air campaign? As you may recall, there was quite a bit of dispute about whether or not there would eventually be an invasion – a question which has been answered pretty definitively in the negative. There was no invasion. Given the recent history of Iraq, and what that country looked like for years post-invasion, and the difference in Libya, the invasion/non-invasion (also an occupation/non-occupation) distinction is probably worth keeping in mind.

      As for Obama’s position before the “invasion,” here’s a contemporary piece, the headline of which reads Obama Says Gadaffi Must Leave Libya “Now’

      link to politicsdaily.com

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