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.