Building on Libya’s electoral success

Sean Kane writes: Libya’s elections did not need to be perfect, but the country plainly needs a popularly elected government to tackle the difficult and unpopular decisions involved in building the new state. The polls thus could have been judged a success merely by taking place without major disruption, a test they aced with flying colors following reports of 65 percent turnout and over 98 percent of polling centers opening without incident. Around the country, the long-awaited vote was justifiably treated as cause for national celebration.

But the seeds for political contention at the next stage may have been sown in the run-up to the polls. Less than 48 hours prior to elections, the National Transitional Council (NTC) stripped the to be elected national congress of its core mandate: supervising the drafting of Libya’s new constitution. Rather than being appointed by the new congress, the constitutional commission actually drafting the charter will theoretically now be directly elected in a second set of polls that give all parts of the country equal representation. This legal bombshell risks acrimony later this year between different parts of the country as well as rejection by the newly ascendant political parties, who on paper find themselves in charge of a congress suddenly relegated to bystander status on constitutional matters.

A Libyan proverb has it that “laws are made in Tripoli, observed in Misrata and die in Benghazi.” It captures Tripoli’s status as the seat of government, the highly organized nature of the commercial port city of Misrata, and the hotbed of activism that is Benghazi. True to form, as a long-running center of opposition to Qaddafi’s rule, Benghazi was the birthplace of the Libyan revolution. It should not then be a surprise that the city sees itself as the watchdog of the revolution and the new authorities in Tripoli.

Normally the vigilance of Benghazi is a healthy thing, helping the country avoid a return to the excessive concentration of power and wealth in Tripoli that marked the Qaddafi regime. But somewhere in the last few months Benghazi took a wrong turn. Following the revolution it was the most stable and institutionally advanced city in Libya, but now residents describe it as increasingly troubled. The city has become a locus of aggressive street actions by federalism supporters, seemingly politically motivated assassinations, and had its international presence targeted by small groups of Islamist militants. Underlying all of this is a deep current of resentment of the more wealthy and populous Tripoli.

Libya has of course been no stranger to unrest since the triumph of its revolution in October, 2011. But what is happening in Benghazi is qualitatively different. Other clashes around the country have generally been micro-conflicts, locally contained and concerned with parochial issues rather than larger ideology or proposed alternatives to the new order.

This is not the case among backers of an Islamic emirate or with the harder core of federalism supporters in eastern Libya. The latter include the self-declared Barqa Council (Barqa is the Arabic name for Libya’s eastern region), who periodically threaten separation from the rest of the country. Both groups have been willing to go outside of the political process to pursue their respective visions. And while high electoral turnout in the East was an emphatic demonstration that neither faction has widespread support, both have shown an ability to exploit broader regional feelings of maltreatment to act as violent spoilers. [Continue reading…]

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