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Correcting the Course of Libya’s Revolution (Part 1/2)

Libya's elected parliament became a base where different factions manipulated other arms of the state.

Libya is sliding deeper into instability. The joyous and hopeful atmosphere which encircled the 2012 elections for a transitional parliament – the General National Congress (GNC) – and their initial months in office has dissipated with depression and destitution replacing them.

At the head of this progression is a political system paralyzed by its own factionalism; one whose mismanagement has helped create the current scenario. Libya's oil terminals — its main source of revenue — remain closed whilst the state’s coffers are being cleansed by corruption. Politically disgruntled groups are engaging in ominous acts of civil disobedience and emboldened militias have brought destruction and differing dilemmas to each region.

As this new reality becomes painfully clearer, the need for both short- and long-term solutions escalates and a groundswell of pressure arises to add shape to the demands for change. The Constitutional Declaration, designed by the National Transitional Council (NTC) — the GNC’s predecessor — which is supposed to be Libya’s transitional roadmap and constitution, has been the official underpinning to this period of Libyan politics.

With its timeline for producing a constitution ending on February 7, 2014, many people now recognize this date as the end of the GNC's political legitimacy. Therefore, it is around this event that many of the debates over Libya’s future have fallen under the informal slogan of "correcting the course of the revolution."

Given the seriousness of Libya's current problems, the answer to the question of "what comes next?" is perhaps the most vital to Libya's future since 2011.

Libya's Political Path

The Constitutional Declaration created the GNC as Libya's ultimate authority, but failed to provide any details for how they were to rule, except for mandating them to appoint a transitional government and Constitutional Assembly (CA).

In addition, the declaration failed to establish a clear separation of powers; a flaw exploited by GNC members to exercise authority over their elected prime minister, Ali Zeidan, and the executive branch of Libya's transitional authorities.

Thus, being the center of Libya's political system, the GNC — a 200-member parliament filled through the country's first fair, if not confused, national elections — naturally became the point of projection for Libya's regional and ideological groups to take their cause national.

Libya's politicians have little experience of operating in democratic environments whereby problems are discussed until a reasoned consensus is reached, nor in their role as a representative of their communities.

Without any regulation to foster this mindset, the old view of political positions as seats of power and influence, dictatorial governance styles, and zero-sum political games have flourished upon a platform of patronage rather than representation. 

This was a problem worsened through the absence of defined roles and responsibilities for political offices and a national vision under which to work. It eventually coalesced to create an environment which seconded consensual national progress to short-term political games, with different factions jostling for power.

Political initiatives, national bodies, and Libya's treasury were reduced to pawns in a game for increased influence rather than as complementary tools with which to develop the state.

Political Paralysis

Thus, Libya’s first fairly elected parliament gradually became the base from which factions could manipulate the other arms of the Libyan state to further their own ambitions. 

This resurrection of the old mindset rendered the new system unable to solve problems it encountered, as factions fought to glorify their own solutions rather than enact a cooperative system. Consequently, it created the popular perception that GNC members are the nation's decisive power-holders.

This political paralysis allowed problems to fester into national crises, illustrated through the oil strike's progression from its start in early 2012 to the complete shutdown of all eastern oil terminals — which is still in force today.

It is also exemplified by the growth of the Eastern Federalist Movement, whose support was polled at just 12% in the east in early 2013. However, since then it has co-opted the oil strikes to control Libya's core revenue stream and announced its own government in the eastern Cyrenaica province.

This inaction of the official political process forced pressure groups into more coercive forms of lobbying. As the authorities continuously wilted under confrontation, these groups grew more emboldened, advancing from threats to invading institutions, acts of violence, and even withholding key utilities from the capital in order to extort their demands.

Militias and the Return of the Old Regime's Agents

This opaque and broken system was the propagator of two damaging phenomena. The economic agents of the old regime were able to expand their holdings and privileges to an unprecedented degree.

They claimed ownership over the state industries and import markets they previously managed and leveraged connections within the new system to tap the state's coffers through mismanaged tenders; all whilst using personal militias to intimidate opposition.

Political factions also recognized the usefulness of militias in the new order as the optimal tool for political advancement, employing them to intimidate opponents and enhance influence or control at politically sensitive moments, while ignoring the cost that each deployment levied from the state's stability.

These militias had ballooned since the end of the revolution and so were able to consistently meet the growing demand for their services. Many disillusioned youth signed up for the impressive remuneration package, whilst scores of ex-fighters, broken-out fugitives, and the criminally minded joined for the protective camaraderie and ability to operate with impunity. 

Certain factions avoided public outrage by engaging their respective media entities to wrap their militia's actions around a revolutionary narrative, which resonated emotionally with a large segment of the population.

However, this tactic is now faltering, as militia violence and general criminality have pushed the population into repeated protests against them and, at times, the political factions who back them.

By presiding over a system that could tangibly offer little in the way of hope, development, or plans for future growth and stabilization, government authorities were forced into using salary increases and cash hand-outs to pacify a population expectantly awaiting the physical and economic development they had endured war for.

This has had disastrous effects, building a pattern of high costs that could bankrupt the country by 2018 (if current expenditure rates continue) and forcing disillusioned political groups to act outside of the official system and in ever more extreme ways as they seek recognition for their message.

Powerful Shadow Forces

Moreover, the entrenchment of opportunistically criminal actors throughout Libya has rendered a powerful shadow force and network of incentives. They are working to prevent the emergence of any systems of security, accountability or transparency, which would dissolve their power base, newly secured privileges, and possibly end in their criminal prosecution. 

In contrast, the few remaining politicians who hold a national agenda point to the constitution — which is the final goal of the Constitutional Declaration's transitional agenda — as Libya's savior.

Operating under a self-proclaimed tunnel-vision, they are consciously ignoring the problems littering Libya’s path forward under a belief that once a constitution is ratified these problems will be eminently more solvable. Regardless of the soundness of their beliefs, it is doubtful that the population's patience will last that long.

As multiple national crises reach an overwhelming level, anecdotal evidence of massive corruption pours unrelentingly into the public consciousness.

Moreover, the uncertainty derived from a worsening security situation and an almost absent state causes fear, cynicism, and a feeling of helplessness amongst the population. Demands for the removal of the current authorities grow louder and are becoming less negotiable with each passing day.

Common Calls for Change

As Libya's problems worsened in the latter half of 2013, possible solutions to particular problems were reared by political groups, the UN's support mission, and even advocacy groups and concerned citizens.

September 2013 was ushered in under the watchwords of "national reconciliation," as official recognition was finally paid to Libya's increasing regionalization. Having originated during the localized warfare of the revolution, this problem has deepened because of un-resolved issues between neighboring localities and siege mentalities stemming from the instability and lack of development blamed on the central government.

These are underpinned by severe political and social issues, such as cities essentially functioning as independent entities, whole communities living in squalid refugee camps for the past three years and now becoming increasingly embittered against the new state, and strings of violent conflicts between neighboring localities which have their roots in the revolution.

In turn, these issues only feed back into the regionalization and environment of fear and distrust which propagate Libya's crises.

Whilst the recognition of these problems' seriousness was welcomed, the flaws in Libya's transitional politics shone through yet again as three competing initiatives by the prime minister’s office, the GNC, and the largest political party — the National Forces Alliance — were publically announced within a week.

All three are trying to create a national talking forum for Libya's various factions, in an attempt to create consensual principles for future progress; but of course under their entities' banner for political gain.

Throughout September and October 2013, more drastic solutions arose from a population increasingly convinced that Libya's transitional problems can only be truly solved through removing their transitional authorities.

A New Role for the Constitutional Assembly?

As the Constitutional Assembly elections at the end of February draw closer, many have started to call for the CA to take on the role of the GNC and to draft the constitution. Although this is a popular idea, a lot of groundwork would need to be done to make it feasible.

Not only would the timeline for the constitution’s drafting process need to be extended, but a legal basis for their rule would need to be agreed upon. This would necessitate an amendment to the constitutional declaration, which would endow the CA with the GNC's powers.

Furthermore, given the inexperience of Libya's politicians, it could be overwhelming for them to conduct two such important jobs simultaneously and to the high level of attention which both deserve.

Other groups have simply called for a reelection of the GNC to take place alongside the CA elections. A slight amendment to the Constitutional Declaration's timeline and an article concerning the GNC would be the requirements to legally legitimate such a move.

However, the effort to hold another round of elections alongside the CA's would be taxing with the already delayed election date looming. Furthermore, the question of how to manage the country whilst the authorities are a "lame duck" would need resolution.

Finally, it is worth considering whether the year's worth of experience lost through replacing the GNC wholesale will be equal to the benefits gained from fresh personnel operating under the same system. This is especially the case since it is a solution which fails to influence the procedural problems of Libya’s transition.

*[Read the final part on February 14.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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