Libya: Before power-sharing deals, Libyans must define a national vision

Maruan El Krekshi
By Maruan El Krekshi

Head of Crisis Management Initiative's Middle East & North Africa desk at the in Helsinki, Finland

Posted on Monday, 26 October 2020 12:11
Libya's internationally recognised PM Fayez al-Sarraj meets with Turkish and Qatari defence ministers in Tripoli
Libya's internationally recognised Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj meets with defence ministers of Turkey, Hulusi Akar, and Qatar, Khalid bin Mohammad Al-Attiyah, in Tripoli, Libya August 17, 2020. The Media Office of the Prime Minister/Handout via REUTERS

The military stalemate in Libya has revived political talks under the auspices of the UN. But they seem to be directed at maintaining the current transitional governing institutions. That approach risks prolonging the life of institutions that many Libyans see as illegitimate and ineffective.

Instead there should be much greater emphasis on supporting Libyans to identify an inclusive national path towards establishing a constitutional order.

Nine years have past since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, and Libyans are still struggling to find their way out of a conflict that has become increasingly embroiled with regional rivalry, while ruining a country that used to score highest on the UN Human Development Index in the African continent. Libya now has a generation of youth of an average of 19 years old, that have experienced in their formative years nothing but armed conflict.

The heritage of the Gaddafi era Jamahiriya system, while relatively positive from a development perspective, has been disastrous from a governance perspective for the Libyan state. The governance system enforced in the Great Peoples’ Libyan Arab Jamahiriya since 2 March 1977, was by design anti-institutional, and ultimately led to the concentration of power in the hands of the Leader of the Revolution, Muammar Gaddafi.

READ MORE Libya: How Colonel Gaddafi continues to haunt the living

This governance model did not undergo reforms that would have enabled the system to evolve, despite a relatively short period in the late 1990s whereby Gaddafi’ son Saif Al Islam was allowed to spearhead Tommorrow’s Libya (Libya Al Ghad) project, which was flirting with the idea of re-establishing a constitution in Libya as well as liberalising the state dominated economy. The old guard, and most notably key figures of the revolutionary committees that were tasked to enforce the Jamahiriya system and that were the main beneficiaries of state resources, managed to block these attempts at reform.

‘The institutionalisation of corrupt practices’

The 2011 uprising, which started peacefully, calling for democratic change, quickly became militarised following attempts at military repression by Gaddafi’s loyalist forces, as well as the consequence of UN sanctioned NATO military intervention that ultimately led to the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

Ever since, the hopes of the Libyan people for a more dignified life are becoming more and more elusive, with a proliferation of armed groups and the high-jacking of key state institutions by interest groups advancing narrow sub-national or external interests, and with a high degree of predatory inclinations towards state assets and resources.

READ MORE Egypt and Turkey head-to-head in Libya, stalemate looms

This has led to the institutionalisation of corrupt practices and an intensification of armed conflict around control of key oil production facilities, as well as competition over the control of so-called sovereign institutions such the Central Bank, the National Oil Corporation and Libyan Investment Authority. Libyans today, instead of hoping for democracy, are hoping for electricity, security, and minimum liquidity to feed their families.

Following the demise of the Jamahiriya system in 2011, national and international efforts aimed at steering the country towards a new democratic political order have failed. One of the key shortcomings has been the absence of an inclusive national process to lay the foundation for the vision of a new Libya. Instead, there has been revolutionary zeal by the winners of the 2011 civil war, that translated into the adoption of punitive legislation such the Political Isolation law, as well as an over-reliance on elections as an instrument to provide legitimacy to transitional governing institutions.

READ MORE Libya trapped between a strategy of chaos and the spectre of a new dictatorship

Three general elections conducted since 2012, have reinforced political polarisation rather than the legitimacy of governing institutions. The main reason is that the UN supported transition process emphasised  power-sharing modalities, and did not pay enough attention to the establishment of a new social contract in Libya.

No constitution since 1969

The Libyan state has been governed without a constitution since 1969, after the Gaddafi military coup abolished the independence-era constitution. Following the 2011 toppling of the Gaddafi regime, the national debate has revolved around two approaches to re-establish constitutional order: return to the independence era constitution with a possibility to reform it, or elect a Constitution Drafting Assembly following the footsteps of the UN supported pre-independence era 60 member constitutional committee, that drafted Libya’s independence constitution in 1951.

The latter approach prevailed, and elections for the selection of the Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) were conducted in 2014. However, the elections were conducted in a tense atmosphere with only 498,000 Libyans voting out of three million registered voters. Thus, the legitimacy of the CDA was put in question from the onset, and the subsequent further deterioration of the security situation meant that the CDA developed a constitutional draft without broad national consultations.

The initial timeline for submitting the constitutional draft for referendum is long overdue. There is a need for concerted efforts to complete the constitutional process. To its credit, the UN envisaged National Conference that was due to take place in April 2019, had the constitutional process as one of its key agenda items. Unfortunately, the conference which was prepared over a period of 18 months, had to be cancelled following the military attack of Khalifa Haftar affiliated forces on Tripoli before the start of the conference.

READ MORE Libya’s Haftar and the assault on Tripoli

The current military stalemate in Libya has created a renewed momentum to revive the political process under the auspices of the UN. However, the outcome of various preparatory rounds of talks held in Morocco, Egypt and Switzerland seem to be directed at maintaining the current transitional governing institutions that emanated from the UN mediated 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, and reforming their composition by introducing geographical selection criteria.

Such an approach will prolong the life of institutions that are seen as illegitimate and ineffective in the eyes of many Libyans.

Bottom line

Instead of subjecting Libyans to yet another transitional governance formula based on short term power sharing interests, the international community should put greater emphasis on supporting Libyans to identify an inclusive national path towards establishing a constitutional order.

Libyans need to rebuild their common house before deciding who will rule the house.

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