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The Libyan Elections: Too Much, Too Soon?

After four decades under Gaddafi, there are concerns that Libya is not yet ready for elections.
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Building institutions in Tripoli. Photograph by Ammar Abd Rabbo.

Tripoli, Libya:

At Tripoli University, young students returning to their classes in the post-Gaddafi era are still coming to terms with their newfound political freedoms.

“We only talk politics now,” says Aya Krema, a student sitting among her friends in the university’s law faculty. “Before we just had [Gaddafi’s] green book, but now we are free to speak about everything.”

Both the students and their teachers, long forced to peddle Gaddafi propaganda in lectures, are optimistic about Libya’s planned transition to democratic government.

“Now the students are thinking in a different way, they are looking forward to building a democracy,” says Mansour al-Fitir, a lecturer in law. “I try to encourage them to form small political groups, but it’s a big challenge when you’re starting with very little knowledge.”

Starting from scratch

Libya and its interim leaders face a huge challenge in preparing for the transition to democracy.

The country has not seen any recognisable form of national election since the 1960s, unlike its neighbours Tunisia and Egypt where the questionable elections at least gave the veneer of legitimacy to their autocratic regimes.

But under a timetable set out by Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), the first elections are due to be held in less than six months to appoint a constitution-writing body. Full multi-party elections are scheduled for 2013.

In that time, democratic institutions, non-existent under the previous regime, must be built from the ground up. The public, most of whom are voting for the first time, have to learn quickly about political parties, constitutions and voting.

This must take place against a backdrop of Libya’s still-precarious security situation in which serious questions are being asked of the central government’s credibility and influence, particularly outside the capital Tripoli and among the dozens of regional militia who have yet to lay down their arms.

A new beginning

In recent weeks, lists of political parties have been circulated to the media, but it remains unclear how organised they are, and there is little recognition of them among Libyan people. Even among the enthusiastic Tripoli students, few could name any politicians beyond the high-profile head of the NTC, Mustafa Abdel Jalil.

“This is a culture that has been in political ignorance for more than 40 years,” says Khalifa Shakreen, a lecturer in political sciences at Tripoli University. “There is a total lack of awareness among the people that elections are going to happen, and you have to build the institutions from nothing. It’s a huge task to perform in a limited time and in a very chaotic situation.”

Despite those concerns, the man charged with preparing Libya for those elections is in an optimistic mood.

Abdurrahim al-Keib used to be an exiled professor of electrical engineering, but is now Libya’s latest interim Prime Minister. Barring major security problems, Mr Keib says, the elections deadline will be met.

“You can never be 100% ready, but we are serious about that deadline and based on what I see and feel, I’m very optimistic that we’ll meet it,” he said, sitting in the plush offices that once housed Gaddafi’s loyal ministers.

He rejected suggestions that Libyans are unprepared: “Gaddafi used to say ‘people are not ready for democracy’. He said that for 42 years, and I have never believed it.”

Moving too fast?

But security remains the biggest threat to the election plans. Last month, Bani Walid, once a stronghold of Gaddafi loyalists, appeared to fall out of the NTC’s control, underlying the weakness of its authority in a country without a functioning police force or national army.

Criticism of the government is growing, with protestors even storming the offices of the NTC in Benghazi to express their frustration with the slowness of progress following the liberation of Libya last year.

Cities that currently exist almost as independent states are losing patience too – Misrata, which sits between Tripoli and Benghazi, is even talking about holding its own local elections without the consent of the central government.

Analysts say the government is fearful of delaying the transition to democracy in case it is accused of attempting to make a grab for power, as military is accused of in Egypt. But they warn that rushing into elections before the country is ready could be disastrous.

“[Imposing a deadline] was a huge mistake,” said Mr Shakreen. “You can’t rebuild a country in six months. If the transition to democracy fails, it could be a disappointing way to begin the new post-Gaddafi era.”

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