On July 7, 2012, 1.7 million citizens participated in Libya’s first democratic election with multiple parties in nearly half a century, marking a historic achievement. Approximately 60 percent of Libya’s registered voters cast their votes to elect a 200-member national assembly that will replace the unelected interim government, the National Transition Council (NTC).
Violence on July 7, which resulted in one death and the burning of several ballot boxes, was substantially lower than many anticipated following months of violent clashes between various factions, including those seeking to undermine the NTC’s capacity to administer the election. Alexander Graf Lamsdorff of the European Union Assessment Team stated, "It is remarkable that nearly all Libyans cast their ballot free from fear or intimidation.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon praised the Libyan candidates for engaging “in a peaceful, democratic spirit” and United States President Barack Obama credited the Libyan voters with “another milestone on their extraordinary transition to democracy.”
Nonetheless, Libya’s transition to democracy will require far more than a peaceful and democratic election. The legitimacy of the elected government depends on its capacity to disarm local militants while ensuring all Libyans’ security, effectively distributing Libya’s petro-wealth and specifying Islam’s role in governance. The resolution of these polarizing and controversial issues -- peacefully within the framework of democratic institutions or through continued violence and authoritarianism -- will define the post-Gaddafi era in Libya.
Tribal Score Settling
After Gaddafi’s regime fell to rebel forces, many Libyans celebrated the end of a 42-year dictatorship. But not everyone rejoiced. The tribal and ethnic communities that fought alongside the regime, often due to Gaddafi’s bribes and threats, soon experienced the revolution’s dark side. One year after the “Arab Spring” reached Libya, Amnesty International reported on widespread atrocities committed by fighters seeking to settle old scores with their rivals. The report emphasized the NTC’s failure to protect marginalized Libyans from ex-rebels who have thus far refused to lay down their arms after Gaddafi’s ouster.
The dark-skinned Libyans of the Tawargha community, for instance, will remember the Libyan revolution as a tragedy. Tawarghans were a favored tribe during the Gaddafi years, their loyalty to the regime purchased with money and a town, logically named Tawargha, outside Misrata. “Gaddafi favored them as part of his project to integrate Libya with the rest of Africa,” according to Lindsey Wilsum. When the violence between government forces and the rebels erupted, Tawarghan forces hosted Gaddafi’s armored brigades as they shelled Misrata. According to many Misratans, Tawarghan fighters carried out atrocities such as rape to terrorize Gaddafi’s opposition. In retaliation, once Misrata fell, the rebels subjected countless innocent Tawarghans to “torture, beatings, detentions and executions” and carried out raids against Tawarghan refugees in the Janzur camp, twelve kilometers west of Tripoli. Most residents of Tawargha were forced to flee in August 2011 when anti-Gaddafi forces looted, vandalized, and torched their homes and infrastructure. Former rebels determined to continue their score settling frequently hunted down the 30,000 Tawarghans displaced all over Libya.
The Mshashiya and Qawalish tribes from the Nafusa Mountain area have suffered a similar plight. Opposition fighters from Zintan waged revenge attacks, which resulted in hundreds of deaths in June 2012 alone, against the members of these tribes for alleged loyalty to Gaddafi. After rebels gained greater control, many tribal members fled for Tripoli and continue to live as internally displaced refugees for fear of returning home.
Throughout the summer of 2012, vengeance and historic grievances between the black Tabu and Arab Zwai tribes have stained southeastern Libya with bloodshed. The majority of the Tabu tribe lives in neighboring Chad, with some inhabitants in Libya, and they have been accused of bringing foreign mercenaries into Libya to fight for Gaddafi’s regime. Although Gaddafi did hire foreign African mercenaries, primarily from Niger and Mali, to shell unarmed demonstrators with machine guns in Benghazi as the initial protests began during February 2011, today all dark-skinned Libyans and economic migrant workers from Sub-Saharan Africa are vulnerable to revenge attacks motivated by racist sentiments deeply rooted in Libya’s history. The Tabu tribe’s leader in Libya, Issa Abdel-Majid, stated that his tribe’s members would boycott the election in response to the NTC’s handling of deadly clashes between the Tabu and the Zwai.
Provided its limited power and legitimacy, the NTC was unable to quell the violence between locally armed militias and protect the Libyan peoples’ human rights, despite its obligation to do so as outlined by the NTC’s Constitutional Declaration of August 2011. Gaining these destitute tribes’ trust and respect will be a challenge for the next government and its capacity to establish democratic institutions.
Libya’s next government will also face the daunting task of resolving the question of regional autonomy. Many in Libya’s eastern region, Cyrenaica, advocate federalism or increased autonomy, and some even demand independence. By contrast, most from Libya’s western and southern regions, Tripolitania and Fezzan, strongly oppose the decentralization of power. Approximately 80 percent of Libya’s oil lies in Cyrenaica, a major point of conflict.
When oil was discovered in Libya during 1959, the country was a federation. Consequently, the oil fields of Eastern Libya poured wealth into Cyrenaica, where King Idris came from and governed and where the Sanusi brand of political Islam flourished, while Tripolitanians and Fezzanites lived without the proceeds of Libya’s oil sales. Gaddafi, who belonged to a desert Bedouin tribe from Tripolitania that valued equality, grew up with resentment for the privileged Libyans from the Mediterranean coast in Cyrenaica. This powerful grudge was shared by the other members of the Libyan Free Unionist Officers who helped Gaddafi overthrow the monarchy on September 1, 1969. According to American University professors Akbar Ahmed and Frankie Martin:
Gaddafi reserved special vitriol for the Sanusi and people of Cyrenaica. He marginalised the Cyrenaica tribes in favour of his own tribe - the Gaddafa - and other western tribes. Gaddafi hunted down Sanusi figures, smashed Sanusi graves - scattering their bones in the desert - and disinterred the body of the Grand Sanusi. In 1988, Gaddafi blew up the Sanusi University in Jaghbub.
When the initial protests of February 2011 began in the Cyrenaican Benghazi and Al-Bayda, protestors chanted anti-Gaddafi slogans, waved the Sanusi flag that represented Cyrenaica during its shortly lived independence from 1949 until 1951, and held up portraits of King Idris. Several weeks after the uprising began, the Benghazi conference of tribal leaders selected King Idris’ nephew, Zubair Ahmed al-Sanusi, to lead the newly established Cyrenaica Transitional Council, which announced its self-proclaimed independence from Tripoli in March 2012.
Although the interim government allocated the 200 seats in the parliament to the three regions based on population (100 for Tripolitania, 60 for Cyrenaica, and 40 for Fezzan), many Cyrenaicans allege that the allocation is unequal and invests too much power in Tripoli. Many Benghazians take credit for starting the uprising and sacrificing the most for the revolution and thus feel entitled to greater representation within Libya’s next government. One week before the elections, hundreds of pro-federalism Cyrenaicans stormed the High National Election Commission’s building in Benghazi and burned voting materials to protest the allocation of seats.
However, voter turnout was high in Cyrenaica, suggesting that the majority of Eastern Libyans believe that it is in their interest to participate in the democratic process regardless of how much autonomy they are granted. The calls for independence and separatism in Eastern Libya likely issue from a vocal minority that does not represent most in Cyrenaica, thus decreasing the probability of Libya undergoing partition. Nonetheless, the next government will have to resolve tensions between Cyrenaicians and Tripolitanians over the issue of resource allocation if it seeks to possess greater legitimacy in the East than the previous regime had.
Secular or Islamist
Although Libya is a conservative Muslim country, its citizens hold a diverse set of views on the proper role of Islam in politics. Most Libyans fear religious extremism, yet many still demand that Islam play a central role in governance. In 1989, Gaddafi claimed that Islamists were “more dangerous than AIDS,” and for several decades he harshly suppressed the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood. Nevertheless, when he took power, the Libyan leader also legalized polygamy and prohibited alcohol in accordance with sharia law. The political opening created by Gaddafi’s ouster has certainly provided Libya’s Islamists the opportunity to gain influence. Although Mahmoud Jibril’s liberal coalition, which won 39 out of 80 seats reserved for political parties, triumphed over the Muslim Brotherhood bloc, which only won 17, on July 7, Islamists will remain an influential force in Libyan politics with the capacity to influence the democratic transition, for better or worse.
The Islamists of Libya possess a diverse set of views on democracy. The newly formed Libyan Islamic Movement for Change consented to the NTC’s rule in March 2011, indicating a willingness to work alongside non-Islamist political entities. Considering that most of its members were armed jihadists in the 1990s, the organization has become increasingly pragmatic about politics. Muhammed Suwan, the President of the Justice and Construction Party (the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing), has “reiterated his rejection of violence and the need to accept the results of the election peacefully.”
By contrast, Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) condemned the election as “un-Islamic,” suggesting that the electoral victors will possess no legitimacy within this hard-line circle. Militant Salafists’ conduct also indicates that certain Libyans will not respect democratic procedures and institutions or human rights. If radical elements oppose their fellow citizens’ right to religious freedom and wage deadly attacks against those who peacefully practice a different version of Islam, the transition to democracy will be hindered.
Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace documented the tension between Islamist extremists and others during the months preceding the election: “[Ansar al-Sharia] arrived in technical vehicles to Benghazi’s Liberation Square, demanding the imposition of Islamic law. They were quickly dispersed, however, by a counterdemonstration of civil society activists bearing flags emblazoned with ‘Libya Is Not Afghanistan.’”
Sufian bin Qumu is a former Libyan rebel who once worked as Osama Bin Laden’s truck driver before six years of detainment in Guantanamo Bay. Today he remains armed and, according to The New York Times, he knows only the Koran as his constitution and is committed to remaining armed until Libya adopts a “Taliban-Islamic style government.” In his hometown of Darnah, which, according to the US Army, sent more Libyan jihadists to join the insurgency in Iraq against U.S. troops than any other Libyan town, Qumu leads a militia that flies the black flag of militant Islam and has been accused of committing violent acts against more moderate Islamists since Gaddafi’s ouster. Considering that most Libyans, including Islamists, do not favor hostile relations with the West, Qumu and like-minded militants will not likely win at the ballot box should they decide to run at some point.
The struggle for democracy and respect for human rights in Libya is far from over. On balance, the prospects for democratization in Libya appear mixed. One major reason for pessimism is the “resource curse,” which holds that economies dependent on non-renewable natural resources develop more slowly and inevitably fall under control of authoritarian governments. Libya, dependent on hydrocarbons for 95 percent of export earnings, 80 percent of its revenue, and 65 percent of its GDP, has certainly fallen victim to oil dependency. If Libya achieves democratic transition without gaining economic independence from hydrocarbons, it will be the first oil-dependent economy to democratize after discovering oil. (The only democratic country that is economically dependent on oil is Norway, which achieved a democratic transition before discovering oil).
At the same time, Libya’s oil reserves, ranked 18th worldwide, can provide the small population of nearly 7 million with many resources to rebuild the country and undergo economic development. Compared to Egypt, where there is a dearth of natural resource wealth and many of its 84 million citizens live below the poverty line, the Libyans may have reason for gratitude. Moreover, one of Gaddafi’s legacy’s that may bode well for democratization was the improvement in education during his 42-year reign. After Libyan oil was nationalized following the 1969 revolution, the government channeled massive amounts of petro-wealth into education, providing many Libyan students the opportunity to study overseas at Western universities. Today, Libya’s literacy rate of nearly 83 percent is the highest in North Africa, and many Libyans are professionals capable of working highly skilled jobs. Libya’s elite intellectuals who spent many years abroad in liberal democracies are positioned to play a positive role in the establishment of national democratic institutions.
Libya’s lack of a civil society, another legacy of Gaddafi’s regime, will hinder the democratic transition. Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, has argued that democracy depends on non-government entities within civil society. Along Putnam’s line of reasoning, Arab states with a more vibrant civil society, such as Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon, are more likely to successfully transition to democracy. Libyan commitment to civil society organizations remains quite weak, particularly in comparison to tribal loyalties.
Libya’s tribal divisions are far more deeply rooted in the people’s history than national Libyan identity. In fact, Libya’s three regions were separate Ottoman provinces until the Italo-Turkish war (1911-1912), which transferred the territory to the Italian Empire. Only in 1934 did Mussolini’s regime unite Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan into the colony of Libya, thus inventing the political entity that achieved national independence in 1951. It was no surprise, then, that after Gaddafi’s ouster, many Libyans resorted to tribal structures for survival when a power vacuum emerged in Tripoli. The deep-seated grievances that various tribes have against their rivals, a tension that Gaddafi’s regime effectively exploited to consolidate its control over society, only fan the flames of racism and intolerance. Such a political culture does not bode well for democratization. On the other hand, the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide that has caused much bloodshed during modern history in Lebanon and Iraq and threatens to destabilize Syria, is irrelevant in Libya where nearly 99 percent of the population practices Sunni Islam.
The election of July 7 was held in relative peace and security with a high voter turnout. Whether Libya can establish the more rooted institutions and processes of democracy, however, depends on the ability of the new government to deal with the “resource curse,” the ethnic and national divisions, and the toxic legacy of the Gaddafi era.
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Originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus