As US-based democracy groups rebut Egyptian officials’ claims that they are interfering in domestic affairs, Libyan activists are complaining that foreign funding from another source is undermining the country’s transition.
Qatar has emerged as a major player in the Arab Awakening, not least in Libya where it provided anti-Gadhafi rebels with arms, supplies, training, a satellite TV channel, diplomatic backing and at least $100 million in financial assistance.
“Well-crafted financial assistance, like that of Qatar to groups in Libya, or indeed China in Africa generally, can more directly buy loyalty,” says John Chipman, head of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. The tiny Gulf state is an exemplar of political power in a ‘non-polar’ world, he writes:
Russian and Chinese leaders like to speak of a multipolar world, a term which implies they hold a clearly defined proportion of power. Yet this is a 20th-century phrase and concept. We live in a “non-polar” world with many competing agencies of influence and persuasion. Our century has a neo-Darwinian flavor: not so much “survival of the fittest,” as “power to the most agile.” It is speed, rather than heft, that can determine diplomatic and even military victories, confer financial advantage and even decide the fates of political regimes. No surprise, then, that some smaller powers—archetypically today’s Qatar—can run circles around the more established players.
But many Libyans believe that the emirate’s “aid has come at a price…[and] say Qatar provided a narrow clique of Islamists with arms and money, giving them great leverage over the political process,” Time magazine reports.
“I think what they have done is basically support the Muslim Brotherhood,” says former NTC Deputy Prime Minister Ali Tarhouni. “They have brought armaments and they have given them to people that we don’t know.”
“Qatar is weakening Libya,” says an NTC member. “In funding the Islamists, they are upsetting the balance of politics and making it difficult for us to move forward. They need to stop their meddling.”
The controversy has emerged at a delicate stage in Libya’s transition, with this week’s publication of a draft electoral law sparking debate over a range of issues, from women’s representation to ensuring the appropriate balance between retribution and reconciliation.
“Hours after being posted online, the draft document went viral,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “as the Libyan Twittersphere and local bloggers—both of which have emerged as a vital part of the civil discourse in post-Gadhafi political landscape—digested what they see as an initial step on their road to democracy.”
Civil society and rights groups denounced proposals to reserve only ten percent of seats in the General National Congress – the constituent assembly – for women.
“Libyan women currently make up over 50% of the population, and the idea that they will be strictly limited to only 20 seats is extremely outrageous,” said the Libyan Human Rights Alliance, a network of non-governmental groups.
“We as an alliance… believe that it is the duty of civil and political actors to work together and synchronize efforts to ensure a fair representation of women in the upcoming elected governing body,” it said.
Draft articles prohibiting candidates running for office if they benefited financially from the former regime or received unmerited qualifications drew criticism from legal advocates.
“That criteria could be used against three-quarters of the country,” said Massaoud El Kanuni, a constitutional lawyer. “How are we going to follow a path of national reconciliation if so many people are excluded from [the country's] future?”
NTC leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil said that the law was only a draft and could still be amended.
“The draft law leaves the most difficult and politically delicate questions, like drawing up districts or settling on an electoral system, to a proposed commission to be named later,” writes The New York Times’s David Kirkpatrick:
Those questions are especially thorny because their answers will inevitably favor some regions or groups over others. The transitional government is already struggling with little success to persuade various local militias around the country to surrender their arms and submit to a central authority. The local chiefs are holding on to their weapons in part to ensure that their local interests do not lose out in the formation of a new government.
Any provisional government must be subjected to clear rules and institutional constraints based on transparency and accountability, according to a report from the National Endowment for Democracy. In dealing with the inherited state apparatus, “a balance must be struck between the need to vet and, in some cases, prosecute Gadhafi loyalists and the need to integrate old and new regimes,” the report suggested.
Some NTC officials dismiss claims that Qatar’s selective funding of Libya’s Islamists is undermining the transition process.
“People say Qatar has an agenda. There is no proof of this,” says NTC Vice Chairman Abd al-Hafiz Ghoga. “They just had a big role in the revolution.”
The emirate’s political tentacles extend across the region, says Foreign Policy analyst Blake Hounsell, but it is far from neutral or non-partisan when it comes to providing aid.
“They keep their ear to the ground, and they have a good finger on who’s popular in various countries. They support Islamist movements all across North Africa,” he tells NPR. “They’re very influential in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt. And in Syria, they have close ties to a lot of different groups but, you know, especially the Islamists.”
Some activists fear that the imposition of ideological agendas is distracting attention from the need for reconstruction, but Westerners should not be unduly concerned about Islamist influence, says Abd al-Hakim al-Nadshih, a founder of the Tripoli Coalition citizens’ forum.
“You Europeans collaborated with our autocrats for decades — don’t start talking about the danger of Islamism now,” he tells Der Spiegel. “I would also rather have liberal political parties. But the Islamists are there anyway, whether we like it or not.”
Even Europe’s communists eventually became upright social democrats, he argues.
Perhaps Islamism, that lifeline to Arab-Islamic culture, actually has its counterpart in Europe. Perhaps it can be compared with rebellious Catholicism in Poland and with the renaissance of orthodoxy in Russia.
In any case, people are thirsting for debate. The newspapers are already sold out by noon.
But while most Arab democrats and their Western supporters welcome Islamist participation in the political process, they have a legitimate concern that clandestine funding, allied to the organizational advantage of formerly latent mosque-based networks, is creating an uneven playing field.
“Our Qatari brothers helped us liberate Libya,” said Muktar al-Akhdar, a militia leader from Zintan. “But it’s now interfering in our internal affairs.”
While most democracy assistance is transparent, cleared with host governments and made available to groups across the political spectrum, Saudi and Gulf states’ funding is opaque, and specifically designed and targeted to benefit Islamist groups.
“If aid comes through the front door, we like Qatar,” says Libyan General Khalifa Hiftar. “But if it comes through the window to certain people [and] bypassing official channels, we don’t want Qatar.”