“In Egypt and Tunisia, elections were forged, but at least we knew what they were,” says an Egyptian trainer of election monitors. “Libyans have no idea.”
Political illiteracy, inexperience and lack of trust are fuelling tension between the civilian and military wings of Libya’s revolution – the National Transitional Council and the thuwwar (revolutionaries), respectively – that is undermining prospects of a democratic transition, says The Economist’s Nicolas Pelham.
The armed militias are “afraid that an elected government will limit their voice,” says Milad al-Hawti, a recruit to the Benghazi branch of the Supreme Security Commission.
“If the thuwwar are to make a bid for power, their window of opportunity is now, while the NTC — with its less than solid legitimacy — still holds the constitutional reins,” Pelham writes in the Middle East Report:
Friction between the civilian and military arms of the revolution has been brewing since the first days of the February 2011 uprising, when a nascent civilian leadership, the NTC, struggled to establish a semblance of governance over liberated territories. To stand up its authority in the face of a plethora of anarchic rival groups of thuwwar under its wing, and prepare for a smooth transition, the NTC reached out to defecting old regime commanders and their forces. But what the NTC viewed as a professional corps, able to stabilize a post-Qaddafi era, the thuwwar saw as a fifth column riddled with Qaddafi loyalists bent on denying them ownership of the revolution for which they had risked their lives.
Democracy practitioners have noted that Libya shares certain potentially disturbing similarities to Iraq. The latter’s experience is most relevant to Libya, said Laith Kubba, the Iraqi-born Middle East director at the National Endowment for Democracy, notably in the challenges of tribalism, the legacy of regime brutality, and demands for retribution.
“The tensions between those advocating for retaining a functioning authority and those bent on building a new order from scratch mirror those that coursed through Iraq after America’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003,” Pelham notes:
While the thuwwar champed at the bit for a Libyan version of debaathification, and the expunging of a rotten regime, the NTC focused on rapid stabilization using the preexisting machinery of government. The first NTC members to arrive in Tripoli following its August 2011 fall came armed with a stabilization plan, which in its opening paragraphs pronounced its determination to avoid the pitfalls of debaathification. Yet without the support of the militias that conquered the capital, the plan remained ink on paper. Within three months, the NTC’s then-prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, an erstwhile confidante of Sayf al-Islam, and the architect of his stabilization team, ‘Arif Nayid, had resigned and left the country.
The absence of social trust is one of the most disabling legacies of Gaddafi’s rule, observers suggest, a vacuum that the former autocrat took pains to fill for his own purposes.
“Every dictator needs someone he can trust,” writes Lindsey Hilsum, author of Sandstorm; Libya in the Time of Revolution:
Gaddafi, supreme guide of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, otherwise known as the Guide, relied on his brother-in-law, Abdullah al-Senussi. Scarcely known in the west outside intelligence circles, Senussi was the most feared man in Libya apart from the Brother Leader himself. [Recently-released] photographs tell the story. Gaddafi is always centre stage in his flamboyant robes or well-cut fatigues. Senussi, a dark-skinned man with curly hair in nondescript chinos or a suit, is usually out of the frame or in the shadows – present but scarcely noticeable. With Gaddafi dead, western intelligence services and Libya’s new rulers are vying to get hold of the man Libyans call “Gaddafi’s black box”.
Senussi was also alert to the need that most of the world’s dictators feel – to exercise soft power to burnish or boost their global reputation, notes Hilsum, the international editor of the UK’s Channel 4 News:
Documents uncovered by the exiled opposition reveal that Senussi was a contact person for Monitor Group, the PR company which helped Seif al-Islam write his PhD thesis at the London School of Economics, and arranged for top academics to visit Tripoli. In a 2006 memo to Senussi, Monitor’s CEO, Mark Fuller, outlined a plan to “enhance international understanding and appreciation of Libya”, which later elided into a new project “to enhance the profile of Libya and Muammar Qadhafi”.
Growing friction between Libya’s provinces and the NTC’s failure to deliver on expectations of job opportunities and improving living standards are also sapping the government’s legitimacy, writes activist and analyst Mohamed Eljarh:
Safeguards within the political system are needed to ensure rights of all regions are protected. Also, decentralization has to be constitutionalized and clear outline of duties and separation of powers between the central and local governments is crucial for enforcing trust between the different regions. Moreover, a timeline for the different phases of any decentralized system has to be planned and tangible results need to be achieved to calm down the concerns and fears of the people who have been affected by marginalization and centralized rule.
While competition between rival families, tribes and provinces has bred instability, it also guarantees a degree of pluralism likely to ensure that “the reemergence of a despotic leadership …..is unlikely anytime soon,” analyst Wolfram Lacher writes for the Middle East Policy Council:
The localized and fragmented nature of political and military players, as they emerged during the revolution, suggests that the transition will be led by a loose and fragile coalition of interests, rather than any single political force or institution. Too many local counterweights to central authority, in the form of local councils and revolutionary brigades, developed during the conflict.
“As critical to filling the security, economic and judicial vacuum is the realization of the constitutional agenda,” notes Pelham, but the government’s lack of legitimacy and citizen’s political illiteracy are major constraints:
The NTC’s efforts to claw back central control have been fraught. Jibril’s replacement, ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Kib, is a self-effacing professor with an oversized sense of his own lack of legitimacy. “Not before the elections” has become a mantra for all requests to revamp the old bureaucratic procedures for everything from tendering contracts for public housing to issuing visas to foreign journalists. As a result, what government exists is for the most part a relic of the old. Ministers admit their lack of control over a recalcitrant middle management steeped in decades of Qaddafism. Though the government has nominally hiked salaries, tens of thousands of new employees have gone without payment for months, puncturing popular good will.
Moreover, the NTC’s lack of transparency has undermined public trust in its dispersal of estimated monthly oil revenues of $5 billion and a further $200 billion of Libyan investments. Originally comprised of nine members, it now numbers 86, spawning new members without any clear process for appointments. Even its employees find it opaque. “I have no idea who the NTC is,” says a security official. “We don’t know their names. We don’t have their CVs. Many think that the bulk are remnants of the old regime.”
“If central authority is to take root and Libya transit from revolution to reconstruction,” Pelham concludes. “it will need a government with sufficient legitimacy to withstand the centrifugal forces of the militias. An elected government will enjoy a popular mandate to overhaul Qaddafi’s inheritance that the NTC has largely shunned for over a year.”