Libya Is Still Fighting for Democracy

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The battle against Qaddafi might be long over, but the struggle to build a free, stable, and pluralistic Libya is just beginning.

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Libyans celebrate after voting in Benghazi. (Reuters).

Nine months after the death of Muammar Qaddafi, Libyans went to vote for the first time since 1965, a major step towards a more pluralistic Libya. The country held the free and fair elections in a state of relative peace and public enthusiasm. Despite 40 years of dictatorship, little training in participatory policy, low levels of education, and fragmented politics, Libyans themselves ensured the success of the elections by flocking to the polls. In the eastern provinces, supporters of federalism -- a controversial call to grant Libyan provinces greater autonomy from the capital -- tried to undermine the electoral process by attacking some polling stations, yet in all cases except one, were turned away by newly created and impressively disciplined security forces as well as by voters who stood for their rights. That's the glass-half-full view of the Libyan election, and it's important. But the glass-half-empty view matters as well.

For all the reasons to celebrate Libya's election, many in the West might be overestimating the importance of the presumed electoral victory of the secularists and liberals, led by Mahmoud Jibril, who had served as interim prime minister of the revolutionary transitional government during the 2011 conflict. As Jibril himself has stated, calling his party secularist and liberal is a mistake. His is chiefly a nationalist movement. Though some parties are associated with Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, none identifies as explicitly Islamist or secularist. This election is actually only for the 80 seats in the new, 200-person legislative assembly that are chosen by voting for party lists rather than individual candidates. The other 120 seats are reserved for independent candidates; no one knows exactly what affiliation they will align themselves with after being elected. It will be at least a few weeks, then, before we can judge which parties or groups will have how much power in the assembly.

It's still not clear exactly what Libyans were voting for. The roadmap for Libya's political transition, established in August 2011, said that the election of a Constituent Assembly would be held within a year. This assembly was supposed to appoint a government and write a new constitution. According to the plan, Libyans would then vote for a parliament or house of representatives as described in the hypothetical new constitution. The winners of that election would then form the first definitive, non-transitional government. But is that still the plan?

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A few months ago the National Transitional Council (NTC), which has governed Libya since the first few weeks of the revolt in 2011, announced that the assembly would not draft the constitution itself but instead appoint a 60-member committee to draft it. The members of this committee were supposed to be chosen from outside the assembly and represent the country's three geographic regions of Libya -- Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan -- in equal numbers. Yet, a few weeks ago, the NTC changed policy again at the last moment, declaring that the members of the constitutional committee would not be appointed by the assembly but directly elected by the people, though it's not clear when. Confused? So are Libyans.

There are rumors in Libya that most members of the NTC are not happy about the idea of dissolving the institution and going back home. It's just a rumor, but the group's decision to revoke constitution-writing powers from the new assembly is making people suspicious, and that's the point. The NTC likely fears too much power going to Islamists, who are notoriously less friendly toward the NTC than are other groups. We can't know the NTC's motivations for sure, but their recent moves diminished the power of the new assembly, which they may have feared would be dominated by Islamists, who swept national elections in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. A more democratic Libya would reject the NTC's odd rule-changing and reinstate the elected assembly's power to write the constitution. After all, this is what Libyans voted for. So should the same Western powers that supported the Libyan revolt.

Libya has come a long way since Qaddafi's fall, but it still hasn't been able to solve two major security problems: the armed militias that still roam the country and the state's deteriorating control of its national borders. Fortunately, this is where new assembly can step in, finding agreement among the various parties and militias and forming a government, one that is as inclusive as possible, to administer and rebuild Libya. The international community can help, including by training and equipping the police and security forces, both of which were devastated by the recent conflict.

A successful election is just the start of dealing with one of Libya's most important challenges right now: national unity. Regional and local claims and jockeying for power threaten to undermine the legitimacy of and support for the national government. A few thousand inhabitants of the eastern provinces care calling for a federalist state, if not of outward secession. While this is definitely a minority position, it is a very dangerous one because it could easily, at the administration's first real difficulty, split the government and the people, thus slowing or even reversing Libya's progress toward stability. Most Libyans, as well as the interested Western nations, are rightly happy with Libya's progress toward becoming a stable, unified, democratic state. But if they want that progress to continue, they'll all have to work together.

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Karim Mezran is professor of Middle East and North African Studies at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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