- By Mohamed EljarhMohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.
Libya is gearing up to observe the second anniversary of its revolution this week. Everyone is expecting nationwide protests against the current authorities, who are widely seen as making insufficient progress. In anticipation of the Libyan revolution’s anniversary on February 17, the authorities are calling for vigilance and restraint. Just to be on the safe side, though, they’re also implementing a broad array of security measures. De facto President Mohammed Magarief actually staged a military parade through Tripoli to demonstrate the government’s resolve.
Predictably, a number of media reports are correspondingly suggesting that a second "revolution" is about to take a place in Libya. Others are painting apocalyptic scenarios (up to and including a jihadi takeover) as Libyans prepare to mark the anniversary.
The government has ruled out any official celebrations. Cities have already started preparing for the anniversary celebrations and protests by installing colorful lights and flags on the main streets. Benghazi has launched clean-up campaigns throughout the city in preparation for the anniversary.
The reality is that much has changed in Libya since the start of the revolution in February 2011. That’s when a revolt by anti-Qaddafi demonstrators in Benghazi triggered an all-out civil war that led to Qaddafi’s downfall and death eight months later. That paved the way for the creation of a revolutionary government that subsequently yielded to the elected administration that now runs the country. A new constitution was supposed to be approved within 330 days of the formal declaration of liberation on October 23, 2011. Still, though, the pace of change does not match the high expectations of many Libyans.
On the ground, all civil society organizations and protest groups are, in fact, stressing the legitimacy of the current government and the General National Congress (GNC), the country’s interim legislature. On February 11, for example, local council leaders, political activists, and tribal leaders met in the city of Albaida with their GNC representatives to voice their frustration and grievances. Their representatives, in turn, pledged their commitment to the democratic process in Libya. Najah Salouh, one of Albaida’s representatives, vowed to convey her voters’ concerns to the GNC and the government. What this shows is that Libyans understand very well that they voted the current authorities into office, and that they accordingly feel that they have a duty to hold their representatives accountable during this very critical stage. This is precisely the sentiment that Libyans are expressing in the run-up to the anniversary; there is no talk of any need to topple the government or otherwise restage the revolution.
One of the major issues under discussion is the drafting of a new post-revolutionary constitution. Originally, according to Article 30 of the constitutional declaration (Libya’s transitional political roadmap), the GNC was supposed to appoint the constitutional drafting committee. But the so-called "federalists" managed to derail that idea. The federalists, based in Benghazi in the east, have long been calling for a significant devolution of central government powers to the regions; last March they declared semi-autonomy for their part of the country (known as Cyrenaica or Barqa), which suffered from a lack of development during the Qaddafi era because of the dictator’s propensity to channel resources to other areas that he relied upon as his power base. They’ve therefore been suspicious of plans to have the members of the constitutional drafting committee appointed by the legislature which they feared might be used by Tripoli-based politicians to ensure that power remained centered in the capital. Last summer, on the eve of national elections, they managed to pressure the interim government into a compromise: It pledged to allow for direct election of the committee’s members, thus ensuring the federalists an effective role. That concession allowed the elections to go ahead as planned. But calls for greater decentralization have continued, of course. Some have been talking about restoring an article in the country’s 1951 constitution stating that Libya has two capitals, Tripoli and Benghazi. (Yeah, it’s complicated. Nothing in today’s Libya is simple.)
Worries about overweening central power persist. Many Libyans accuse Magariaf of overstepping his mandate by trying to assume a role as Libya’s head of state. He has been dividing his time between his position as the head of the legislature and the senior state executive, opening himself to accusations that he has been trying to concentrate too much power in his own hands. Others criticize him for failing to demonstrate effective leadership of the GNC. A few days ago, on February 9, Magariaf decided to respond to these concerns in an address to the nation. He did his best to demonstrate that he’s listening to popular discontent, promising to speed up the constitution-writing process and the peaceful transfer of power.
Clearly, the government and the GNC have taken to the media over the past few days to reassure people that progress is being made, and that they’re fully aware of the demands and expectations of the people (especially in the East). The government, led by Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, has increased the number of press conferences held by various ministers and officials to update the public and media about the progress being made in different sectors throughout the country. Many Libyans welcome such efforts.
Libya’s political scene benefits from the fact that it is balanced and less polarized than that of Egypt or Tunisia. Despite the widespread frustration at the slow pace of political progress, this balance is very crucial. The head of the GNC is a compromise candidate backed by the Islamist bloc, while the prime minister is a compromise candidate backed by the liberal bloc. In addition, the head of GNC comes from the east of the country and the prime minister from the south, while the western region holds a majority in the legislature.
Clearly, security on the revolution’s second anniversary remains a huge concern, and this is reflected by the strict security measures announced by the government, especially in Tripoli and Benghazi. Mass demonstrations can be an easy target for forces who want to cause chaos and turn peaceful demonstrations into violence, with most fingers pointing at Gaddafi loyalists. The organizers of the protest demonstrations share the government’s legitimate concerns, and so they’ve been working to emphasize the peaceful nature of their protests.
The government is leaving nothing to chance, and has announced the closure of the borders with Egypt and Tunisia. The number of checkpoints in cities has been increased, and units of the Supreme Security Committee (manned by members of the revolutionary militias) have been deployed in large numbers.
Amid the political, institutional, and security vacuum created by the fall of Gaddafi’s tyrannical regime, a new era is emerging, one in which many Libyans aspire to realize the ideals of liberty, equality and rule of law. These ideals are genuine, and Libyans remain optimistic that they can be realized.
Libyans are currently practicing their democratic right to protest and hold their elected government accountable. They’re sending a strong message to their new leaders that they’ve found their long-lost freedom, and they will use that freedom to realize a fully democratic and prosperous Libya.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.