- 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.
A prominent member of Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) resigned Wednesday night. Hassan al-Amin, the chairman of the Human Rights and Civil Society Committee, announced his resignation on Libyan TV, citing numerous credible death threats against him and his family. He’s since left the country and is reported to have relocated safely to London.
Amin was a representative for the city of Misrata in the GNC (Libya’s transitional legislature). One of Qaddafi’s fiercest opponents for more than 28 years, he is also the owner and editor-in-chief of the Libya al-Mostakbal newspaper, which was one of the main opposition platforms against the former dictator.
There have been numerous open threats made against Amin in the city he represents. On January 26, for example, someone wrote a message to him on the courthouse building in Misrata: "Hassan Al-Amin, watch out." In itself such language might not seem especially ominous to readers who are accustomed to living under secure conditions of the rule of law, but it’s a rather different matter in a country where militias still control the streets. These militias could take matters into their own hands at any point. Some of them are loyal to certain politicians and political groups, and can be mobilized on their orders.
The increasing threats — against Amin and others — come as Libya embarks on a very difficult year on all fronts (in terms of security as well as politically and economically). Political tensions have been on the rise since the beginning of the year, and the situation was made worse with the introduction of the divisive and controversial political isolation law designed to ban former Qaddafi officials from holding office.
Recently, on March 5, armed protestors besieged GNC members as they debated the law. The protesters were attempting to pressure GNC members into passing the bill. Fortunately, GNC members refused to bow to intimidation and refused to debate the law under threat of violence. The standoff continued for about 12 hours.
The GNC session was taking place on the outskirts of Tripoli at a location that was supposed to be secret. However, some GNC members who support the bill’s passage told the protestors where the meeting was taking place. On the same day, at least two members of the assembly, including Amin, appeared on TV and publicly accused a controversial member from Misrata, Abdurrahman Swheli (a strong supporter of the isolation law), of informing the protesters of the location. They also blamed him for mobilizing the protesters to ratchet up tensions.
Politicians aren’t the only ones being targeted. On March 7, gunmen stormed the headquarters of the privately-owned Alassema television station (see photo above) in retaliation for its coverage of the isolation law debate. The channel is linked to the leader of the National Forces Alliance, Mahmoud Jibril, whose bloc strongly opposes the political isolation law in its current form. (Jibril and his supporters contend that it’s too radical and will create a political and institutional vacuum.)
Days before his resignation, Amin launched a fierce verbal assault on the armed militias, and particularly on those in his hometown of Misrata. He also criticized the human rights abuses taking place in Libyan prisons, and accused the militias of following Qaddafi-era practices.
Amin’s resignation also highlighted frustration within GNC at the increasingly influential role being played by the Grand Mufti (the highest official of religious law in Libya), who has repeatedly used his position to influence the political agenda. In his latest intervention in politics, the Grand Mufti condemned a recent United Nations report on violence against women. Amin urged the Grand Mufti to maintain neutrality, and suggested that he should take part in the democratic process if he wants to be involved in politics. Many Libyans share this sentiment, and used social media to praise his courage. Many also echoed his concerns about the growing political influence of the Grand Mufti.
The fact that the elected politician Amin felt the need to resign and leave the country after attempting to express his opinion freely is very alarming. This incident could be the beginning of a dangerous wave of political violence in Libya, a situation in which politicians or activists could be threatened, kidnapped, or even killed for their views. This could deepen division, unleash chaos and lawlessness, and hinder the democratic transition — or perhaps even derail it completely.
Political violence in neighboring Tunisia claimed the life of Chokri Belaid, leader of the Unified Democratic Nationalist party. While Libya remains awash with weapons, an uptick political violence can all too easily lead to armed struggle between different factions.
With that in mind, leaders of the main political blocs within the GNC have agreed to hold a national dialogue to calm the rising political tensions in the country. The leader of the Justice and Construction party (the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood),and the leader of the National Forces Alliance (the liberal bloc) have agreed in principle to initiate a national discussion about a political roadmap to address many of the controversial issues, including the political isolation law.
This year Libya will embark on the process of writing a permanent constitution. These latest incidents should serve as a wake-up call to the country’s politicians. It’s time to come together and agree on a new path forward.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.