- 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.
Each day, Libya’s General National Congress (GNC), the highest political authority in the country, draws closer to a looming existential crisis that could lead to a total power vacuum and the collapse of Libya’s democratic transition. The GNC, the interim legislature elected among high hopes in August 2012, faces mounting pressure from the public, civil society groups, political activists, and some blocs within the GNC itself to complete its mandate and hand over its power to a new body early next year.
The groups are demanding that the legislative body end its mandate on Feb. 7, 2014 — a date calculated according to the deadlines set by the country’s constitutional declaration (the transitional roadmap), which was drafted by the National Transitional Council in May 2011. (In the photo above, protesters continue to demonstrate two years after Libya’s revolutionaries declared victory.) But despite the relatively wide consensus on ending the GNC’s mandate, there is no clear agreement on how to replace the congress or what the GNC’s successor should look like.
The country has yet to elect the Constituent Assembly in charge of drafting the constitution, though it has set an ambitious deadline for its election: Dec. 24. Technically and logistically, the Higher Elections Commission, which is in charge of running the electoral process, is capable of conducting the vote, but the growing chaos makes it look increasingly unlikely the election will actually be held.
Anti-GNC sentiment is growing because of ebbing public trust in the GNC and the political parties, which have been mired in an unhealthy political struggle for power. Many blame the various factions within the GNC for the trouble. Indeed, polarization has deepened since the GNC elections in July 2012. Different political groups are pursuing their own narrow-minded agendas with complete disregard for the interests of the nation and its people. The intensifying struggle for power means that the current government is unable to make decisions even over matters of huge importance to national security. These issues include the rebuilding of the national police and army forces. More immediately, deciding which currently existing armed groups should be deployed to improve security often prompts clashes of interest, since the factions are usually keen on approving the use of forces that are loyal to them.
A new campaign called the "November 9th Movement" emerged a few weeks ago with the express mission of addressing the GNC’s failings. It has been gaining momentum in its quest to re-elect a new GNC on Dec. 24, the same date set for the Constituent Assembly elections. The movement is calling for the new GNC elections to be based on independent lists (rather than closed party lists, where candidates are elected based on what party they belong to). The movement blames the continuing political infighting on closed party lists, despite the fact that 120 out of the 200 GNC members were elected the first time around using independent lists. What’s more, the movement does not have a clear vision or framework to guarantee progress after the election of a new GNC. Re-electing another GNC using only individual lists would only reproduce the problems of the current political arrangement in a new form. There are no guarantees that the new GNC will automatically start to form new political blocs on regional, tribal, or ideological bases.
Another initiative called the "National Working Group," led by ex-government officials and known figures and activists from Benghazi, is also urging the GNC to end its mandate on Feb. 7, 2014. This movement does not, however, support new elections for the GNC. Instead it is calling for the creation of a presidential council led by the head of the Constituent Assembly (to be elected in December), the head of the Higher Judicial Council, and the head of the Supreme Court. The initiative also stresses that Libya should adopt the pre-Qaddafi 1951 constitution as the basis for the country’s new constitution. This proposal makes a fundamental change to the current political arrangement in the country, and could minimize political feuds and struggles for power between different political factions as the country drafts its permanent constitution. This initiative seems to answer more questions and offer better prospects for change than the November 9th Movement’s plan. Nonetheless, the National Working Group seems to lack the youthful enthusiasm, the drive, and the favorable media coverage that the November 9th Movement has.
Not surprisingly, GNC members are divided even on the issue of the legislature’s own existence. The National Forces Alliance supports ending the GNC’s mandate on Feb. 7. On the other hand, the Islamists within the GNC oppose the idea and say the GNC’s mandate only ends when it completes its required tasks, not when the time limit passes. They say that it shouldn’t be dissolved until a new constitution is ratified by the people.
Libya is now confronted by a significant failing: the inability of civil society activists and organizations to work together as a unified front to wrest the country from the grip of polarization. Any change in the current political roadmap must ensure the continuation of the democratic process. Abandoning or breaking that process will leave Libya with only two options: to remain mired in an indefinite transition or to fall back into another dictatorship.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.