- 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.
Libyans are taking to the streets to demonstrate against their own legislature. The protestors are demanding that the General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s highest political authority, give up its powers on February 7, 2014. That is the date that was specified by the provisional constitutional declaration (also known as the "transitional roadmap"), which was issued by the National Transitional Council in May 2011.
The GNC’s members seem to have a rather different view of the matter, though. On December 23, they voted to extend the legislature’s mandate for another year. Out of 200 members, 102 lawmakers voted in favor of the extension and 24 voted against, while the rest abstained or were not present for the vote. The lawmakers’ decision runs directly contrary to a tide of anti-GNC sentiment that has been rising for months.
The vote comes after months of consultations and dialogue between various civic society and political groups to agree a deal to prevent a political vacuum when the GNC’s mandate ends, but most importantly meet the public’s demand for change. However, the GNC’s members have decided to take a risk by going against the demands of the people who voted them into office in the first place.
The year 2013 has brought many significant setbacks for Libya’s democratic transition. The deteriorating security situation and deepening political polarization are fueling concerns that the country may be on the verge of complete collapse. Tribal clashes in the east, south, and west of the country can erupt any time. Oil production, the main source of government revenue, has plunged; it now stands at around 10 percent of its original capacity of 1.6m bpd. The main cause of the drop in output is due to the blockade of the oil terminals in the eastern region (also known as Barqa) by so-called "federalists," who are calling for wide-ranging autonomy for the area. The central authorities in Tripoli continue to ignore their demands, however, leading to a looming financial crisis. The Libyan government now finds itself compelled to dip into its reserves to cover its spending plans.
The lawmakers’ vote to extend the GNC’s lifetime comes as further proof that the highest political authority in the country has failed to implement the country’s temporary constitutional declaration. The extension of the GNC mandate marks yet another setback for Libya’s democratic transition. Libya requires a change of course that would allow for better decision-making and less political polarization.
Protests against the GNC extension have been taking place in Tripoli and Benghazi since the day the lawmakers voted to extend their mandate. The protesters are demanding that the legislature hand power over to an alternative body in the hope that this would offer a way out of the current stalemate. The legislator’s decision to extend its mandate another year, sets a dangerous precedence that could harm the principle of peaceful transfer of power in Libya. The GNC lawmakers made the decision to extend their mandate without making any reference to a transition timeline in the coming year. The lawmakers have said nothing to guarantee that the legislature’s mandate will end on Dec. 24, 2014, as envisioned. Instead they have vaguely linked the future of the GNC with the drafting of a constitution — a process that, in the current circumstances, could take up to two years. That means that the legislature could continue for a further two years until the constitution is ratified.
The GNC’s members claim that they have no alternative but to extend their mandate to avoid a political vacuum in Libya. The GNC’s critics respond that many efforts have been made to offer the GNC a roadmap that would prevent a vacuum from occurring. The GNC, however, chose to ignore these initiatives, which offer real alternatives to a current governing arrangement that has so far proved to be a complete failure. Meanwhile, legal and constitutional experts have refuted the lawmakers’ argument that their mandate is task-related (i.e., the mandate only ends once a new constitution has been ratified) rather than time-limited.
There is a strong case to be made for revising the constitutional declaration before February 7. The constitutional declaration can be amended to ensure a clear definition of the role of the ruling body and a clear timeline for the transitional phase to come as well as an effective separation of powers, accountability, and transparency. All these important constitutional values are missing from the temporary constitutional declaration. It is imperative that Libya make up lost ground in the year to come. Prolonging the lifetime of a deeply polarized GNC mired in political infighting and hobbled by narrow-minded political interests is, however, likely to make matters worse.
It is essential that the democratic process of a peaceful handover power should continue, and that democratic legitimacy should be maintained. Prolonging the GNC mandate is definitely not the solution. Libya’s politicians need to acknowledge the public’s disillusionment with the interim legislature as well as the plain fact that the whole democratic process is reaching dangerous levels. By insisting on sticking around in the face of clear popular opposition, the GNC is playing a dangerous game with the nation’s future.