- 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.
On June 9, Libya’s Supreme Court in Tripoli ruled that the election of Prime Minister Ahmad Mitig in a chaotic session in the General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s interim parliament, on May 4 was "unconstitutional." The GNC’s controversial vote to elect Mitig came after the former prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, resigned after just five days on the job, and faced a challenge due to irregular voting procedures. Thinni and a number of GNC members submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court shortly after the vote. This controversy sprung up even as the security situation worsened in eastern Libya, where General Khalifa Haftar and members of Libya’s Armed Forces have launched a military operation against extremist groups.
The vote controversy resulted in a split country with two prime ministers and a divided GNC. Mitig’s government and his GNC supporters stayed put in Tripoli, while Thinni and his GNC supporters relocated to the city of al-Baida in eastern Libya, home to Libya’s Constituent Assembly, which is in charge of drafting Libya’s constitution. This is not a west-east split as some reports in western media have suggested; it is an ideological one, where Islamist dominated factions and their allies remain in Tripoli and nationalists and other liberal leaning factions head eastward. Both camps are also split over Gen. Haftar’s actions. The Islamists describe his campaign as a coup attempt designed to disrupt Libya’s democratic transition, while the nationalists claim it is a patriotic effort to rid the country of the extremist groups that have terrorized the country since Qaddafi’s ouster in 2011.
Both sides of vote controversy have decided to respect the Supreme Court’s judgement, hailing the ruling as a significant victory for the rule of law in post-revolution Libya, where the principle of separation of powers is applied and respected. Some fear, however, that Monday’s verdict could be used by Mitig’s opponents as a basis to politically attack his supporters ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections, which are scheduled to take place on June 25. This concern was clearly echoed by former first GNC deputy president and legal expert Juma Attigha, who said, pre-emptively, "The Supreme Court should be respected and not abused by any of the parties involved or employed for political point scoring."
Prime Minister-elect Ahmad Mitig accepted the court’s verdict and hailed it as a historic moment in a televised statement shortly after the court delivered its verdict. The second GNC deputy president, Saleh Mahkzoum, who supported Mitig’s appointment, said, "Today the GNC hears, accepts, and complies with Supreme Court’s verdict," in another televised statement. Mahkzoum also urged all GNC members (both anti- and pro-Mitig) to attend tomorrow’s session to discuss possible ways forward following this ruling.
Those options will be extremely limited. The most plausible and least toxic choice would be to keep Abdullah al-Thinni as acting prime minister until the new parliamentary elections are held and the new parliament appoints a new government. Further, there is an urgent need for dialogue among GNC’s different blocs to defuse tensions and build some sort of political consensus ahead of the elections. For that to happen, the political groups in Libya must adopt a reconciliatory and inclusive approach and avoid any polarizing and divisive moves.
Monday’s verdict might have sorted out Libya’s prime ministerial mess, but it has not resolved the ongoing, fierce political and military struggle that has paralyzed Libya’s democratic transition and threatens its collapse. The verdict could have a critical impact on the current dynamics in Libya, especially on Gen. Haftar’s campaign. After Thinni relocated his government to al-Baida, he visited Benghazi, where he endorsed Haftar’s operations against extremist groups and promised his government’s support. This move puts Thinni in direct opposition to the GNC groups that called Haftar’s action a coup. For Libya to make any progress, and for the upcoming elections to be successful, the issue of the war on terrorism and Haftar’s "Operation Dignity" must be dealt with as a matter of national security, rather than as a zero-sum political game. (The photo above shows Thinni meeting members of the Libyan army in Tripoli on June 10.)
With every major crisis comes an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson. The Supreme Court’s verdict, which was accepted by both sides, is a clear indication of respect for the rule of law in post-revolution Libya. It also represents yet another opportunity for dialogue to push toward a power-sharing agreement. Such an agreement could help the government present a united political and military front to fight the rise of extremism in the country, which is the greatest threat to the democratic transition. The lesson for Libyans today is that all groups must ensure and defend the independence and neutrality of the judiciary. During times of great political polarization and distrust, neutral and independent institutions lead the way — and can pull the country back from the brink of collapse.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.