TOBRUK, Libya — Libya’s new parliament held its first official meeting on Monday, Aug. 4, in the northeastern port city of Tobruk. The meeting comes as fighting between militias in Tripoli and Benghazi threatens to carry the country over the brink into complete anarchy. The conflict has only deepened Libya’s chronic political polarization, making the task ahead of parliament — legislating for a country whose transition to democracy is more uncertain than ever — extremely challenging.
26 of the legislature’s 188 members have refused to participate in the parliament’s sessions, arguing that it is unconstitutional for the members to meet in Tobruk. While it’s true that the country’s Constitutional Declaration (the interim constitution) designates Benghazi as the official meeting place, it does allow parliament to meet elsewhere if necessary. Given the country’s precarious security situation, and based on security reports from the ministry of the interior, the parliament’s general secretariat, Abdullah al-Masry, decided that parliamentary sessions should be held in Tobruk until further notice, because the city is known for being militia-free.
The boycotting members’ legal argument is, therefore, pretty weak — but they have other motives for avoiding parliament. Ten of the members are from Misrata (a city whose militias have long backed Islamists) and the others are Islamist-leaning representatives from Gheryan, Benghazi, al-Khoms, and Tripoli. Ever since the devastating defeat of the Islamists in the parliamentary elections, these members have worked hard to prevent the parliament from convening, fearing a legislative backlash against the Islamists and their agenda should the members be allowed to meet. After weeks of fighting, the Islamists and their allies — who include the powerful militia leaders in the city of Misrata — are trying to make up for their political loss by exerting control militarily in Tripoli and Benghazi.
The new parliament, in other words, has its work cut out for it. It must be sensitive to the Islamists’ agenda, given the chokehold their militias have on Tripoli and Benghazi, but it must also remain true to voters, who are more concerned with regaining stability and maintaining a balance between Libya’s three historic regions. When I spoke to Amal Bayu, a parliament member representing Benghazi, she commented: "We must work as a team to achieve any progress we can and to put the transition back on track. We need to act fast to save Tripoli and Benghazi." Shortly after we spoke, news arrived that a rocket had hit the home of Bayu’s brother in Benghazi, killing her nephew and leaving her brother seriously injured. Members of parliament understand the grave situation in Benghazi well — and know that they are running out of time to fix it. (The photo above shows a youth standing next to a pool of blood near the site of a double suicide bombing in Benghazi.)
The first two days of Libya’s parliamentary sessions showed where legislators hope to lead the country. The assembly’s first move was to elect Agilah Saleh as the speaker of parliament, Emhmed Shaib as the first deputy speaker, and Ahmed Homa as the second deputy speaker. Each of these leaders comes from one of Libya’s regions (Saleh from Cyrenaica, Shaib from Tripolitania, and Homa from Fezzan), which shows that the new parliament is trying to minimize divisions as much as possible by taking regional sensitivities into account.
Agila Saleh’s election, however, also confirms the Islamists’ fears of a legislative backlash. Agila Saleh is a strong opponent of the political isolation law, which bans people who worked under Qaddafi from participating in the new government. Islamists favored the law because it took many of their political opponents out of the running, giving them more unfettered access to power and making it easier for them to outmaneuver their opponents. During an initial meeting of eastern Libya’s parliamentarians in late July, Saleh commented that under the new parliament, "unjust and unfair laws and legislations must be reversed and the rights of all must be protected and guaranteed." Islamists consider such rhetoric to be anti-Islamist and contrary to the revolutionary values they have set for post-revolution Libya.
The new lawmakers are also aware that Libya may fall apart completely if they don’t act fast. On their second day, members of parliament approved a constitutional amendment to grant the parliament executive powers on a temporary basis. While some see this as a problematic move, it is an essential one. The previous parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), failed to determine whether the president would be elected or appointed, passing that highly controversial decision down to its successor body. The House of Representatives could take up to 45 days, as outlined in the Constitutional Declaration, to agree on a system and implement it. Benghazi and Tripoli cannot wait that long.
In general, many of the parliament members I spoke to feel that they need to avoid the GNC’s exclusionary and polarizing legacy and work as a team, while also acting decisively and authoritatively on controversial issues to address the security situation. There are two ways this could play out.
First, parliament could adopt a neutral role in the continuing armed clashes, and attempt to mediate between Misrata and Zintan forces battling it out in Tripoli. The parliament could also embrace any moderate Islamist elements and bring them to the negotiations table in the city of Benghazi. By remaining neutral, the lawmakers might have the chance to broker a ceasefire and bring both sides to the negotiating table.
They won’t be able to do this without the help and support of the international community. The current warring factions are unlikely to come to the negotiating table because they see the situation in zero-sum terms. If the countries of the West manage to combine diplomatic cajoling with threats of 2011-style military intervention and targeted airstrikes against terrorists, however, they may be able to convince Libya’s the factions to consider a compromise. The new parliament must take advantage of the fact that the United Kingdom is currently chairing the U.N. Security Council. Britain has so far led efforts to mediate between the militias in Libya. Parliament should strengthen this connection and push the United Nations to take a more assertive role in the conflict.
If the international community fails to step up to the plate — as recent events suggest is likely — then the new parliament will be forced to chose a side in the conflict. This second scenario would lead the country into further destabilization and prolonged civil war, and destroy any chance that the parliament now has at establishing a stable, democratic political process.
The new parliament has an extremely small window of opportunity to put the Libya’s transition back on track. Parliament needs to take a reconciliatory and inclusive approach, and avoid taking sides in the conflict. The international community, for its part, must work harder to support parliament by intervening in the conflict overtaking Tripoli and Benghazi. Libyans will be quick to turn their backs on the new parliament if it fails to deliver. Should that happen, parliament might not even have a state to govern.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.