Looking for Libya

Following months of deliberation, the delayed start to drafting Libya’s post-Qaddafi constitution is finally in sight. In mid-July, politicians agreed to the set of rules that will guide the election of members to the Constituent Assembly — the body responsible for writing the new constitution. But that doesn’t mean that everything is settled. In the first blow ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Following months of deliberation, the delayed start to drafting Libya's post-Qaddafi constitution is finally in sight. In mid-July, politicians agreed to the set of rules that will guide the election of members to the Constituent Assembly -- the body responsible for writing the new constitution.

But that doesn't mean that everything is settled. In the first blow to the process meant to lay down the country's political foundations, Libya's ethnic minorities, the Amazigh, Tuareg, and Tebu people, announced that they would boycott the election after they were earmarked only six out of 60 seats (or two each). There are no official figures for the Amazigh population in Libya, but estimates put it at 10 to 15 percent of the total population. If those assessments are correct, then the three percent allocated to them in the Constituent Assembly count as an extreme case of underrepresentation.

Imazighen (the plural of Amazigh) argue that the electoral law for the Constituent Assembly represents a serious setback and disappointment for those who have struggled hard to achieve an environment of inclusivity for planning out the future state. Also known as Berbers, the Amazigh are indigenous inhabitants of Libya with a cultural heritage that spans over thousands of years and heavily predates the existence of Arabs in the region. However, they have suffered from continuous attempts by the ruling elites to destroy their heritage, culture, and identity.

Following months of deliberation, the delayed start to drafting Libya’s post-Qaddafi constitution is finally in sight. In mid-July, politicians agreed to the set of rules that will guide the election of members to the Constituent Assembly — the body responsible for writing the new constitution.

But that doesn’t mean that everything is settled. In the first blow to the process meant to lay down the country’s political foundations, Libya’s ethnic minorities, the Amazigh, Tuareg, and Tebu people, announced that they would boycott the election after they were earmarked only six out of 60 seats (or two each). There are no official figures for the Amazigh population in Libya, but estimates put it at 10 to 15 percent of the total population. If those assessments are correct, then the three percent allocated to them in the Constituent Assembly count as an extreme case of underrepresentation.

Imazighen (the plural of Amazigh) argue that the electoral law for the Constituent Assembly represents a serious setback and disappointment for those who have struggled hard to achieve an environment of inclusivity for planning out the future state. Also known as Berbers, the Amazigh are indigenous inhabitants of Libya with a cultural heritage that spans over thousands of years and heavily predates the existence of Arabs in the region. However, they have suffered from continuous attempts by the ruling elites to destroy their heritage, culture, and identity.

The failure of the General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s interim legislature, to recognize the issues facing the Amazigh language and culture are starting to provoke extreme passions. The new law feels like a betrayal after Libya’s Amazigh joined the revolution against Qaddafi’s regime early on, with the hope that a change in governance would guarantee their rights. As pictured above, Imazighen fighters entered the conflict to uphold both the revolutionary Libyan flag, and the Amazigh one. It was expected that the new Libya would be a place where Tamazight, the Amazigh tongue, would be recognized as an official language on a par with Arabic.

In the past, Qaddafi denied the existence of Imazighen, citing his vision of Libya as a homogenous Arab society. The Tamazight language was officially banned and could not be taught in schools, as were Amazigh names for newborn children. Those attempting to promote Amazigh culture, heritage, and rights faced dire consequences. The crackdown on Amazigh culture and heritage was one of Qaddafi’s attempts to engineer Libyan society according to his own views. In this case, at least, it seems to have worked. The concept of diversity is an alien one to Libyans. Some of my Arab friends view the acknowledgement of Amazigh culture and identity in the constitution as a threat to Arab authority and control in the region, and subsequently as threatening to the very existence of Arab identity and culture.

Now, many of the Amazigh people I speak to fear that the rest of Libya does not value their contribution to the revolution. Politicians continuously choose to ignore Amazigh calls and demands. Furthermore, some statements from Libyan officials and early positions taken by Libya’s interim leaders regarding the Amazigh rights have fed suspicions that nothing has changed for them in post-revolution Libya. Most notably, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the former National Transitional Council, accused Imazighen of having foreign links and using their agendas to blackmail the new Libyan authorities and threaten the unity of Libya.

For Libyans, language, religion, and ethnicity are inextricably bound up with the conflicting visions of the country’s national identity. Is the country Arab, Islamic, or African? Libya may be all of the above, but after 42 years of Gaddafi’s dictatorship, where he forcibly imposed his own vision of what the national identity of Libya was, the country is still struggling to reconcile the various aspects of its personality.

The participation of the public in the drafting of the constitution adds indispensable legitimacy to the final document adopted. It also assists in defining a national identity and articulating common popular aspirations for the future. Laws and institutions cannot only be imposed from above. They must reflect an agreement within the population about how to live together. Widespread participation in the process allows citizens to claim the constitution as their own. Through civic education on constitutional issues and through national dialogue, a constitution can help address the underlying causes of the past conflict and assist citizens to define a national identity and their aspirations for the future.

As Libyans embark on the drafting of the constitution, there will be deep searching for the Libyan identity. The new Libya should embrace diversity and view multiculturalism as source of strength and wealth, and celebrate it. Diversity will bring much needed tolerance, understanding and respect within the Libyan society.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

Mohamed 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.

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