Hope for Transformation in Libya?

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Oct 12th, 2012

A Libyan election official helps an elderly man to cast his ballot for Libya’s General National Assembly at a polling station in Tripoli on July 7, 2012. Voters queued up at polling stations across Libya keen to take part in the country’s first national election after more than four decades of dictatorship. AFP PHOTO/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA (Photo credit should read GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages)

Najmuddin A. SHAIKH
The appearance on You Tube of the trailer of a movie called “Innocence of Muslims” received little attention when it was first uploaded. Subsequently however a version was uploaded which was dubbed in Arabic and which was then brought to the attention of the Egyptian media. The subsequent telecasting in Egypt of the Arabic dubbed version of this vicious attack on Islam’s Holy Prophet caused the video to go viral and provoked a reaction all over the Muslim world. Libya was no exception.

And so on 11th September in the Libyan city of Benghazi the American consulate was attacked and 4 Americans including the American Ambassador were killed by what is now termed a carefully planned terrorist attack. There were reports subsequently denied that the Ansar-al-Sharia, a Salafist militia, one of the many that still dotted the Libyan landscape had carried out the attack. These were the first and perhaps the only American deaths that followed the demonstrations and riots in the Muslim world where much of the destruction wrought by the demonstrators affected only the local population.

These facts are well known. They have been headline news in the media all over the world. There has been speculation, well founded for the most part, that the reaction to the video was prompted at least in part by the anti-American sentiment that pervades the Muslim world. The question is whether this sentiment prevailed also in Libya or was it a view held only by a small minority.

Clearly the newly elected President and the newly elected parliament did not share this sentiment. President Magarief and his government issued an immediate apology and promised to bend every effort to apprehend the perpetrators of the attack. More importantly however the people of Benghazi emerged on the streets, possibly prompted by government agencies, demanding the disbanding of the militias, and proceeded to ransack the headquarters of the Ansar-Al-Sharia and of other militias including those that were working with the government and had been providing security at considerable loss to their personnel for the Americans in Benghazi.

The attitude of the Ansar-Al-Sharia was made apparent in an interview that the head of the militia gave to the BBC a few days after the killing of the Americans-in which he maintained his militia had not been involved. He maintained, “It is not the right time to give up our arms because we are in a battle with the liberals, the secularists and the remnants of Gaddafi. As regards his goal he said “our brave youths will continue their struggle until they impose Sharia”. While denying any connection with Al-Qaeda he professed admiration for the group and burnished his own ultra-conservative credentials by acknowledging that his militia had demolished Sufi shrines in Benghazi because it was a religious duty to remove these shrines where people worshipped the deceased which was prohibited in Islam.

It is far from clear that the recent action that the Benghazi people have taken against the Ansar has meant the loss of power and influence by the group but it does seem that this action as also the subsequent announcement by President Magarief that all militias other than those authorised by the defence ministry were to be disbanded has perhaps set the stage for removing what had become the most serious threat to the creation of a relatively clean body politic in Libya after the deposition of the dictator.

One can be somewhat hopeful because of what has gone in the recent past. In July the Libyans participated in an election for a new parliament. Western observers had been very cynical suggesting in the words of one commentator that ongoing instability and chaos were to be expected because “when a foreign power overthrows an existing government and does not impose its own imperial state”. The vote however seemed to show that this was not necessarily the case. The ex-Prime Minister’s party the National Forces Alliance (NFA) won more than twice the number of seats obtained by its Islamist rival. While this party is also publicly committed to referring to the Sharia for guidance in legislation the party is otherwise deemed to be liberal.

Contrary to expectations oil production in Libya climbed almost to pre-war levels by February negating the general expectation that it would take at least a year for production to return to the production of 1.7 million barrels a day. Interestingly, BP one of the larger oil companies in the world which had suspended work in Libya, returned early this year and is committed to spending some $20 billion on the two blocks that it has secured… This, despite the fact that in BP’s best estimate oil will be produced only after 10 years.

Perhaps the most important task now, along side curbing the militias, relates to the framing of a new constitution. There was initially an announcement that this task would be entrusted to a selected group of 60 people, 20 from each of the historic three provinces or states-Tripolitania in the northwest, Cyrenaica in the east, and Fezzan in the southwest that comprised Libya when its first constitution was drawn up with assistance from the UN in 1951. But just before the elections the TNC amended this declaration and stated that this task was to be assigned to elected representatives. Earlier the Transitional National Council had also suggested that the constitution would be drawn up within 60 days. No change in this has been announced but many outside observers believe that 60 days is too short a period.

The truth is that there may be great merit in keeping the period short and in asking the framers, be they selected or elected, to use as the basic document the constitution of 1951 which had a federal structure and which gave legislative and taxation powers to each of the three units. From the experience of the year that has passed since Gaddafi downfall it is clear that a unitary form of government would be found unacceptable in Cyrenaica. Benghazi would be hard put to accept Tripoli domination.

There will of course be the question of the division of oil revenues and that could be quite complex. However as one reads the history of the first effort of the Libyan people to draft the 1951 constitution what emerges clearly is that they have a capacity for working out viable solutions on the basis of compromise. More recently even while the majority of stories have been about the indiscipline of the militias there have been less well publicised stories of how in the midst of serious trials and tribulations and in the absence of strong governance by an interim administration the Libyan people managed to prevent the sort of chaos that some western observers had predicted.

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