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Libya - Challenges on Road Toward Democracy

A Libyan woman holding the rebellion's flag tours with her daughters one of Moammar Gadhafi's ransacked compounds in Tripoli, August 31, 2011
A Libyan woman holding the rebellion's flag tours with her daughters one of Moammar Gadhafi's ransacked compounds in Tripoli, August 31, 2011

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Susan Yackee

It seems official: the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) will lead Libya into democracy. What is not yet known is exactly how it will accomplish the task. The whole world is watching, and whatever action the NTC takes in the first 100 days will be critical to the success of a post-Gadhafi Libya, experts believe.

How does a nation go about rebuilding after so many years of dictatorship?  And is the NTC up to the job? Hallam Ferguson, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Division of the International Republican Institute (IRI), says that while there is evidence that “some thinking has gone into it,” he has not yet seen any “full roadmap”  that outlines what exactly the provisional authority plans to do.

The first steps

If the NTC is to be successful in leading Libya into full democracy, it must focus its efforts in five critical arenas, says Ferguson. First and foremost, the NTC must establish and maintain security - keeping in mind that they are still mired in conflict. “They need to finish that civil war,” he says.

And beyond that, he adds, there are quite a few other security-related concerns: “Who’s going to police the streets?  Who’s going to maintain law and order in Benghazi, in Tripoli, in Sirte?  How are you going to manage the various militias that have been a part of this war - on both sides?”  

Yet another challenge, says Ferguson, are the guns and rockets that were handed out to rebel forces. How, exactly, will provisional authorities get them back?

The NTC faces an equally daunting task of creating a truly representational form of government. “It will be very interesting to see how they adapt over the next weeks to include new members from newly liberated areas,” says Ferguson.

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the Libyan National Transitional Council, at a news conference in Benghazi, Libya, August 30, 2011
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the Libyan National Transitional Council, at a news conference in Benghazi, Libya, August 30, 2011

As a initial step, the provisional government has agreed upon a draft constitutional charter, which delineates a path to free and fair elections - the third challenge on the road to democracy, according to Ferguson. “So they have something of a roadmap here,” says he, “but they have yet to operationalize it.”  Ferguson says, for example, if the NTC gets set to hold elections, it will need to create specific offices to handle voter registration, organize voting stations and educate the public in the basics of the electoral process.

“All that’s going to take time,” Ferguson says, “and the draft constitutional charter that they’ve released lays out a very aggressive timetable for getting elections up and running - well under a year.” He cites the example of experiences in the fledgling democracies of Tunisia and Egypt, which have faced enormous challenges in trying to conduct elections sooner rather than later.

Hallam Ferguson, International Republican Institute, speaks with Susan Yackee about democracy prospects in Libya:

War has shattered the Libyan economy and devastated its infrastructure. Ferguson says the NTC will have to rely heavily on profits from the country’s oil and gas, which historically have been strong money producers for the nation. However, the energy sector is in pieces, and reviving it will be a tremendous challenge. “It’s broken, Ferguson says.  “It’s not even clear where the migrant workers have gone who have been responsible for running that industry.” Roads will have to be fixed, basic utilities will have to be restored, structures rebuilt and jobs created, he adds.

But perhaps the greatest challenge for the provisional government will be reconciling with Gadhafi loyalists. “The interim administration has got to decide how they’re going to deal with former regime figures, be they officials or police and soldiers who fought for Gadhafi.” Also, Furguson believes the NTC will have to ask itself to what degree will it hold loyalists responsible for their “alleged misdeeds” and whether it will be willing to forgive former Gadhafi supporters and move on.

Ferguson stresses the importance of transparency to the NTC.  For him, they must be willing and able to communicate their plans so that everyone - from the Libyan people to the international community - knows what to expect in a post-Gadhafi Libya.

Importance of a national dialogue

There are other issues facing the former rebels, says Michael Svetlik, the Vice President of Programs at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). He agrees that the NTC should focus initially on security and the economy, but he also believes it’s important to initiate a national dialogue. “There needs to be a means by which various parts of society that have not been allowed a voice in governing the country to participate in what would be a constitution-making process.”

Libyans during anti-Gadhafi protests (file photo)
Libyans during anti-Gadhafi protests (file photo)

Svetlik suggests that the NTC create a constitutional council that would encompass wide segments of the population, including minorities and women. He also stresses that the body empowered to write a constitution should be “one that citizens view as legitimate and representing their needs… There should be a clear decision on how such a body is provided with power, whether through elections (as in Tunisia) or through a mandate provided by the General Assembly.”

Svetlik says it is critical that the people understand their rights under the law. He says fundamental issues enshrined in constitutions generally include the importance of political participation, the role and responsibility of an independent judiciary and the fundamental rights of freedom of assembly and speech, a free press and religion.

Michael Svetlik, International Foundation for Electoral Systems, believes a new constitution would be a crucial cornerstone for Libya's democracy:

Svetlik notes that for 40 years under the Gadhafi regime, political forums, an open media environment and other foundations of a free society did not exist. By comparison, says he, even before the Arab Spring, Egypt and Tunisia, already had institutions in place that today just require restructuring to become part of a representative government. Libyans, he says, they’re dealing with a “long term process” and the outside world will have to do its part. “The international community can help establish a secure environment in which this political dialogue can begin to take place."

However, he is guarded about prospects for true democracy in Libya. “I think what we’re looking at here is a transition in progress,” said Svetlik. “It’s very early to be able to predict what government, what democracy will look like in Libya. The basic building blocks of a free media, a robust and independent judiciary, of the government bodies that are necessary to carry out and maintain a democratic process are simply not in place.”

Encouraging signs

Other analysts are more optimistic. Barrie Freeman, Director for North Africa at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), is among those who believe democracy will in the end come to Libya. “A lot of work and preparation have already been done by the NTC in Benghazi,” Freeman says, “but also by the formation of neighborhood councils in Benghazi, even in Tripoli when Gadhafi was fully in control.  I think Libyans have been mobilizing for this for many months.”

Barrie Freeman, National Democratic Institute, is optimistic about prospects for democracy in Libya:

Freeman says NTC members are also looking at the “transition experiences” of other nations, drawing on lessons learned by not only in Iraq, but countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Freeman believes the NTC is determined to be transparent, to reach out to citizens and to keep the flow of information going.

Freeman says she has faith in the Libyan people to make the right choice. “They see this as their big opportunity. They really want to get it right.” 

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