Libya: Crisis, choice and change

Libyan militias continue to threaten the democratic processes in the country.

Now more than ever Libyans want to see an end to militias and the havoc they bring about, argues the author [AFP]

Three years after Libya’s revolution, the country is still undergoing violent traumas brought about by ignorance, inflexibility, and lack of respect for the legitimacy of elected institutions. The most recent of such societal and political upheavals followed an ultimatum enunciated by Zintan’s Qaqaa and Sawaiq brigades, two of Tripoli’s most powerful militias.

The Zintanis, thinking they were acting in the best interest of Libyans, provided members of the General National Congress (GNC) five hours to resign to avoid arrest and imprisonment. The ultimatum followed on the heels of the mass demonstrations that Libya had been witnessing since February 5 against the extension of the GNC’s term limit after February 7.

Inside Story – Libya anniversary: Protests and progress

Protesters demanded the handover of power to another body, which would call for new elections. The demonstrations were non-violent and were to  – a large extent – a show of dissatisfaction and anger at the inaction of the Congress rather than a popular coup.

The Qaqaa, empowered by the National Congress to serve as a unit of the country’s border protection battalions, had served well in evicting Gaddafi insurgents from their bases in southern Libya. Emboldened, its leaders decided to take matters in their own hands and enforce what they believed to be the popular will.

Libyans’ response to this unilateral action was swift, condemning, and unforgiving. Except for support from Ibrahim al-Jathran, head of the Cyrenaica Political Bureau, almost all Libyan political groups condemned the move and stood by the GNC as Libya’s only legitimate governing organ. Tripoli’s other powerful armed faction, the Misurata militia, threatened the Zintanis with immediate retaliation should they follow through with their plans.

Other smaller armed groups in the country echoed same sentiments and thus put an end to the insurrection and the undermining of legitimacy in Libya. The GNC immediately suspended the brigades’ services and ordered the arrest of its leaders who plotted the insurrection.

Few thought the Zintanis would go this far given that Congress had  – in fact – responded to the popular demand by calling for the resignation of its own members. It had began deliberation on an orderly process of relinquishing power before July 2014. 

Such incidents might happen again, although it now seems extremely unlikely. The popular response and insistence on opposing change through violence is commendable. They reaffirmed the legitimacy of the political institutions and the democratic process as the only means of installing and removing political candidate. This popular show of support to the GNC will go along way in solidifying the legitimacy of popularly elected institutions and the democratic process.

State interest versus militia interest

Another lesson, brought home by this recent episode of conflict, is the realisation that the militia’s interests and the country’s interests can coincide some time but not all the time. Thus it is better to relinquish the former for the benefit of the latter. Now more than ever Libyans want to see an end to militias and the havoc they have brought about.

Tripoli’s city council called upon Congress to activate whatever military the country has to reinforce the laws banning militias from entering or operating in the capital. Also for the first time Libya’s infant army flexed its muscles and threatened to use force against any group undermining the legitimate institutions of the country.

The impetus behind this insubordination, and the previous attempted coup by former General Khalifa Hifter, was the inability of Congress to get things done. The rivalry between the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Forces Alliance (NFA) has – to a large extent –  paralysed parliament and by extension the country. Rightly or wrongly many groups blame the Brotherhood for much of the ills the country is currently  facing.

The country is facing many problems, but with the help of civilised society, it is slowly learning to return to normalcy after nearly half a century of dictatorship that destroyed it financially, morally, and politically.

The Brotherhood’s hostility to the Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has been at the centre of the political debate during the last three months in Congress at the expense of all other issues. The Brotherhood wants to remove Zeidan,  but it cannot muster the 120 votes it needs to force him out of office. The NFA , in turn,  opposes the Brotherhood , nonetheless, they also would like to replace Zeidan with their leader Mahmoud Jibril whose association with the previous regime prevents him from holding office. The alliance is willing to negotiate the PM’s fate only after the Exclusionary Laws are rescinded.

By all indications, the Brotherhood are not popular today but neither is the NFA, particularly following media reports disclosing that  Abdulmajid Milaiqtah, the NFA steering committee chairman was the brother of Othman Milaiqtah, the commander of the Qaaqaa Brigade. The brigade’s statement held the Brotherhood responsible for all the troubles and expressed support for Jibril. Immediately, both Jibril and Abdulmajid Milaiqtah denied any association with the Qaaqaa Brigade or to threats made against Congress members.

Libya’s real problem lies with the concentration of power in the hands of GNC alone. Nothing gets done unless the GNC approves it. The government is quite effete with little power to accomplish anything. Even the military does not fall under the Ministry of Defense and the government. Indeed, recently the PM ordered the military command to intervene in a hot spot only to be told by the head of the military that he does not take orders from him.

No turning back

Until a mass protest movement demands the GNC resignations, not much will happen. The Congress met twice weekly and in most instances with many members absent. Important issues had been neglected and challneging ones avoided. The hierarchy of power is not defined nor is the relationship between it and the government.

Earlier in February 2014 the GNC adopted what was viewed as good changes to address the shortcomings of the political process. Such schanges appeared plausible. However, it was too little too late, given that if elections were tp be  held in May or June of 2014, the council members will barely have enough time to put all the proposed changes into practice.

It is important to point out  that, contrary to dominating view, democracy has not failed. And what is taking place in Libya today is a healthy debate and will prove invaluable to the country’s struggles to define its new constitutional framework.

Libya is facing many problems but with the help of civilised society, it is slowly learning to return to normalcy after nearly half a century of dictatorship that destroyed it financially, morally, and politically.

What happened in the past week demonstrated that Libyans learned the value of democratic rule in less than three years. They learned how to vote, and how to demonstrate peacefully. No one said it was going to be easy and in spite of all the upheavals and difficulties, few would like to return to the age of dictatorship. 

Dr Mansour O El-Kikhia is a columnist, educator, and writer on international and Middle Eastern affairs.