Long queues at polling centres, happy voters waving inked fingers in front of cameras, and musings on how a new, better era was in store for Libya – sounds like Afghanistan 2004. Our guest blogger Ann Mac Dougall(*), who has worked in both countries, cannot help wondering whether Libya will follow the Afghan pattern from early elation to violence, corruption and feeble efforts to build a sustainable political structure. She argues that democracy – including elections – is part of the social contract between the people and the state but that, in Afghanistan, many citizens and particularly key political leaders were patently unwilling to play by the rules they signed on to.Ballot boxed delivered to Gardez (Paktia) in Afghanistan's 2009 presidential election. Photo: Thomas Ruttig
Earlier this month, Libyans went to the polls to elect a National General Congress with 200 seats that will be responsible for carrying forward their transition period, including by overseeing and possibly appointing the body responsible for negotiating Libya’s post-Ghaddafi constitution. This will be a 60-member constituent assembly with 20 members each from the major regions of the country, the east, south and west.(1)
The election on 7 July – the first general one since 1965(2) – proceeded with the characteristic reports of long queues at polling centres, happy voters waving inked fingers in front of cameras, and musings on how a new, better era was in store for Libya. We heard the phrase repeated again and again that 7 July was the country’s wedding day.
If the election was their wedding, what exactly are Libyans marrying into? As an Afghanistan veteran, I can’t help but reflect on whether the heady elation, high expectations, and deep discontent that exist in Libya today precede a similar trajectory to the one Afghanistan has followed over the past ten years.
There are ominous signs that this could be the case. Prior to the polls federalists unhappy with new status quo under the National Transitional Council (NTC) turned to violence and blackmail. Calls for a general election boycott in the east were underpinned by a belief that the region should be granted autonomy within a federal structure. Protestors attacked election offices in eastern centres of Benghazi, Tobruk and Ajdabiya, destroying ballots and killing an elections official. On Election Day itself, significant incidents of violence were witnessed in the east, including several attacks on polling centres and theft of full ballot boxes at gunpoint. In Benghazi two young men were killed, reportedly for demonstrating their inked fingers to a group of incensed federalists.
Even before the election there were frequent, worrying reports of deep discontent and violence in several key areas of the country. As International Crisis Group pointed out, federalist fighters unhappy with the level of attention received thus far have resorted to blocking the road between the east and west of the country, forcing the NTC to send an envoy to negotiate with the group. In the far west and south ethnic and tribal tensions kept under wraps during the Ghaddafi era are bubbling over. Tabu community(3) leaders in the southern city of Al Kufra likened the recent violence involving Arab militants (the ‘Libyan Shield’, an auxiliary unit of the Libyan national army based in the region) to ethnic cleansing. (Polling in key areas in Kufra was delayed by several days due to insecurity.) Evidence of torture and other egregious human rights violations since the revolution have been recorded by media outlets, as well asby Human Rights Watch and most recently by Amnesty International.
Salafists, a fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam with a long history in Libya, unsubtly made their views known by defacing the campaign posters of female candidates, eerily blacking out their eyes, nostrils, and mouths. Areas of the country that were Ghaddafi’s former strongholds – Sirte and Misrata – remain volatile. Finally, there is the unwholesome influence of neighbours. Afghanistan has Pakistan, with its impossible mountain border. Libya’s borders with Algeria, Chad, and Niger – hardly bastions of stability – run through the desolate Sahara, and Mali, with its northern half now under control of militant Salafists, is not far.
The echoes of Afghanistan’s early experience with democracy are unmistakable. I had a front row seat to several successive elections in Afghanistan. In 2005, when Afghanistan was still in its honeymoon period, violence and fraud – such as hijacking women’s polling stations in the southeast to stuff ballot boxes – were downplayed in deference to the optimistic public mood in Afghanistan and abroad that the country would move towards a democratic form of government. One wonders whether Libya will follow a similar pattern of early elation slowly pulled asunder by violence, corruption, and feeble efforts to build a sustainable political structure.
By the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election debacle in Afghanistan it became clear to me that there is little point attempting to cultivate democracy in a place where many citizens and particularly key political leaders were patently unwilling to play by the rules they signed on to. Participants at all levels – from Karzai appointing clearly partisan leaders to ostensibly independent electoral bodies, right down to polling staff stuffing ballot boxes – were unwilling to let liberal democratic principles supersede deeper allegiances that I can only guess at (tribal? ethnic? religious? ideological? – making money, in a very ‘un-political’ way, also played a role). In 2009, during the darkest days of the investigations into massive fraud, when it looked like Karzai’s share of the votes might dip below the 50 per cent needed to avoid a contentious runoff, I was stunned to hear Afghanistan’s Chief Electoral Officer point-blank refuse to declare any winner but Karzai. When the runoff was cancelled and Karzai was declared winner by default, everybody breathed a sign of relief that further trauma was averted. The damage, though, was already done. By not protesting loud enough, the international community had tacitly accepted manipulation as a means of winning elections.
Blame for the misadventure was laid at the door of the operation. Inexperienced media and foreign diplomats believed that if the process was better, tighter, more transparent and more secure, then democracy would prevail. But this was unjust. Democracy is part of the social contract between the people and the state. The majority of the population as well as important power brokers have to sign – and mean it – for the contract to stand.
The elections of 2009 marked a turning point. The curtain of Afghan politics was pulled back and the ugly the inner workings were laid bare for all to see. Until then we, the international community, desperately wanted to believe that the democratic process would prevail. The following year, illusions crushed, the UN chief in the country went to great lengths to emphasize that fraud would again occur during the parliamentary elections, memorably taking every opportunity to declare that Afghanistan was not order-loving Switzerland. In essence the international community was acknowledging that the contract was broken. The sympathy and attention of foreign publics started to turn.
On the eve of the polls Libyan leaders were busy adjusting their own contract with the people. Allegedly to allay spoilers in the east they amended the 2011 Constitutional Declaration to make the 60-member assembly that will be responsible for drafting the constitution an elected rather than an appointed body, simultaneously shearing away the major responsibility of the newly-elected National General Congress and potentially delaying the development of the constitution by several months (see footnote 1 again). Procedurally, the new authorities could easily strike down the amendment and retain the power to appoint the body themselves, but such a move would equate to thumbing one’s nose at the east. In such a case, which will win out: the interests of the body or the interests of the body politic?
Much will depend on the dynamics of the new National General Congress, which will be inaugurated around 8 August. If this body is what Libyans married, it will likely be an unpredictable partner: a full 60 per cent of seats (120 of 200) were reserved for individual candidates who may be allied to a political party or who may be independents. Of the remaining seats, distributed on the basis of party lists, half (39) went to a liberal coalition led by the current prime minister Mahmoud Jibril. The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Reconstruction Party came a distant second with only 16 seats. (The Salafists got no ‘party’ seat.) The horsetrading happening in Libya before the inauguration of the new body will seek to pull individual candidates to one pole or another. The first decisions of the body, which require a two-thirds majority, will therefore provide a strong indication of its leanings and therefore the political direction of the new Libya.
The wild card lies in the commitment of ordinary Libyans and their astonishing willingness and capacity to mobilize. Youth groups and local councils have shown an impressive amount of zeal, in one instance pushing back a conservative Islamic group that occupied central Benghazi. Following the violent attack on electoral offices on 1 July, sit-ins were organized to protect offices from further violence. On Election Day voters formed human chains around some polling centres. These are impressive displays from a population that only one year ago lived in daily fear of crossing Ghaddafi, his family, or the state apparatus that served him.
It is too early to say whether the new Libyan authorities will stick to the rules laid out in their contracts with the people, the Constitutional Declaration of August 2011 and the yet-to-be negotiated constitution. As Afghanistan old hands know, however, the honeymoon period surrounding Libya’s national marriage can be misleading. Soon the Libyan people will learn the measure of their new spouse. This observer hopes lessons from Kabul’s post-honeymoon period will help them in building a sincere marriage.
(*) Ann MacDougall has been on official assignment in Libya since early 2012. Her past experience includes four years in Afghanistan (2007-2011) where she worked on democratic governance issues.
(1) On 6 July – the day before the election – the NTC, in a last-minute move, decreed that the constitutional panel instead will be elected by direct vote, leaving the parliament only with the task of forming a government, angering many candidates who campaigned largely on the basis of their role in overseeing the drafting of the constitution.
(2) This election was party-less, and only men over 21 years of age were eligible to vote. The last time political parties were allowed to run was in 1952.
(3) Other versions: Tubu or Toubou.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020