Libya — Too Many Security Challenges Ahead of Elections


Human Wrongs Watch

By Andre Colling, Risk Analyst at RED24 (Think Africa Press)* – Amidst regional, tribal and ethnic tensions, Libya’s stability relies on upcoming elections being free, fair and transparent. 

Interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib. Courtesy of TEDxTripoli.

Libya iexpected to hold national elections for the 200-member representative body the Public National Conference (PNC) on June 19. The outcome of the election – the first direct national poll in over 40 years – will be critical for the country’s short-to-medium-term stability.

The current government, led by the National Transitional Council (NTC), is experiencing severe domestic pressure to hold free, fair and fully representative elections following the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011.

Numerous high-profile tribal, militia and political groups are publicly critical of the NTC’s handling of the transition and accuse it of a lack of transparency and corruption.

The Election Process

The election is therefore important, not only as a test of the state’s democratic credentials, but also to form a legitimate governing body to handle the transition after the poll. It should be noted, however, that even if a body is elected that meets these criteria, there are still significant obstacles to the country’s short-to-medium-term stability that will need to be urgently addressed.

Under the provisions of the election structure, 120 of the 200 PNC representatives will be independents, and the remainder will be appointed via political party lists. The country will be divided into 13 constituencies for the poll, the largest of which are Tripoli with 30 seats and Benghazi with 26 seats. Following the election, the PNC will appoint a new prime minister and cabinet to replace the current NTC-appointed interim government led by Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib.

The PNC will also form the Constituent Authority, which will be tasked with formulating a new constitution to replace the August 2011 Constitutional Declaration. The new constitution is then expected to be put to a national referendum. Once the constitutional principles are delineated and approved, Libya will prepare for general elections in 2013.

Political and Security Challenges

The conflict against the Gaddafi regime, which began in February 2011 and ended in the killing of Gaddafi in October, served to unify disparate rebel groups in a common cause. However, following the fall of Gaddafi, the country’s deep and long standing geographic, ethnic and tribal divisions have come to the fore, threatening the tenuous unity of the Libyan state. The most striking example of this disunity has emerged in eastern Libya.

In March, leaders from varied tribal and civil society groups met at Barqa to discuss the autonomy of Cyrenaica, one of the three primary regions in Libya.  The Council of Cyrenaica emerged to demand greater power for local leadership structures in the east. In May, the council threatened to boycott the forthcoming June election, stating that eastern Libyans would not be fairly represented in the future PNC.

In addition, separatist sentiments have been obvious in Misratah, central Libya, where the local council organised and held elections in February without the coordination of the central government. In western Libya’s Nafusa Mountains, approximately 100 groups announced the formation of a federation under the leadership of Colonel Mokhtar Milad Fernana, also in February. This group has stated that it is not opposed to the NTC, but has refused to surrender its weapons, citing lack of transparency and corruption within the NTC.

Militia Groups, Buoyed by New-found Power

The NTC has worked to incorporate militia groups (also known as Thuwar) including those in the Nafusa area into the legitimate security forces of the country, but progress has been slow. Militia groups have been buoyed by new-found power, strong loyalty to local rather than national interests, and easy access to weapons. These groups continue to operate in a number of areas and have successfully resisted oversight by the central authority.

The issue has been starkly highlighted by a number of violent skirmishes between rival militias, and between militias and the central security forces. These have occurred across the country, including in the capital, Tripoli. The lack of payment of grants promised to former rebels, alongside other local disputes, have also resulted in attacks on government buildings, kidnappings of government officials, and a general lack of regard for the rule of law.

The NTC-led government continues to strive to disarm and incorporate former rebel fighters into the legitimate state forces and fill the security vacuum left vacant by the former regime.  However, the process continues to be slow and is expected to be protracted.

Ethnic Tensions

Long-standing ethnic tensions have also been exposed, most notably in the southern Fezzan region near Kufra and Sabha where clashes between African Tibu tribesmen and Arab Zwai and Abu Seif tribesmen have flared sporadically since the beginning of 2012, leaving dozens of people dead. A common catalyst for violence has been accusations by Arab Libyans that the Tibu are aligned to external forces associated with the former regime.

This belief has gained traction due to the involvement of many African mercenaries who fought on behalf of the Gaddafi regime during the 2011 conflict. Competition over lucrative smuggling routes through the desert south has further heightened tensions and motivated opposing groups to use force against their opponents.

Tensions between Berbers and Arabs also occasionally result in conflict. In April, clashes between Zuwara’s ethnic Berbers and Arab militiamen from the neighbouring cities of al-Jumail and Regdalin resulted in a number of casualties.

The violence in southern and north-western Libya has also highlighted the lack of government control over outlying towns, cities and borders. Smuggling, particularly of weapons, and the movement of Islamist extremists and criminal entities across the central and southern regions, continues relatively unchecked and serves to undermine the national security of the country.

 Movement of Weapons 

International and regional states are also concerned about conditions, specifically the movement of weapons to neighbouring countries. An increase in smuggling of infantry weapons looted from former regime caches into southern Egypt, Niger and Mali has served to undermine security in these areas, specifically in northern Mali, where a Tuareg rebellion has routed military forces from the northern half of the country.

Of particular concern is an arsenal of MANPAD surface-to-air missiles that was looted from Libyan weapons stores in 2011. Many of these weapons are thought to be in the hands of Libyan militias as well as external groups, including the Algeria-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Post-election outlook

Should the election proceed, the outcome will be a major variable in determining the country’s short-to-medium-term outlook. The participation of all Libyan activists, civil society, militias, and local committees as well as ethnic and political groups remains critical for the next phase of the political transition. Therefore, for the election to be a success it will need to be perceived as free, fair and transparent and the above-mentioned bodies will need to be equally represented in the future PNC.

However, should the election be delayed or otherwise fail to meet these requirements, the consequences could be dramatic. The country would likely continue to undergo further polarisation along local, regional, tribal and ethnic lines. It should also be noted that even in the event of a successful election, Libya will still remain prone to instability.

The future government will also need to continue to develop critical state institutions (such as those providing judicial, security and healthcare services) in order to build credibility on all levels. With a strong state in place, a representative government and a constitution that serves the majority of Libyans, the government will be well-placed to secure its cities and borders and settle long-standing ethnic, tribal and political rivalries.

*This article was first published by Think Africa Press. Go to Original.

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