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Democracy in Libya

The unintended benefits of a protracted conflict

Aug 29, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 46 • By ANN MARLOWE
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“A lot of people who called themselves independent are reconsidering their positions,” Ghariani says. Fairouz Nas, a Tripoli accounting professor from a prominent Benghazi family and one of the NDA’s 23 founders, was originally loath to form an association, she says. “But then there were problems like the wall in Makama that I could not solve by myself.” This is a reference to a ten-foot-high wall put up around the women’s section in “Freedom Square” to “protect” the women from the male gaze and supposed harassment. It is despised by many of the more educated women.

The NDA is holding frequent public meetings to recruit members. They are trying to attract the young people who made the revolution and represent by far the majority of Libya’s six million citizens. And they are sensitive to the need to be democratic within their organization as well as in its platform. Nas explained that they had a poll for youth where 250 invited young people sat at roundtables with NDA members and shared their views in an informal polling process.

The NDA are proposing a free-market economy, free health care for Libyans, and free education (these last two existed under Qaddafi, but were of low quality). They are hesitant to label themselves a party just yet, since Qaddafi spent decades insisting that anyone “who is a party member is a traitor”—a slogan internalized even by his opponents. “Young people came to us and said, ‘Don’t call yourself a party,’ ” says Nas.

The role of women is being debated here too, with Amal Bugaighis, another prominent attorney, forming the Committee for the Support of Women in Decision Making with 24 other women at the end of June. Now numbering around 200, it’s not a party, but a group of well-educated women aiming to open up a discussion of women’s roles in Libyan society. Nas says she considered joining, but balked at a point in their platform calling for a quota of 30 percent women in future political bodies.

Libya’s youth, who transformed a meek Benghazi lawyers’ union “standing protest” on February 15 into a violent uprising, are also trying to put their stamp on organized politics. El Montasir, a skinny, outgoing 19-year-old electrical engineering student in camo pants, a techno T-shirt, and a red soldier’s beret, calls himself a “Libocrat”—a Libyan committed to democracy. He is the head of the Association of the Voice of National Youth (“Libocrats” might work better), which he claims has 12,000 to 13,000 members all over the country, including in Qaddafi-held areas.

Like many Libyans, El Montasir avows, “We believe the U.S. [is the] best country in the world.” Also like many Libyans, he has a close relative in the United States. But it is hard to find out what the group’s platform entails beyond lots of enthusiasm for democracy. More seasoned politicos told me that El Montasir—a nom de guerre that means “the conqueror”—was strongly opposed to the Islamists. But religion permeates his thought, or at least his speech.

“I am doing this for Allah and my country,” he explains in the Tibesti lobby—probably the youngest person among a hundred or so talking politics one midnight. And he interpolates profuse thanks to Allah in his account of his own involvement in the revolution, in rapid but often incorrect English.

A clearer explanation of what his group does came from a middle-aged adviser to the Voice of the Youth, a successful Libyan-American businessman, Mustafa Gheriani: “This group is operating in the least privileged areas in Benghazi, and the surrounding cities and villages. Some of the Voice of the Youth have played a major role in the development of Benghazi’s 60 neighborhood councils. The Voice of the Youth platform is a work in progress.”

The fervent love of country of Libyans of all stripes is a distinguishing feature of the Libyan revolution. Perhaps it is because this is a small population, but Libyans have a sense of ownership that augurs well for the future.

“This is my country, don’t put it under your shoes,” Idris Tayeb wrote in a 1986 poem while inside Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison. (He translated his verse into English and published it earlier this year in Egypt.) Since February, such once-forbidden sentiments have become almost universal. Over more than six trying months of death, brownouts, shortages, and confusion, Libyans have gone from viewing their country as the property of one man to the responsibility of all.

Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and blogs for World Affairs.

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