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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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Benghazi, Libya

Libyan Government Photo

The interim government of Libya announces the death of Abdul Fattah Younes, July 28 in Benghazi.

AP / Alexandre Meneghini

What was supposed to be a short police action by NATO has turned into a protracted conflict, but the Libyan people may be the long-term beneficiaries of the unexpectedly long war here. In the Western Mountains, hit hard by the conflict, Abdul al-Razaq, an oilfield technician from Sabratha before the war, explained from his brigade headquarters in Zintan: “In Tunisia and Egypt the revolutions were from the top. They changed their president. In Libya, our revolution has started from the bottom.” The need—and time—to rethink institutions from the bottom has given democracy the space to trickle upward in Libya.

“The Islamists here say that liberals have a right to their opinions. Oh, what a nice gift!” Idris Tayeb says caustically in English. It’s early afternoon in Benghazi on August 8, and as the whipsmart former Libyan cultural attaché to Rome and New Delhi sits in his office in the National Transitional Council’s Foreign Affairs Office, seismic changes are taking place in the often-inscrutable council itself.

By evening, council head Dr. Mahmoud Jibril will announce what looks like a major power shift, disbanding the council’s executive committee and promising a replacement. Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the second-in-command and head of the executive committee, will be among those suspended.

The ferment is in reaction to the council’s findings of administrative errors in the gruesome murder on July 28 of the revolutionaries’ top military commander, Major Abdul Fattah Younes. A separate criminal inquiry is winding its way to a conclusion more slowly, trying to explain to the satisfaction of Benghazi’s people and the general’s million-strong Obeidat tribe how he ended up dead when he was supposed to be appearing before the council to answer questions about his conduct of the war.

Though the still-mysterious killing has taken the bloom off the council—newly recognized by Washington and London as Libya’s legitimate government—-Benghazi’s people are looking encouragingly like the citizens of a democracy. The agitation here is conversational. While the revolution began with demonstrations in what is now known as “Freedom Square” in mid-February, it is moving on to the beginnings of party politics.

A half-dozen political organizations are in the process of formation, each with an anodyne platform and position papers, and activity has picked up since Abdul Fattah’s death. The cavernous triple-height lobby of Benghazi’s sole five-star hotel, the fortress-like, usually stiflingly hot Tibesti, is filled much of the day with Libyan politicos talking through their views and plans. While there are opportunists and cynics, many of the men and women meeting here are highly educated—often in the United States or Britain—and passionately committed to their country.

There is much grumbling about the council. Some political insiders, like Salwa Bugaighis, a member of a wealthy Benghazi clan active in the revolution, note that the council’s lack of transparency and indecisiveness reflect the dictatorship it emerged from. Bugaighis, an attorney involved since the earliest days of the revolution, explains that “for 42 years, the decision maker was Qaddafi. People used to take the decisions from up [above]. They are always afraid to make a decision.” She also noted that Jalil is a “nice, very flexible man” known for avoiding conflict and seeking consensual decisions. “But now we are in crisis. He doesn’t want to anger anyone.”

Mohammed al-Senussi is one of a much smaller number advocating the surprisingly controversial step of electing a council now. “We have to choose our representatives democratically before democracies unwisely recognize a travesty.” A grandnephew of Libya’s King Idris, who was deposed by Qaddafi in 1969, Senussi advocates elections in Libya’s free cities to obtain a new council, then a temporary assembly to choose a committee to write a new constitution. But the stock objection to this position—that elections in free areas would be unfair to people in not-yet-liberated cities and would be a distraction from the war effort—still has overwhelming support in Benghazi.

The role of Islam in a free Libya is one of the hot topics in this almost wholly Muslim country. Former deputy executive committee head Ali al-Essawi—who signed the warrant for Abdul Fattah’s arrest on charges of treason—is widely said to be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, so his removal may represent a shift away from toleration of a growing Islamist influence.

But a fully secular Libyan state is hard to imagine. Idris Tayeb is rare in the extent of his commitment to the separation of religion from government. “Idris may be too far left for many Libyans,” says S. Ghariani, the measured, calm spokesman for the new National Democratic Association (NDA). “We are an Islamic country.”

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