Candidate Radhya Bourawi votes in Libya’s recent election (Credit: UN Development Programme)

There is little doubt as to the historic nature of the political developments in Libya. After decades of rule under Muammar Qaddafi, a 200-member General National Congress (GNC) was created in landmark nationwide polls in early July. Following a successful transfer of power to this elected body, Libya’s GNC elected former opposition leader Mohammed el-Megarif as the country’s interim president on August 10. As the country embarks on a democratic transition after years of dictatorship, the journey will bring about governance, security, and justice challenges.

As the dust settles on elections, the GNC’s work of building functional and representative political systems begins. While the initial focus will turn to naming a prime minister within 30 days, of pivotal importance is how the new congress will decide on a mechanism to select a 60-member panel tasked with writing the country’s constitution. At present there continues to be debate about how this process will take place.

The initial plan was that the constitutional drafting committee was to be elected by the GNC. However, the outgoing National Transitional Council (NTC) reneged on that commitment. In July, the NTC declared that drafting committee was to be elected directly by the people with each of the three historic regions — east, west, and south — receiving 20 seats on the committee. The move was intended to assuage concerns expressed by those in the east over what they feel to be an unjust demographic-based distribution of seats in the new 200-member congress. Tensions have risen because the east — pioneer of the revolution that ousted Qaddafi — only has 60 seats compared to the 100 allocated to the west. However, the GNC claims that it has the right to reverse the move on the grounds that the NTC adopted the measure at the end of its term, when it had lost its legitimacy. As the time of writing, there is no process for moving the development of the constitution forward.

Security remains a significant issue that the incoming government must address. The NTC’s failure to consolidate the various militias — operating in environment proliferated by weapons — into a coherent national security apparatus has hindered stability throughout the country. In the past six-months, the southeast and western parts of the country in particular have seen instances of tribal violence targeting ethnic groups loyal to the late Qaddafi, which have left more than 100 people dead and hundreds others injured. It is critically important that the Libyan people have a police and military that will defend them and safeguard their rights.

Closely related to the issue of security is that of justice. The United Nations Human Rights Council released in early March a detailed account of atrocities committed by Qaddafi’s loyalist as well as powerful anti-Qaddafi militias. In a recent statement, Human Rights Watch call on the incoming government to tackle the widespread issue of individuals being arbitrarily detained by militias, some subjected to suspected links to Qaddafi. Further, Libyan authorities have been locked in a diplomatic wrangle with the International Criminal Court on whether the trial of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, should be tried at The Hague or in Libya. On the basis of available evidence, it is difficult to imagine that Saif would receive a fair trial in Libya.

There is a lot of work to be done as the country moves through a treacherous transitional phase ahead of elections scheduled for next year. Building sound democratic institutions is essential to fulfill the expectations of the Libyan people. However, this long-term process must be done in a secure environment whereby those responsible for human rights abuses are held accountable for their actions. The incoming government has the legitimacy that the NTC lacked to assert authority. With the support of the electorate, the government led by El-Megarif must devise polices aimed at addressing the disparate militias that have undermined national security, establish the rule of law to curb the culture of impunity, and improve the human rights situation as the country begins a new chapter in its history.


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