23-07-2013 09:01PM ET

Libya: progress amid controversy

The signing of a law governing elections to the Libyan Constituent Assembly gave some hint of progress made this week, though contentious issues remain, writes Kamel Abdallah

Libya: progress amid controversy

Beida, the capital of Al-Jebel Al-Akhdar (the Green Mountain) district in northern Cyrenaica, hosted the signing ceremony for Libya’s recently passed Constituent Assembly Law. The ceremony, on 20 July, took place in the assembly hall of the parliament building of the pre-Gaddafi monarchical period.

After formerly signing the law, which establishes and governs elections to the assembly charged with drafting Libya’s new constitution, Nuri Abu Sahmain, the head of the General National Congress (GNC), handed the document to Nuri Khalifa Al-Abbar, the president of the Supreme National Electoral Commission that will now begin preparations for elections to the 60-member Constituent Assembly.

In addition to all members of the GNC, the ceremony was attended by former head of the National Transitional Council Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, former GNC leader Mohamed Magarief and Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. Also present was Al-Taher Al-Alem, nicknamed the “Father of Libyan Independence”. Al-Alem had been among the 60-member committee that had drafted Libya’s first constitution following independence in 1952. It was this historical committee that inspired the name “The 60 Committee” which Libyans, today, apply to the Constituent Assembly they will elect and from which they will expect as positive results as its predecessor.

Addressing those assembled in the old capital building in Beida, Abu Sahmain said: “We are determined, in spite of all the challenges, to move forward in the preservation of the legacy of our forefathers and the establishment of a nation for our people beneath the umbrella of the constitution, the path towards which passes through elections for the 60 Committee.” The GNC leader also stated that the Supreme National Elections Commission had begun preparations for the elections which will be held as soon as possible and that a GNC team was currently engaged in talks with some components of Libyan society that had voiced reservations with regard to some of the articles of the Constituent Assembly Law.

By “components” he was referring to the Toubou, Tuareq and Amazigh ethnic minorities that had recently declared their intent to boycott the Constituent Assembly elections. They maintained that the Constituent Assembly Law failed to ensure that they would be fairly represented in the 60 Committee and that it included no provisions to guarantee the cultural and linguistic rights of non-Arab segments of the population.

Hisham Hamadi, a member of the legal committee of the Supreme Amazigh Council, warned that Jebel Nafusa, a predominantly Amazigh-populated region in northwestern Libya, would declare its an autonomous province, in control of all its natural resources and cultural properties, in the event that the GNC refused to respond to its demand for a review of the article in the Constituent Assembly Law pertaining to linguistic and cultural identity. He explained that the Supreme Amazigh Council condemned the GNC’s approve of an article that would make it possible for the 60 Committee to approve or disapprove Amazigh linguistic rights by a simple majority (30 plus one) vote. He added that the council would appeal to the UN to intervene to safeguard Amazigh cultural and linguistic rights if the GNC persists in marginalising their culture and language.

According to Suleiman Zoubi, chairman of the GNC’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee that was charged with drafting the Constituent Assembly Law, it would be impossible to amend this law now that it had been passed by a 140 of the GNC’s 200 members. He added that a number of GNC members were currently in dialogue with the representatives of “cultural and linguistic components” in order to find compromise solutions that would not affect the text of the law.

In the opinion of Libyan political analyst Mohamed Al-Obeidi, Libya’s cultural and linguistic components should not call themselves “minorities”. To do so is “to demean themselves whereas they are an authentic part of the national fabric of the Libyan people”, he explained to Al-Ahram Weekly. On the other hand, he cautioned against the negative consequences of isolating them in Libyan society, which “would be a precedent in the history of the country”.

On 17 July, the 12 GNC members who represented the Amazigh, Toubou or Tuareq communities resigned from the 200-member congress in protest at the passage of the Constituent Assembly Law. In a joint press conference that these representatives held prior to this in Tripoli, they maintained that the constitutional provisions concerning cultural rights and other minority rights should require a unanimous vote to pass in the 60 Committee, as opposed to a majority vote as is currently stipulated under the Constituent Assembly Law.

The Toubou are concentrated primarily in the south of Libya along the borders with Chad while the Tuareq live in the centre and southwest of the country and the majority Amazigh, as noted above, are concentrated in the Jebel Nafusa area to the northwest. If these ethnic minorities do boycott the Constituent Assembly elections this would deliver a blow to the nascent democracy in the country that had suffered 42 years of Colonel Gaddafi’s despotism that deprived these minorities the freedom to express their linguistic and cultural affiliations.

The law just signed by the GNC leader in Beida, which will also host the Constituent Assembly in the old parliament building, allocates 20 seats to each of Libya’s historic provinces: Burqa (Cyrenaica), Tripoli and Fezan, which will constitute electoral zones for the purposes of this poll. The law has also reserved six seats for women and six seats for “cultural and linguistic components” of Libyan society. This latter quota came as a slap in the face for ethnic minorities that had hoped they would be represented in the 60 Committee in at least the same ratio that had applied in its historical predecessor in the early 1950s. In those days, each of the ethnic minorities was represented on the committee by six members, bringing the total number of ethnic representatives to 18.

Earlier this week, the National Council of Libyan Toubous issued a statement declaring that the provisions of the Constituent Assembly Law establishing majority voting as the basis for approving constitutional articles effectively denied minorities any voice in the process and rendered any presence of their representatives mere tokenism. Accordingly, they decided to withdraw from both the GNC and the government in protest.

Toubou, Tuareq and Amazigh leaders have given the GNC until Tuesday to review the controversial provisions of the law. If the GNC fails to take appropriate action by that time, their communities will set into motion a campaign of protest and civil disobedience until their demands are met.

It looks like an already complicated and fraught political climate will become even more so as Libya moves toward the elections and the drafting of a permanent constitution that the country has been lacking for over 42 years. There are a number of central and potentially controversial issues that the Constituent Assembly should put to a popular referendum before finalising a draft constitution. Not least of these is the question of the shape of government: should it be unitary or federal (an option gaining increasing support in the east)? Should it adopt a parliamentary or a presidential system, or a hybrid between the two? Indeed, even before this, should it be monarchical or republican?

In addition, there are the questions of the status of Islamic Sharia as a source of legislation, the official language (will it be exclusively Arabic or will some status be accorded to the languages of ethnic minorities?), as well as other identity issues such as the name of the state, its national anthem and the flag.

As thorny as these questions are, Libyans are heartened by the choice of Beida, perched on Al-Jebel Al-Akhdar plateau, as the location for the Constituent Assembly headquarters. That the members of this assembly will be working out of the country’s first parliament building is seen as a promising sign that Libya is heading towards an institutionalised state governed by the rule of law.

The old parliament building, which had remained closed and abandoned throughout the decades of the Gaddafi era from 1969 to 2011, was built by King Idriss Al-Sennusi at the time when Beida served as the Libyan capital. Initially, the United Kingdom of Libya, as the country was called following independence, adopted the federal system to join the provinces of Burqa (Cyrenaica), Tripoli and Fezan. However in 1963, the constitution was amended to provide for the unitary system and the name of the country was shortened to the Kingdom of Libya.

Beida is significant in other ways. It is Libya’s fourth largest city and the second largest city in the east. Al-Jebel Al-Akhdar is noted for having the best climate in Libya during the summer and for recurring snowfall in the winter. Politically, it is famed as the most steadfast and longest lasting stronghold of the Libyan national independence movement.