On July 7, 2012, Libyans voted to elect a new government, the General National Council (GNC).
One year later, the GNC has yet to live up to voter expectations or to diligently discharge its duties under Libya’s constitutional declaration, an interim constitution which provides some structural guidance for Libya’s interim governing bodies, rules for organizing the constitutional assembly, and a brief timeline for the transitional period.
Instead, in early July 2013, the GNC’s two major parties, the National Forces Alliance (NFA) and the Muslim Brotherhood, have issued statements refusing to join any parliamentary sessions except those related to the formation of the constitutional assembly.
Ironically, the machinations of these political parties have in fact hindered the formation of the assembly while also distracting the GNC from its core duties.
While on July 13, 2013 the GNC did pass legislation governing the operation of the constitutional assembly and the election of assembly members, the new laws are contentious among the countries indigenous tribes, the Amazigh, Tebu, and Touareg, and will likely need amendment.
The political fault lines within Libya’s nascent political institutions are set to deepen after Ramadan, and threaten to shake the future of the GNC as a popularly supported government body.
Public figures like Mustafa Abd al-Jalil, the head of Libya’s war time parliament, the National Transitional Council, and ex-GNC members Hassan al-Amin, Mohammed Magarief, and Abd al-Monem Louhici have increasingly warned that the GNCs fractious factionalism and opportunistic practices risk destabilizing the country and preventing Libya’s democratic development.
The state of the GNC and Libya’s politics today is, however, a product of persistent conflict between the NFA and Muslim Brotherhood that has occurred over the past year.
Courting Political Allies
During the past year, the GNC has been the center of political warfare with both parties fighting for control.
The NFA and the Muslim Brotherhood entered the GNC in August 2012 as more than traditional political parties. They were broad factions with nationwide political and geographical allegiances. Both groups leveraged many single-issue and single-constituency parties, which make up the bulk of Libya’s post-revolutionary political scene.
The NFA’s base consists of an “Old Guard” of businessmen involved with Saif al-Islam’s neo-liberal dalliances, various single-interest groups, local personalities and militias operating in the town of Zintan.
The Zintani militias have been given responsibility for guarding Libya’s key economic resources thanks to lobbying from Osama al-Juweili, an NFA ally and defense minister under the country’s previous Prime Minister Abdel Rahman al-Keib.
For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood has created a sturdy, nationwide support network. It has made alliances with ideologically aligned entities, like the Salafist groups in Tripoli and nearby Zawiya and ex-Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) veterans like Salah al-Baadi.
Through these alliances, the Muslim Brotherhood has secured influence over the revolutionary heartland of Misrata and Libya’s wider revolutionary political groups.
The Muslim Brotherhood quickly learned the importance of local power structures in the new Libya. The group and its allies dominated elections and appointment lists in various local councils within important population centers, such as Benghazi’s May 2012 municipal elections and the appointed Tripoli Local Council.
Before entering the GNC, the Muslim Brotherhood also cultivated allies in Libya’s transitional army and police forces. Muslim Brother’s like Abd al-Razzaq al-Aradi played a key role in setting up Tripoli’s Supreme Security Committee (SSC), while an influential network of Muslim Brotherhood members and allies across Libya’s SSCs and Libya Shield units (Libya’s transitional police and army respectively) was created.
The GNC Gets Down to Business?
These alliances, coupled with the NFA’s impressive electoral victory and the election of revolutionary figurehead Mohammed Magarief over the NFA-associate Ali Zeidan to the GNC presidency set the political stage for Libya’s transitional governing body.
The GNC was charged with selecting a prime minister, approving a transitional government, and most importantly overseeing the election and running of the constitutional assembly, which is tasked with creating Libya’s new constitution.
Although 120 of 200 seats in the GNC were supposed to be reserved for independent candidates, candidates from political parties effectively captured half of these independent seats in the elections, giving political parties significant influence.
These political factions then turned their attention to the jewel in the crown of Libya’s new system: the appointment of a prime minister to head the transitional executive branch.
After an extraordinarily close vote, Dr. Mustafa Abu-Shagour was elected prime minister. His appointment represented a critical opportunity for the true independents and local interest groups to form an executive protected from destructive party politics that dominated the GNC.
Dr. Abu-Shagour, however, soon committed a series of grave errors, including failing to properly respect the power of local political groups and mishandling the bitter reaction of Mahmoud Jibril, his opponent in the race for prime minister, to defeat.
These missteps culminated in a nationally embarrassing political show that ended in a GNC vote of no confidence against Abu-Shagour.
Ali Zeidan’s subsequent election to the GNC presidency in October 2012 seemed to face a similar end were it not for his successful diplomacy in constructing a cabinet, which pleased both local power groups and political parties.
While this was a much-needed victory for the GNC, it was only a temporary respite from continued politicking within the body. The process for approving individual ministers stretched on for months as both sides attempted to pressure appointees affiliated with the other side to withdraw.
Once a transitional government was finally formed (some three months late), the GNC should have turned toward forming the constitutional assembly. Instead, a series of crises, including controversy surrounding a law setting compensation for disabled revolutionaries, took precedence.
Consolidating Power Through the Political Isolation Law
Among the most debilitating crisis was the GNC’s six-month struggle over the political isolation law.
The law, which was proposed by the revolutionary faction of the Libyan political scene, was designed to punish high-level members of Qaddafi’s government against whom there were no criminal charges, and generally replace Qaddafi supporters and employees holding government positions with revolutionaries.
Members of the GNC quickly realized the legislation’s usefulness as a powerful political tool for removing opponents, and sought to manipulate the law for their own purposes.
The NFA worked to isolate the Muslim Brotherhood, citing the organization’s very public reconciliation with the Qaddafi regime in 2006 that resulted in the release of Muslim Brotherhood members from jail.
The Muslim Brotherhood aimed to use the law to remove the NFA’s core support and patronage base, which was composed of individuals who had lived and worked in Qaddafi’s Libya. Some of the most prominent members of this group filled political posts while others are businessmen in the private sector, which was heavily influenced by Qaddafi’s children and closest allies.
In the end the Muslim Brotherhood emerged victorious. By leveraging alliances within the GNC, it managed to remove the article that would isolate those who had reconciled with the regime. In the immediate aftermath of this amendment to the draft law, a union of militias from revolutionary centers within and outside Tripoli invaded, ransacked, and laid siege to the capital’s ministries demanding that the law be passed.
A week later, on May 5, 2013, a hastily finished version of this law was indeed passed in a move that marked the Muslim Brotherhood’s political coup de grace.
As it currently stands, the law not only isolates many key NFA members, but also weakens the Muslim Brotherhood’s strongest allies such as the Salafists and local interest groups like Abd al-Rahman Swehli’s Union and Homeland party. As a result, these groups will become more reliant on the Muslim Brotherhood to fulfill their political ambitions.
In the two months following the law’s passage, the Muslim Brotherhood capitalized on its good fortune to cement control over Libya’s political institutions.
To preempt his inevitable removal because of the isolation law, Magarief resigned from the presidency of the GNC. During his resignation speech, Magarief warned about groups using violence to endanger Libya’s nascent democracy. Although he did not name the Muslim Brotherhood, his words were clearly aimed at them.
With the election of Magarief’s replacement, Nuri Abu-Sahmein, the Muslim Brotherhood cemented its control over the GNC. Although not officially a Muslim Brother, Abu Sahmein clearly owed his election to the group’s support.
The NFA was floundering and could not leverage enough votes to support its chosen candidate for the presidency, Mohammed al-Wafi.
The importance of these developments was encapsulated by the resignation of Abd al-Monem Louhici from the GNC following the presidency vote.
In his resignation statement, Louhici expressed his frustration at his powerlessness to alter the “poor performance of the GNC and its lack of objectivity and transparency” as well as its “partisanship,” which he believed was cemented by the vote.
Important political leaders like Mustafa Abd al-Jalil, Hassan al-Amin, and even Mohammed Magarief have denounced the destabilizing, undemocratic, and violent stratagems used by these political factions to fulfill political ambitions.
The Balance Shifts to the Muslim Brotherhood
The NFA’s fall over eight long months of political warfare was evident. The party’s lack of a common rallying-point, and poor internal management left a divided membership, seeking local or personal interests.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood went from victory to victory. The group expanded its influence in the security services with the appointment of another ally, Mohammed Sheikh Khalifeh as the Interior Minister. Khalifeh replaced the NFA-allied Ashour Shuweil, who resigned rather than be removed by the isolation law.
Shortly thereafter, a series of disputes threatened the NFA-allied Zintani militia’s role in Tripoli. Workers guarding oil fields in the south staged an aggressive protest about payment grievances outside the Petroleum Facilities Guard headquarters in Tripoli. The protests escalated after Tripoli’s SSC brigades arrested Zintani militiamen without legal cause.
Predictably, Zintan’s militias rallied to free its comrades. It was an expensive show of force that cost the group public support and forced the government’s hand, which demanded that a major Zintani militia base in Yarmouk, Tripoli be evacuated.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, who is ideologically linked with the NFA, was wallowing in problems with the GNC blocking many of his initiatives as well as constantly calling him in for interpellation sessions. His government also suffered through repeated invasions of ministries, blockades, and a lack of funding from the GNC, which took until March 19, 2013 to pass their budget.
Crucially, Zeidan then failed to cut through the red tape in the country’s internal accounting bureau to access the budget needed to address these problems. The country’s local councils, which were the cornerstone of the nascent state, gradually turned against Zeidan as well.
Facing condemnation for these failures, Zeidan mistakenly attempted to rush local elections under GNC law 59, a new municipal law that aimed to replace the current local councils. The municipal law, which was devised with little public consultation, drew new municipal boundaries for the country and a new system of local governance. The new boundaries were at first, undisclosed, and when they were revealed, drew heated opposition.
This ill-conceived law only led to more problems and criticisms from local councils nationwide. The government’s lack of funding and inability to pay salaries also caused a series of strikes.
Zeidan’s security team, withered by resignations and antagonistic replacements, blamed him for Libya’s fragility. The armed force’s temporary Chief of Staff Salem Gneidi even created a Zeidan-centric conspiracy in a television interview to explain Libya’s failure to build an army.
The NFA will find itself marginalized in Libya’s political arena unless it takes certain steps to rectify these setbacks.
To prevent this fate from materializing, Zeidan will need to co-opt the local councils by using public opinion to engage them to revise the municipal law. This would leverage the power of popular sentiment to pressure the local councils to agree to a legal framework detailing a clear hierarchy of authority and a transparent division of responsibilities between local councils and the central government.
Holding new local elections would also allow the NFA to challenge its opponents in public elections, where the party has previously succeeded.
Zeidan should also leverage the public’s calls for an official police and army to replace the unpopular SSCs and Libya Shield units. This policy would integrate militiamen into the national forces on an individual basis and not with their militias, thus breaking old allegiances based on local affiliations.
Ramadan drew to a close with crowds taking to the streets across Libya blaming the politicking of the GNC and its two largest factions for the country’s stalled progress. The NFA subsequently decided to suspend the party’s political activities until after the constitution is drafted, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction party is set to follow suit.
However, members of the parties will continue to participate in the GNC, but now as independents. The termination of the NFA as an official party will allow its members to be exempt from a clause in the electoral law for the constitutional assembly that bans political parties from running candidates. This means that both faction’s politicians and public personalities could potentially continue their conflict as members of the constitutional assembly, the body that will decide upon Libya’s very nature and future shape.
Ultimately, if Libya is to prosper as a pluralistic and democratic state and if the NFA and the Muslim Brotherhood wish to avoid an unceremonious end, then they will both need to learn that unity always trumps divisive antagonism. To achieve this unity, these parties must move beyond petty short-term stratagems, and instead work towards mutually beneficial long-term interests.
If the actors in Libya’s political scene wish to realize long-term success, then they would do well to erase these battle lines and start working toward national rather than local goals.
This type of long-term thinking not only elevates Libya, but will also cement the legacy of these parties.
Meanwhile non-aligned actors in Libya’s political scene must do all they can to emulate successful transitional states and institutionalize best-practice working procedures. If these are implemented and overseen by a trusted 3rd party, such as a court, then even the divisive aspects of Libya’s politics can be channeled in a more productive manner towards realizing the dreams that Libyans shed their blood for.
The political structure and stability of the country is fragile and factional warfare risks decimating it completely. The collapse of Libya’s nascent state would leave only anarchy remaining in its rubble.
Many of Libya’s politicians now have a crucial choice to make. They can either be remembered as the founding fathers of a new Libya or as opportunists who climbed over the bodies of the martyrs to finish what Qaddafi started.