In Libya, the People’s Will, Not a Dictator’s Whims
The first time I set foot in Libya was July 4, 2011, five months after the start of the February 17 revolution. This was a significant moment, because as a Libyan-American and the daughter of a political dissident, it was the first time I was able to visit. As my family and I crossed into Libya from Egypt, driving past the cities of Tobruq, Derna, Al-Bayda, and Benghazi, we saw the evidence of the Libyan people’s revolutionary enthusiasm. Nearly every available surface was painted red, black, and green—the colors of Libya’s newly adopted liberation flag—or peppered with revolutionary graffiti calling for an end to the 42-year rule of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi. Against the backdrop of a civil war, a free Libya was on the horizon.
When I returned one year later for a Freedom House voter education training program with youth and civil society organizations, I found a country preparing for its first national election, and revolutionary graffiti was competing for space with billboards of candidates running for office as well as signs and posters from the High National Election Commission (HNEC) encouraging Libyans to vote. Libya is now a state evolving from revolution to nation-building. While significant challenges remain, there is a palpable sense of pride and optimism in the country: Libyans are working to honor the revolution and realize a transition to democracy.
Of the 3.3 million eligible voters, according to the HNEC website, more than 2.8 million Libyans registered to vote, close to 80 percent. On July 7, Libyans will vote to elect a 200-member General National Congress (GNC) that will replace the National Transitional Council (NTC). In a campaign that officially began on June 18, there are nearly 4,000 candidates—representing parties and running as independents—competing in 13 districts for seats in the GNC. The final tally has 142 registered political parties with 1,206 candidates vying for 80 seats, with the remaining 120 seats reserved for the 2,501 independent candidates.
It is remarkable to think that prior to February 2011, the only image that was displayed was that of al-Qadhafi, but now pictures of thousands of candidates pepper the towns and cities. All political activity was strictly banned and suppressed during al-Qadhafi’s decades of oppressive rule.
However, with this euphoria comes the sobering fact that many challenges lie ahead during this fragile transitional period. Libyans, for the most part, accept that this first national ballot will be far from perfect, particularly with the narrow election timetable. Voters had just 18 days to study and research the candidates. With insufficient voter awareness and education, the electoral process effectively reinforces tribal loyalties in voting decisions. Many youth activists have posed the valid questions, “How do we know who to vote for? What are the qualifications that we are looking for?” Even in the two largest cities, there is a need for greater awareness about the candidates, ballot assignments (will it be majoritarian, proportional, or both), and overall electoral process.
More troubling is the growing sense of marginalization and abandonment felt by cities in the eastern province toward the centralized interim authorities in Tripoli. Specifically, the federalist movement in the east has contested the proportional seat allocation in the GNC, and instead favored equal representation for the three regional provinces (west, east, and south). Unfortunately, after months of peaceful protests, fringe elements of the movement are now resorting to vandalism and destruction to voice their concerns. Once the GNC is elected, equal seats will be granted to a constitutional committee of 60—20 from each regional province. As the electoral process moves forward, many issues have yet to be clarified, such as how the interim government and constitutional committee will be selected, as well as what role the GNC will play in cultivating rule of law.
The flawed electoral process is not the only challenge faced by Libyans. The presence of heavily armed militias has created a volatile security situation. Also, after undergoing a civil war and decades of repression, there is a need for a comprehensive framework that promotes transitional justice and national reconciliation.
However, despite these challenges, most voters are excited to elect their representatives and to replace the self-appointed NTC, which is viewed as illegitimate and not transparent in its decision-making. Without any real polling, it is hard to project who the winners will be, but the votes will represent the will of the people rather than the whim of a dictator.
The mainstream news fails to highlight the day-to-day realities and strides that ordinary people are achieving under extraordinary circumstances. In an oil-rich country, Libyans are making do with outdated educational and health care facilities, broken roads, and a lack of security. Nevertheless, Libya is laying the groundwork for a transition to democratic and representative government, and I can only remain patient and cautiously optimistic.
My father, a longtime political activist and dissident during the al-Qadhafi regime, is running as an independent in the upcoming elections in the district of Benghazi. Walking with him during my last visit, we both admired one of the official election billboards, which featured a smiling young girl wearing a barrette emblazoned with the slogan, “Vote so you can build my future.”
There is a profound sense of self-awareness and motivation among the general population, because they want to create better opportunities. The pulse of Libya’s transition can be measured by the enthusiasm of its civil society organizations and youth activists. With scant funds but generous hearts and determination, the creativity and ingenuity represented by many of these activists is truly uplifting, especially for a nation that is practicing civic activism and engagement for the first time. As one of the youth leaders and participants in our training, who will be serving as an official domestic election monitor, commented, “Libya is a baby, and we are teaching her how to walk…she will fall many times, but she will also get up, and that is how she will grow.”