Brussels - With only days to go, Libya’s first national elections of the post-Qadhafi era are imperilled by armed protesters who, driven by a feeling of continued economic and political marginalisation, are threatening to disrupt the vote in the eastern part of the country.
Rather than pretend that security surrounding the 7 July elections is under control, the authorities should engage in genuine dialogue with the protesters and address root causes of their complaints. The alternatives – calling off elections in all or parts of the east; resorting to force; or allowing violent intervention by other brigades – risk undermining an already fragile transition.
On 1 July, in a brazen show of force and direct challenge to central authorities, armed men ransacked election offices in several eastern cities, including Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011 uprising. Since late May, they have massed armed vehicles and manned a roadblock at Wadi Ahmar, the symbolic border along the coastal road some 600km east of Tripoli that separates eastern from western Libya, preventing passage of government and military (and occasionally commercial) vehicles.
Their central grievance relates to what they consider the government’s ongoing neglect of the east and unwillingness to concede either greater political autonomy or enhanced financial contributions to a region that contains four fifths of the country’s natural resources. In the same spirit, they fault the government for making million-dollar deals with brigades from Zintan and Misrata, the two main western centres of armed groups. Like their countrymen in other parts of the nation, they distrust the National Transitional Council (NTC), the self-appointed interim legislative body, accusing it of lack of transparency. Although its chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, comes from there, they castigate him for “betraying Barqa” – the local term used to describe the eastern region. In short, they feel virtually as short-changed today as they did under the Qadhafi regime.
Those threatening to boycott the elections are undoubtedly a minority, although many in the east sympathise with their demands. Most crucially, Libyan authorities should not make the mistake of underestimating their ability to disrupt the political process. Comprised of two leading eastern tribes and the pro-federalist Barqa Council, the anti-election group now also includes disgruntled revolutionary forces gathering at Wadi Ahmar. Some of these are troops who defected from the nascent and weak national army (jaysh al-watani); others are armed groups that were previously under the defence ministry’s formal control. Most fought against Qadhafi during the uprising.
The central authorities would make a potentially grievous mistake by resorting to force against the armed groups, however provocative they have been; by the same token, they ought to do all in their power to prevent brigades or individuals angered by these events in the east from taking matters into their own hands. Far from prompting the protesters to back down, violence would exacerbate their resentment and, in the eyes of their constituents, boost the legitimacy of their struggle for greater autonomy.
What are needed now are meaningful negotiations. Quiet talks with Abdul Jalil have been going on through mediators acting on the protesters’ behalf. However, aside from the NTC chairman, the government, which is in charge of election security, also should be part of the discussions. The government took a positive step on 28 June by dispatching Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shaqur to Wadi Ahmar to listen to the protesters’ demands. But progress still is needed with regard to the negotiations’ content. Involving the UN Support Mission in Libya or some other neutral international body in the negotiations also might help avert open confrontation.
The armed groups’ chief demand centres around revision of the formula for National Assembly seats that would give the north west (Tripolitania) a far greater share. They want equality for the east (Cyrenaica). But this demand appears, from the government’s perspective, non-negotiable – if only because it would require freezing the elections in at least parts of the east. Moreover, the NTC is convinced it already has made a significant compromise by amending Article 30 of the Constitutional Declaration and establishing that all three regions would be equally represented in the 60-person committee charged with drafting the future constitution. On 28 June the NTC made another concession by stating that each regional block within the National Assembly would select its own twenty delegates. As an initial measure, the NTC and the government should provide greater visibility to these changes, announcing them publicly and directly to those who now threaten to disrupt the polls.
More broadly, the NTC, Deputy Prime Minister Abu Shaqur and eventual third-party mediators ought urgently to focus on the other five demands, which include:
transfer of the administrative district of Khalij al-Sidra (which stretches along the coast from Wadi Ahmar to Ras Lanuf) from the authority of Sirte, a former Qadhafi stronghold, to that of the eastern town of Ajdabiya;
instituting a mine-removal plan for Khalij al-Sidra;
reparations for war damages;
social development projects and greater job opportunities for local youth; and medical treatment abroad for the war-injured from the east.
Such significant concessions, if implemented rapidly, could appease most protesters. With a weak central government, powerful, competing armed groups and strong regional feelings, Libya is experiencing a delicate transition. Depending on how the authorities address the most pressing immediate challenge, that transition could remain delicate – or become genuinely perilous.
3 July 2012