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Are Libyans abandoning democracy in search of stability?

More and more democratically elected governments in Libyan localities are being replaced by military rule.
Soldiers from the National Army of Cyrenaica take part in a military parade graduation ceremony in Benghazi March 3, 2012. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori (LIBYA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY) - RTR2YSN6

It has been nearly five years since Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi was captured and killed by Libyan rebels near his hometown of Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. Sadly, Libya remains a deeply divided country, both politically and institutionally, and does not have a functional representative government in place. Tragically, Libya’s democratic transition process failed to create an environment conducive for democracy and the rule of law. Instead, Libya became a country where militias ruled, extremist groups flourished and living conditions deteriorated significantly. The country also suffers from a major political crisis, with various competing governments each claiming legitimacy and control over key institutions such as the Central Bank, the National Oil Corporation and the Libyan Investment Authority.

Today, Libyans are forced to choose between two extremes: either chaos with militias and Islamist extremists as the dominant forces, or military rule. No other convincing options are on offer. The choice is quite clear in Libya’s eastern region of Cyrenaica (Barqa in Arabic), where the military is now the dominant armed and political force on the ground, expanding its control over democratically elected and civilian institutions without any public opposition and with clear public support for their actions. On June 19, the president of the Libyan parliament in Tobruk, in his claimed capacity as supreme commander of the armed forces, declared a state of emergency and appointed the Libyan National Army Chief of Staff Abdulrazaq Nadori as military governor for the eastern region. Nadori now has the power to appoint civilian and military committees and can replace local municipal councils with military governors. He also can prohibit demonstrations that do not have prior written consent from his office.

In Libya’s eastern region, Nadori started a campaign to replace largely dysfunctional but democratically elected municipal councils with military-appointed governors. The step represents yet another setback for democracy in post-Gadhafi Libya. So far, military governors have replaced eight municipal councils, including those in the cities of Benghazi, Shahaat, Ejdabyia in the northeast and Kufrah in the southeast. 

Otman Gajiji, the chairman of the Central Committee of Municipal Elections of Libya, expressed great concern over what he called the “military takeover” of democratically elected authorities. “There is no legal framework or justification for these appointments,” he told Al-Monitor.

Indeed, there is no existing legislation or emergency law in place to legally justify Nadori’s actions. It is also clear that there is no accountability mechanism for oversight from the parliament in Tobruk.

However, such concerns do not seem to be shared by the head of Libya’s parliament, who authorized Nadori’s actions. Also, the mayor of Tobruk in eastern Libya requested that the military appoint a governor for the city, citing a lack of resources and city officials' inability to provide services and fight crime. Similarly, local community leaders in the municipality of Soloug south of Benghazi demanded that the military appoint a governor for the municipality. Local communities in the southern and western regions of Libya are discussing the idea of military governors for their own municipalities, showing the potential for the militarization trend to spread nationwide.

To understand this shift in Libya’s political and governance landscape, one must look into the dynamics that gave rise to this trend and also local perspectives about it. Activists in the city of Benghazi, the first to have its municipal council replaced with a military governor, told Al-Monitor that many civil society and democracy activists were strong supporters of the army’s war on extremist Islamist militias in Benghazi. The activists explained their support by pointing out that since 2012, Benghazi has witnessed a terror campaign at the hands of extremists in which more than 500 civil society activists, politicians, journalists and military and security personnel have been killed. Most of these cases were perpetrated by “unknown assailants,” with successive governments failing to bring those responsible to justice. Furthermore, the security situation and living conditions have deteriorated significantly. The Libyan National Army and its leader, Gen. Khalifa Hifter, capitalized on these failures.

Residents of Benghazi and other major cities in eastern Libya celebrate the Libyan National Army’s advances and gains in Benghazi. Younes Najm, an activist from Benghazi, said the Libyan National Army "has recognition in the eyes of the people because it was the only institution that dealt with people’s concerns over the rise of extremist groups, militias and the deteriorating security situation.” Indeed, under the Libyan National Army, security has improved and criminal activities are being addressed, garbage collection seems to be working and there is better control over the prices of goods and services. All of these are quick wins that were badly needed and that previous governments failed to deliver. Undoubtedly, all this gives the military more public legitimacy than democratically elected but dysfunctional institutions.

“This is not what we had hoped for Libya, but Libya’s chance to establish a democracy has been sabotaged by narrow-minded interests and hijacked by Islamist groups with a transitional agenda,” said Monem Alyaser, who served in the General National Congress, the 2012-2014 transitional legislature. “Somehow, we will have to start over by establishing stability and building democratic institutions capable of upholding the rule of law and protecting human rights,” he added.

Despite the threats, challenges and the long road ahead, civil society activists and democracy advocates in Libya should be ready to push against the militarization exercise unfolding in the country in a way that does not help extremists or their enablers but rather defends the principles of rule of law, human rights and democracy.

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