Libya's Elections Are Just a Step on Long Road to Healing

Article Summary
As Libyans prepare to vote for the first time since 1965, uncertainty plagues the elections. No absentee ballots will be counted, leaving refugees from Libya's recent turmoil without a voice in the process, and lack of security remains a threat. Mustafa Fetouri writes that the country may need a reconciliation process before democracy can prevail.

On Saturday, July 7, Libyans will cast their votes in the first free elections since 1965. The hope is that the elections will lead to a stable political process, which will eventually lead to a new democratic government. Libyans appear to be praying to God they will not be disappointed.

Across the country people have high hopes hanging on the first national election. Libya is a country tired of corruption and lack of leadership. Above all, the Libyan people are tired of ineffective government, bloodshed, fighting and lack of security in their daily lives. Libyans are especially eager to go to the polls in order to replace the current government and National Transitional Council (NTC) who created it.

But uncertainty looms over the elections and, indeed, the post-election political developments. Soon it’ll be clear what kind of post-election Libya will emerge. The historic elections are being contested by some 349 political entities, including 142 officially registered political parties plus some 4000 individuals running as independent contestants. They are all fighting over 200 seats in the constituent assembly called the National Congress (GNC.) The new GNC is supposed to write a new constitution, paving the way for full-blown elections in 2013. Yet not all of Libya is voting, and large segments of the population are not able to cast a vote.

Last February I spoke to Sheik Ali, a tribal leader from my home town Bani Walid. He said elections “mean nothing to us” because people will always vote for their fellow tribesmen. When I called him for this article he was even more pessimistic than he was four months ago, but equally determined to see a “new Libya” that is not the NTC, its cronies or agents. “Anyone paid by Qatar and NATO to destroy our country is nothing but an agent, and NTC is the biggest of them all,” Ali said.

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Bani Walid, home to the Warfalla tribe, the biggest in Libya, has been outside any form of government control since February. The mountainous town is run by local tribesmen who refuse to accept the NTC-appointed local council. On at least three occasions, the NTC has encouraged various militias to take over the town only to be captured or killed by locals. The tribe is not holding any elections or  allowing any pro-NTC candidates to do so. Even campaign ads are banned and immediately destroyed wherever they appear.

Gaddafa and about 27 other tribes who opposed foreign military intervention have also set up what they call the “Honorable Tribes Conference.” Despite pressure by pro-government militias, the conference met three times in three different cities across Libya. I asked sheik Ali if such tribal leaders have any vision for post-election Libya. “Indeed we have,” he said. “The NTC, its imported government and agents of foreign powers must be held accountable to the Libyan people and we will make sure that they are.” He added that the election is fraudulent because over a million displaced Libyans are not able to vote.

Indeed, no voting is taking place outside Libya. In Egypt alone there are over 800,000 Libyans, while Tunisia hosts half that number. The interim government deliberately made no arrangement for them to vote, deeming them “anti-revolutionary” because they did not support last year’s revolt. In addition to the exiled abroad, there is a large number of internally displaced Libyans, such as Twaraghas, who have no chance to cast their ballots either.

Yet security remains the biggest threat to fair and democratic elections. For the last 40 days or so, pro-federalist system protesters have been blocking the highway at Al Wadi Lahmer (The Red Valley) just east of Sirte. They demonstrated against what they call the unfair allocation of seats to eastern Libya. They believe more seats should have been allocated to their region since it was the birthplace of last year’s revolt.

The security situation in Kufra in the southeast, which has a population of 60,000 has deteriorated, so much that government forces dare not enter the region. The only remedy the NTC chairman has for such a situation is “annulling any voting results in such areas if voting ever takes place.”

Elections will, however, definitely take place and a winner will soon be announced. The biggest winners are expected be a mix of tribal and Islamist-backed parties and individuals running as independents. Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood Movement’s Justice and Development Party has done well in Benghazi’s local elections, capturing some 48% of the vote. As the biggest and best organized political party in Libya, it’s also the richest and the most experienced — which is vital in a country that has not had any political parties for decades.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, I’m afraid they will not be comprehensive and will certainly not solve Libya’s complicated problems. Divided as it is, Libya needs to heal from the social scars of war and peace, and above all, it needs a successful reconciliation process. Yet a "saddle change" might bring better luck, as a Libyan proverb says.

Libyans have endured too much corruption, killings and insecurity; it’s high time to hand over power to an elected body that should concentrate on rebuilding the war-torn country. NTC and its appointed interim government have failed miserably, and they should just pack up and go!

Mustafa Fetouri is an independent Libyan academic and journalist. He won the EU’s Samir Kassir award for the best opinion article in 2010.

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Mustafa Fetouri is an independent Libyan academic and an award-winning journalist. He can be reached at

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