July 29, 2012
Libyans went, on July 7, 2012, into their first national elections in decades, and foreign observers hailed the fact that the event took place so well, and that democracy had returned to the Maghreb state. What went unsaid — because most external observers failed to comprehend the complexity of the situation — was that the actual basis of the electoral structure had been shaped by external forces.
Yes, there was widespread voting for a slate of candidates. But the parliament for which the Libyans voted had already become a body which had broken the carefully-balanced structure created by the 1952 Constitution. Indeed, the Libyan civil war of 2011-12 had been fought expressly to reinstate the 1952 Constitution, and the fighting had taken place under the 1952 Constitutional flag, now adopted as the flag of post-Qadhafi Libya.
What was created as a framework of governance in Libya by the internationally-sanctioned National Transitional Council (NTC) bears little resemblance to the Constitutional structure demanded by the Libyans. It is a structure which was hijacked and re-purposed by key interest groups inside and outside Libya. The result is that the new structure in Libya actually enables the resurrection of the system — if it can be called that — of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, whose four decades of autocratic rule had been overthrown by the civil war.
The 1952 Constitution guaranteed that no tribe of the 140 or so Libyan tribes could dominate any or all of the others; it also guaranteed that none of the regions (Fezzan, Cyrenaica, and Tripolitania) which had agreed to federate to create Libya after World War II would be able to dominate the other. The new parliamentary structure which the international community sanction, and for which candidates stood on July 7, 2012, broke the careful balance of the 1952 Constitution and gave dominance to Trip- olitania, ironically the region with the least natural resources but the largest population. This paved the way for "demography-based democracy", eliminating the historical protections for the regions and tribes, and allowing Tripoli to take all decisions in the name of all Libya and ignoring the reality that regional cultures and assets are well-entrenched. Thus, as a result, Tripoli — as it was under Qadhafi — is empowered to take the resources from the two most resource-endowed regions, Fezzan and Cyrenaica.
The new parliament, significantly, has 200 seats, 101 of which were allocated (by the stage-managed preparations) to Tripolitania. This means that, on key issues, including the defining of the proposed new Constitution, Tripolitania could — and almost certainly would — continue to vote itself dominance over the Fezzan and Cyrenaica. Under this premise, in the past (under Qadhafi and under the successor, unelected National Transitional Council: NTC), Tripoli has consistently removed major assets, and control over all revenues and resources, from the two other regions, and arrogated these to Tripoli.
Despite these careful preparations to shape the outcome by shaping the representational balance in Parliament (while steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the 1952 Constitution which the United Nations had worked with the tribes to achieve), the Libyan voters may have rejected the "external model". The vote was clearly against the foreign-backed Islamists, and essentially against the Muslim Brothers. This is discussed in greater detail, below.
So where was the backing for the Tripoli-dominant and Islamist-dominant new "democracy" originating?
1. Qatar: There were strong efforts by the Government of Qatar, using its "Qatari Foreign Legion" of "deniable" assets to take control of the Libyan revolt against Qadhafi from an early stage in 2011. Many Qataris were literally thrown out of the Cyrenaican region by the local Government under Sheikh Ahmed Zubair, of the moderate and modernizing Sanussiyyah sect of Islam. Only in Tripoli do the Qataris still have some sway with the Islamist Chairman of the Interim National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil. Jalil, a former Minister of Justice in the Qadhafi Administration, claims to be a Sanussi, but in fact acts against the Sanussiyyah tenets by advocating for the more neo-salafist elements.
Sources in Doha, the Qatari capital, have confirmed that Qatar’s interest in proselytizing on behalf of — essentially — the Muslim Brothers has been very much at the behest of the Barack Obama White House in the US. Qatar has been even more active in supporting the interests of the Muslim Brothers in the ongoing Syrian dispute, as a means of helping to remove what is seen as a pro-Iranian, pro-Shi’a Government and replacing it with a Government essentially dominated by the Muslim Brothers (and therefore more oriented toward neo-salafist Sunni sects, such as the Wahhabis, as well as toward the Turkish "secular" or modern Islamists).
Qatar, delicately placed in the Persian Gulf within arm’s reach of Iran, has its own reasons for attempting to limit the Shi’a clerics in Iran, but in this instance has strong support from the Obama White House for its free- wheeling support of the Muslim Brothers and related groups in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere.
2. Egypt’s Muslim Brothers: Egypt has always been sensitive to what happens in Libya, with which it shares a long land border, and contiguous seas. Now, however, with the Muslim Brothers taking electoral power in Egypt, the momentum which began in early 2011 from Cairo by the Brothers to support their colleagues in Libya (and particularly NTC Chairman Jalil) has been compounded.
There is reason to believe that the Egyptian Armed Forces may oppose this extension of the Muslim Brothers network into Libya, but at present the military itself in Egypt is under siege and has more important pressures with which to contend. In the meantime, the porous Egypt-Libya border means that a free flow of weapons and cadres can occur (including a flow of weapons from Libyan stockpiles to Egyptian supporters of the Brothers).
3. Turkey: The Turkish Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party: AKP), led by Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdo?an, sees the Muslim Brothers as the natural extension of its new brand of Islamist politics. It also has a strong commitment to a pseudo-Ottomanist new Turkish strategic policy which would revive Turkish reach into the Mediterranean (and elsewhere). It has taken a strong stand to support the Libyan Muslim Brothers party, the Justice and Construction Party (sometimes translated as the Justice and Development Party: Hizb Al-Ad- ala Wal-Bina).
In this, as with US support for Qatari actions, Washington has supported Turkey. Indeed, Turkish-Qatari cooperation in proselytizing a line of Islamist political solutions has extended over a number of areas, and particularly with regard to Syria and Libya.
The extent to which Turkey is trusted as an ally of the Islamist leadership in the NTC is the demonstrated by the fact that direct flights to Cyrenaica (Benghazi) from outside Libya are only possible from Turkey, and Tripoli trusts that only foreign travellers with visas issued in Tripoli can board such aircraft.
4. The United States of America: The US Barack Obama White House and the US State Dept. are committed to supporting the Muslim Brothers’ expansion through the Middle East because they believe that the Islamist surge in the region was inevitable and irresistible, while at the same time it was perceived to counter Iranian adventurism in the region.
What is significant is that the US has placed the European Union governments, and particularly the United Kingdom, under literally extreme pressure to support the Tripoli-based approach to a Libyan solution. British, French, and Italian energy companies, in particular, have basically gone along with the approach, even though there is strong recognition that they are channelling all power into the hands of a Tripoli bureaucracy, which has great capacity to act as Qadhafi did with such centralized power, keeping the funds away from the regions. The present transitional council has, in fact, already gone beyond the Qadhafi Administration in centralizing bureaucracy in Tripoli. And to ensure that this monopoly is not challenged, the NTC has enforced a process whereby visas are not given to foreigners who wish to travel to Cyrenaica and Fezzan to meet with the regional leaders (who happen to be opposed to Tripolitanian control).
Libyans, even those angered by the blatant gerrymandering of the structures of the election, turned out in significant numbers on July 7, 2012, to vote. Nationally, some 62 percent of registered voters turned up at the polls, a total of some 2.8-million registered voters, deciding between 2,639 candidates. Political parties competed for only 80 out of 200 seats in the General National Congress (GNC). Significantly, the Muslim Brothers party, the Justice and Construction Party, won only 17 of the 80 party seats. What seems to have emerged, as well, is that — despite the large bloc of seats reserved for Tripolitania — there was such a fracturing of ideological fault-lines that a very strong voting bloc, perhaps even a majority, could be formed by those more traditionally-oriented politicians who do not accept the Qadhafi-style consolidation of power.
There have, indeed, already been partnerships forming between nationalist-traditionalist Libyans and elected parliamentarians from Cyr- enaica and Fezzan. Clearly, the National Forces Alliance, led by former Interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, will be a factor: it won 39 of the 80 party-designated seats. But even the liberal (ie: pro- Sanussi) National Front Party, led by the elder statesman, Mohamed el-Magariaf, won two of the 80 party seats, but has a strong commitment to working with individual parliamentarians committed to avoiding a consolidation of power in Tripoli’s hands.
The question is, however, whether the NTC and the entrenched bureaucracy in Tripoli will relinquish power, or whether they will have brought all of the elements (the national oil company, the national bank, etc.) into Tripoli and irrevocably away from Benghazi. And whether such moves and resistance to the demands of the regions will lead to a further outbreak of civil war.
Sheikh Ahmed Zubair, the Cyrenaican regional leader, has significant appeal and moral authority throughout Libya; he spent more than three decades as a prisoner in Qadhafi’s gaols. He had, until the election, protested Tripoli’s attempt to isolate Cyr- enaica and remove its assets (as well as controlling all foreign contracts on the extraction of oil and gas from Cyrenaica) by quarantining Cyrenaica from Tripolitania. All Tripoli could do was to attempt to prevent the world media from focusing on what was happening, and why.
What Sheikh Ahmed does is of critical importance. He could physically cut off access to the Libyan oil and gas fields in Cyrenaica, despite his commitment to promoting a healthy energy export regime for the region. But if the revenues from Cyrenaica continue to flow only to Tripoli — which has not shared them with any degree of equity — then Sheikh Ahmed would have enormous popular support to cut off the flow of oil and gas. He began, in 2012, steps toward building a Cyrenaican National Guard to help safeguard regional interests. Indeed, it was because of him, and his fellow Cyrenaicans, that the revolt against Qadhafi began and gained any traction at all.
This emerging prospect comes at a time when the major powers have shown an increasing reluctance to intervene again in a conflict, whether in Syria or a return to Libya. Properly handled, Cyrenaica and its ally, Fezzan, could easily decide to remove Tripoli from the Libyan federation. What outside observers have failed to acknowledge is the reality that Libya remains a federated structure, even if, as a result of Qadhafi’s four decades in office, it is now only a de facto federation. The underpinning regionalism, and separate identities of the regions ensures that Tripoli can now only go back to a unitary state by force, or by a compromise which ensures that the regions — whether formal or informal — get fair recompense for their resources and efforts. The parallels between that flexing of frustrated muscles and the similar anger expressed in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region are clear to Libyans.
Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, and large gas reserves as well. Most of them are in Cyr- enaica. Fezzan, too, has energy and a range of other mineral resources ready for exploitation. Ironically, Cyrenaica and Fezzan are culturally strongly disposed to trade and contacts with Europe and non-Muslim cultures; that is the basis of the San- ussiyyah sect which dominates those regions. The Tripolitanians are less Sanussi in orientation, and the present Islamists in power in Tripoli are more fundamental in their Islamic interpretation, and therefore less inclined to regard Westerners with the same hospitality as the Cyrenaicans and Fezzan citizens.
Where does this leave the situation?
It is likely that the GNC will begin to evolve into blocs which will help calm tendencies for either Tripoli or Cyrenaica to act aggressively. The strong anti- Islamist vote helped ensure that.
On the other hand, it should be expected that the actual power structure in Tripoli, as long as it can be dominated by the Chairman of the NTC, would attempt to gather real power (control over revenues), and to starve the regions. During this period, it seems likely that it would be difficult for Tripoli to rebuild a military structure which could be used against the regions (particularly Benghazi), but should Tripoli go too far, then Sheikh Ahmed should be seen as ready to take strenuous measures to safeguard his region’s interests. Then, as now, Tripoli would attempt to isolate the Sheikh from international eyes.
Unless Sheikh Ahmed takes his own steps to open the eyes of the international community. But now, and for the foreseeable future, he remains a prisoner in his own territory.
The balance is delicate, and the US, Turkey, Qatar, and the Egyptian Islamist leadership are not helping Libya to remain stable.
Analysis By. GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs correspondents in Tripoli and Benghazi.