Friday, February 21, 2014

Dissillusionment in Libya Over Vote on Charter Assembly

Disillusionment in Libya Over Vote on Charter Assembly


TRIPOLI, Libya — For the second time since the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi two and a half years ago, Libyans are being asked to go to the polls to elect lawmakers responsible for preparing a new constitution. On Thursday, increasingly frustrated voters will directly elect a 60-member assembly to draft the charter after Parliament failed to appoint the body as originally planned.

“People are saying: ‘What happened?’ ” said Claudia Gazzini, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group who is based in Libya. Disillusioned with the lack of progress, Libyans are disinclined to come out and vote, she said. “They are saying: ‘I’m not going to dip my hand in the ink this time.’ ”

Precious little has been achieved in Libya since the war that killed Colonel Qaddafi and ended his 42 years of autocratic rule. The country held its first free elections amid much euphoria in 2012, creating a General National Congress that then appointed a new government.

But both bodies have come under criticism for failing to manage the country effectively. Security is deteriorating amid growing corruption and perceived incompetence, and the Congress has been frequently gridlocked by a strong divide between Islamist parties and the more liberal groups that are nervous about the growing power of the Islamists.

Tensions have been rising in recent weeks as the militias that fought the war against Colonel Qaddafi have tried to influence the political process. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from his hotel and held for hours in October by militia members who wanted to force his resignation. On Tuesday, two militia groups demanded that the Congress dissolve itself or face the arrest of its members.

The government and lawmakers have resisted the threats so far, but in a major concession they have agreed to move the date for new general elections to June from December. Legislators are hoping that Thursday’s election for the new constitutional-drafting assembly, itself a concession to those seeking greater autonomy in eastern Libya, will help ease frustrations.

Voter registration has been low — just over one million, out of three million eligible — and dismal turnout is expected. There has been little fanfare around the vote and, despite a few billboards posted around town, the 649 candidates are little known. Some minority groups have threatened to boycott the election despite seats reserved for them.

Yet there is much to debate in writing a new constitution for Libya. Earlier constitutions, from 1951 when the country was a monarchy, and an amended version from 1963, are outdated. After Colonel Qaddafi seized power in 1969, he ignored the Constitution and ruled by a series of odd and draconian laws, some of which are still in force.

“There’s no doubt a new constitution is a must have,” said Muhammad Toumi, a law professor and lawyer who is a candidate from Tripoli for the constitutional assembly. “There is no constitution that defines the rights and duties of citizens and the freedoms of citizens, what will be protected, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion.”

Universal rights of women, children and those with disabilities all needed to be recognized, he said in a telephone interview. “There are so many values that need to be defined for Libyans — how their country will be governed, what form of legislature and government, and what will be their limits and responsibilities.”

Libyans had no interest in returning to a monarchy, he said, but there would be debate over a presidential system or a mixed one with a president and a prime minister, which Mr. Toumi favors. He said he was undeterred despite surviving a bomb attack on his car in January for which he blamed Islamic extremists who did not want to see a constitutional democracy in Libya.

With bombings and assassinations in the east, armed clashes between rival militias and general crime and kidnappings all over the country, there are calls from the public for a strong leader who can bring stability.

Yet, after more than four decades under the domineering rule of Colonel Qaddafi, Libyans will need time to learn how democracy works, said Abdulaziz Hariba, a member of the Congress. “Under a dictatorship, you always wait for someone to tell you what to do,” he added. “It takes time to adapt.”

The type of Islamic system and the role of Shariah law will most likely be a central issue, as they were in new constitutions drawn up in Tunisia and Egypt since the Arab Spring. The Congress voted in December that Shariah law be declared “the source of legislation,” apparently an attempt to pre-empt any move to declare a secular or civic state.

Another critical issue is the dismantling of Colonel Qaddafi’s centralized state. Citizens complain about the vast distances they have to travel to the capital for the smallest bureaucratic task, like getting papers to open a business or a subsidy to travel for health care abroad.

Analysts and legislators warned that drafting the constitution would take longer than the four months now allotted. “There are so many things individuals can blow up,” said Diederik Vandewalle, a professor from Dartmouth College who is part of an expert mission following the elections in Libya.

Nevertheless, he predicted the constitutional assembly would gain traction. “This has not degenerated into a civil war,” he said.

“Libyans are still talking to each other.”

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