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Democracy in Libya

Ann Marlowe

Benghazi, Libya—What was supposed to be a short police action by NATO has turned into a protracted conflict, but the Libyan people may be the long-term beneficiaries of the unexpectedly long war here. In the Western Mountains, hit hard by the conflict, Abdul al-Razaq, an oilfield technician from Sabratha before the war, explained from his brigade headquarters in Zintan: “In Tunisia and Egypt the revolutions were from the top. They changed their president. In Libya, our revolution has started from the bottom.” The needand timeto rethink institutions from the bottom has given democracy the space to trickle upward in Libya.

“The Islamists here say that liberals have a right to their opinions. Oh, what a nice gift!” Idris Tayeb says caustically in English. It’s early afternoon in Benghazi on August 8, and as the whipsmart former Libyan cultural attaché to Rome and New Delhi sits in his office in the National Transitional Council’s Foreign Affairs Office, seismic changes are taking place in the often-inscrutable council itself.

By evening, council head Dr. Mahmoud Jibril will announce what looks like a major power shift, disbanding the council’s executive committee and promising a replacement. Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the second-in-command and head of the executive committee, will be among those suspended.

The ferment is in reaction to the council’s findings of administrative errors in the gruesome murder on July 28 of the revolutionaries’ top military commander, Major Abdul Fattah Younes. A separate criminal inquiry is winding its way to a conclusion more slowly, trying to explain to the satisfaction of Benghazi’s people and the general’s million-strong Obeidat tribe how he ended up dead when he was supposed to be appearing before the council to answer questions about his conduct of the war.

Though the still-mysterious killing has taken the bloom off the councilnewly recognized by Washington and London as Libya’s legitimate government-Benghazi’s people are looking encouragingly like the citizens of a democracy. The agitation here is conversational. While the revolution began with demonstrations in what is now known as “Freedom Square” in mid-February, it is moving on to the beginnings of party politics.

A half-dozen political organizations are in the process of formation, each with an anodyne platform and position papers, and activity has picked up since Abdul Fattah’s death. The cavernous triple-height lobby of Benghazi’s sole five-star hotel, the fortress-like, usually stiflingly hot Tibesti, is filled much of the day with Libyan politicos talking through their views and plans. While there are opportunists and cynics, many of the men and women meeting here are highly educatedoften in the United States or Britainand passionately committed to their country.

There is much grumbling about the council. Some political insiders, like Salwa Bugaighis, a member of a wealthy Benghazi clan active in the revolution, note that the council’s lack of transparency and indecisiveness reflect the dictatorship it emerged from. Bugaighis, an attorney involved since the earliest days of the revolution, explains that “for 42 years, the decision maker was Qaddafi. People used to take the decisions from up [above]. They are always afraid to make a decision.” She also noted that Jalil is a “nice, very flexible man” known for avoiding conflict and seeking consensual decisions. “But now we are in crisis. He doesn’t want to anger anyone.”

Mohammed al-Senussi is one of a much smaller number advocating the surprisingly controversial step of electing a council now. “We have to choose our representatives democratically before democracies unwisely recognize a travesty.” A grandnephew of Libya’s King Idris, who was deposed by Qaddafi in 1969, Senussi advocates elections in Libya’s free cities to obtain a new council, then a temporary assembly to choose a committee to write a new constitution. But the stock objection to this positionthat elections in free areas would be unfair to people in not-yet-liberated cities and would be a distraction from the war effortstill has overwhelming support in Benghazi.

The role of Islam in a free Libya is one of the hot topics in this almost wholly Muslim country. Former deputy executive committee head Ali al-Essawiwho signed the warrant for Abdul Fattah’s arrest on charges of treasonis widely said to be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, so his removal may represent a shift away from toleration of a growing Islamist influence.

But a fully secular Libyan state is hard to imagine. Idris Tayeb is rare in the extent of his commitment to the separation of religion from government. “Idris may be too far left for many Libyans,” says S. Ghariani, the measured, calm spokesman for the new National Democratic Association (NDA). “We are an Islamic country.”

Tayeb, imprisoned from 1978 to 1988 on charges of heading Libya’s Communists, admits to having been known as the “Marxist sheikh.” (He was termed a “sheikh” in deference to his having completed a traditional Islamic scholar’s education; by the age of 12 he had memorized the Koran.) Tayeb and the NDA had considered an alliance, but ultimately the NDA found him too controversial for what they hope will evolve into a secular political party with broad mainstream support. So a week ago, Tayeb launched his own Libyan Democratic Front to advocate a “100 percent democratic state” with no mention of Islam as a foundation for government.

This would likely have been a nonstarter even a few months ago; the watchword of the revolution of the 17th of February was an almost uncritical inclusiveness. But it’s easier to advocate today, as Libyans reassess and regroup. There is resentment of the well-organized Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, whose members have returned from exile overseas in recent months. A young man who provided security in Benghazi from the first days of the revolution complained that after the NATO bombing campaign saved Benghazi from a March 19 assault by Qaddafi’s forces, “these [exile] people came, but we paid the price.”

There’s much grumbling about this or another group “stealing the revolution.” Tayeb downplays the complaints: “This requires three elements: a revolution, its owner, and a thief.” But he is among an increasing number raising another hitherto taboo subject, the influence of Qatar here.

The small Gulf nation provided the uniforms of -Libya’s revolutionary army and police and many of its assault rifles and 4×4 vehicles. Qataris trained some of the volunteers, and Qatar’s Al Jazeera network has covered the revolution almost nonstop. But now people remember that Al Jazeera waited till the revolution was underway to cover Libyan opposition to Qaddafi. “For five years they did not report anything about opposition in Libya. We were emailing them for years,” says Iman Bugaighis, a Benghazi dental professor who was until recently a civilian spokeswoman for the Council.

“There is a Qatar agenda,” Tayeb says. “They want to play the role of regional representative in the world. They are selling the Muslim Brothers to the West as the only alternative to extremistsand they are arming the extremists just to show the need for the Muslim Brothers.” He goes on to draw an analogy with the West’s support of dictators in the Arab world in a false dichotomy between democracy and stability. (Today, it seems Washington is bending over backwards not to criticize Libya’s Islamists, whether out of some realpolitik calculation, or because it believes, to paraphrase the Turkish writer Melik Kaylan, that inside every Muslim is a more religious Muslim struggling to get out.)

Tayeb is among those concerned about the influence of Ali al-Sallabi, one of an important family of eight brothers and three sisters. Ali worked with Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, the dictator’s second and most powerful son, to get Libya’s jihadist prisoners released before the revolution, including some former Guantánamo inmates. Long an exile in Qatar, he has funneled weapons from that country to Libya’s revolutionariesbut some charge they have also gone to the much smaller group of Islamic extremists. Tayeb is infuriated by Sallabi’s appropriation of a leadership role in a revolution he parachuted in on. “All the time he uses the word ‘we.’ Finally I said to him, Why don’t you learn to use the word ‘I’?”

Ali was in Qatar and unavailable for an interview, but his sister Aisha says that while he is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and that the family supports the organization, Ali is a moderate Muslim. Regarding the jihadist prisoners, Aisha insists that Ali had some conversations with them and that they had changed their violent views before he negotiated their release. 

Aisha was gracious and calm in the face of my insistent questioning. Her husband, it turns out, is a cousin of Ghariani’s wife Hazar Ben Ali, a founding member of the National Democratic Association. Hazar, in turn, is a second cousin of NDA founding member Fairouz Nas. -Libya’s elites are so close-knit that blood ties link just about everyone in the political sphere. A Benghazi dentistry student, Salmeen Al Jawhary, explained to me that merely from their last names she could identify the hometown of just about any Libyan.

“A lot of people who called themselves independent are reconsidering their positions,” Ghariani says. Fairouz Nas, a Tripoli accounting professor from a prominent Benghazi family and one of the NDA’s 23 founders, was originally loath to form an association, she says. “But then there were problems like the wall in Makama that I could not solve by myself.” This is a reference to a ten-foot-high wall put up around the women’s section in “Freedom Square” to “protect” the women from the male gaze and supposed harassment. It is despised by many of the more educated women.

The NDA is holding frequent public meetings to recruit members. They are trying to attract the young people who made the revolution and represent by far the majority of Libya’s six million citizens. And they are sensitive to the need to be democratic within their organization as well as in its platform. Nas explained that they had a poll for youth where 250 invited young people sat at roundtables with NDA members and shared their views in an informal polling process.

The NDA are proposing a free-market economy, free health care for Libyans, and free education (these last two existed under Qaddafi, but were of low quality). They are hesitant to label themselves a party just yet, since Qaddafi spent decades insisting that anyone “who is a party member is a traitor“a slogan internalized even by his opponents. “Young people came to us and said, ‘Don’t call yourself a party,’?” says Nas.


The role of women is being debated here too, with Amal Bugaighis, another prominent attorney, forming the Committee for the Support of Women in Decision Making with 24 other women at the end of June. Now numbering around 200, it’s not a party, but a group of well-educated women aiming to open up a discussion of women’s roles in Libyan society. Nas says she considered joining, but balked at a point in their platform calling for a quota of 30 percent women in future political bodies.

Libya’s youth, who transformed a meek Benghazi lawyers’ union “standing protest” on February 15 into a violent uprising, are also trying to put their stamp on organized politics. El Montasir, a skinny, outgoing 19-year-old electrical engineering student in camo pants, a techno T-shirt, and a red soldier’s beret, calls himself a “Libocrat“a Libyan committed to democracy. He is the head of the Association of the Voice of National Youth (“Libocrats” might work better), which he claims has 12,000 to 13,000 members all over the country, including in Qaddafi-held areas.

Like many Libyans, El Montasir avows, “We believe the U.S. [is the] best country in the world.” Also like many Libyans, he has a close relative in the United States. But it is hard to find out what the group’s platform entails beyond lots of enthusiasm for democracy. More seasoned politicos told me that El Montasira nom de guerre that means “the conqueror“was strongly opposed to the Islamists. But religion permeates his thought, or at least his speech.

“I am doing this for Allah and my country,” he explains in the Tibesti lobbyprobably the youngest person among a hundred or so talking politics one midnight. And he interpolates profuse thanks to Allah in his account of his own involvement in the revolution, in rapid but often incorrect English.

A clearer explanation of what his group does came from a middle-aged adviser to the Voice of the Youth, a successful Libyan-American businessman, Mustafa Gheriani: “This group is operating in the least privileged areas in Benghazi, and the surrounding cities and villages. Some of the Voice of the Youth have played a major role in the development of Benghazi’s 60 neighborhood councils. The Voice of the Youth platform is a work in progress.”

The fervent love of country of Libyans of all stripes is a distinguishing feature of the Libyan revolution. Perhaps it is because this is a small population, but Libyans have a sense of ownership that augurs well for the future.

“This is my country, don’t put it under your shoes,” Idris Tayeb wrote in a 1986 poem while inside Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison. (He translated his verse into English and published it earlier this year in Egypt.) Since February, such once-forbidden sentiments have become almost universal. Over more than six trying months of death, brownouts, shortages, and confusion, Libyans have gone from viewing their country as the property of one man to the responsibility of all.

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