Can Libya’s House of Representatives restore order? – A true national dialogue is underway in Tripoli’s legislature

On 25 June 2014, Libyans voted in their second democratic election. In an effort to curtail the violent impact of factionalism on the polls, candidates competed as independents rather than members of parties or groups.

On July 22, the announced results suggested that secular nationalist interests had dominated the popular vote for 200 contested seats. Of the 200 seats available, only 105 were voted on given high levels of violence in the respective constituencies. Different estimates suggest that approximately 30 were won by Islamists; in the region of 50 seats went to liberals also known as nationalists; approximately 25 were won by federalists (from the Cyrenaica Region); and a further 80 seats were won by independents.

There is thus little clarity on which political groups dominate the new House of Representatives (HoR) and the ideological leanings of representatives are complicated by the factionalism that operates across tribe, city, region and religion. It is equally difficult to link militias to political groupings and estimate which militia have significant representation in the current house.

Insecurity has remained a feature of life in Libya since the fall of the Gaddafi regime (the dictatorship ended by revolution in 2011) and finds form in the myriad militia working both with the state and independent of the state depending on religious and regional allegiances. In mid-July, several weeks after the June election, Islamist-leaning militias from the city of Misrata (Operation Dawn) began a battle to take over Tripoli’s International Airport, controlled and patrolled by Zintan-linked militia (from the city of Zintan) since 2011. The airport was ultimately taken on 23 August by Operation Dawn. Meanwhile, fighting was renewed and quickly escalated in the city of Benghazi. The Islamist Ansar al-Sharia militia (who initiated the attack on the US Embassy in 2012 and is linked to al-Qaeda in much speculation) continued to claim dominance of the city and to fight off the offensive of General Khalifa Haftar, an ex Gaddafi-regime colonel-turned-rebel, and his forces (initiated in May 2014). In early August, the HoR, determined to convene and form a government, decided to host its first session in the city of Tobruk. At the same time, Western and regional nations began to evacuate Libya in response to the increasing violence and lawlessness.

The HoR has moved quickly since convening on 4 August. It has condemned the ongoing violence and passed measures aimed at cutting funding to the militia still linked to government. In order to establish peace, the HoR will need to enlist external support for a ceasefire, and move to strengthen alliance building with regional political leadership groups across the country to build national processes.

The drivers of conflict in Libya – lawlessness, federalism and religious politics

The existence of more than a thousand militia groups and several armies’ worth of weapons in the country complicate the establishment of political and governance stability. This proliferation of weapons changes the scale of external and political intervention necessary to demilitarise the situation. The power of the gun as a means to derive worth and income remains one of the key motivations for a number of the groups in the conflict. This feeds the action of militias to prevent the establishment of a functioning state and preserve a level of anarchy. It also creates a plethora of ‘armies for hire.’ This complicates ideological struggles, whether religious, resource-based, ethnic or regional. The prevalence of weapons and groups willing to use them places violence at the centre of political processes and prevents the coming together of groups to seek consensus.

 HoR resolutions aimed at ending the fighting

The new HoR in Libya faces charges of illigitimacy from militant groups and of not being truly representative. Only 45% of registered voters in the country exercised their right to vote in June 2014. The number is slightly less if analysis accounts for the areas that were considered too unstable for a vote. At the same time, the HoR’s legitimacy has been challenged by the rebel General Haftar, Misratan Members of Parliament (MPs) elected in June as well as other militia groups. The Misratan MPs continue to boycott the HoR and protested the first sitting in Tobruk as well as the election of the HoR president, Judge Ageila Issa (affiliation unknown).

Despite this, in the first two weeks of August, MPs participating in the HoR passed several resolutions that speak to a commitment to restoring the rule of law in Libya and establishing a democratic state. The resolutions, taken on 14 August, are the most pertinent to the stabilisation of the country’s security situation. The first called for the UN to assist in protecting citizens and putting a stop to the violent conflict playing out in the two major cities. Opinion polls conducted in late 2013 by the US non-profit organisation (NGO), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), suggest that a majority of Libyans hold a positive view of the United Nations UN. This adds legitimacy to the HoR request for UN support of the call to ceasefire because there is evidence of popular support for external intervention to end the hostilities. The second resolution called for all existing militia to disband and for the removal of financial benefits from those previously funded by the state. These resolutions, coupled with the HoR’s establishment of a committee to work towards a ceasefire on 17 August illustrates a commitment to action and the needs of Libyan citizens rather than meeting the demands of militia.

If peace is restored, how can it be secured?

The HoR has been candid in acknowledging that it will need external support from the UN to end violent conflict in the country. Equally, in foregrounding the disbandment of militia, the HoR has signalled the centrality of militia in the cyclical resurgence of violence as a means to expressing positions and interests. The root causes of the insecurity – including patterns of ethnic and regional marginalisation – remain, and are issues that have thus far not been given sufficient attention in solving Libya’s political crisis. An end to the conflict will require negotiations around the possibility of a federation of Libyan regions, and of solving religious aspirations in relation to the state, as well as addressing the complications caused by regional and global dynamics. For the HoR to build a sustainable foundation for democracy in Libya, it will need to find ways to decrease violent conflict through the disbandment of militia and increase national dialogue with political groups as a route to mapping out mechanisms for the return of the rule of law and for the design of inclusive and appropriate institutions.

In Sum:

• The presence of more than 1,000 militant groups is severely complicating natural governance

• One of the HoR’s first measures was to cut funding to militias still linked to government

• An HoR request to the UN to police a ceasefire has popular support amongst Libyans

*This article first appeared here.

Alexander is an independent development professional and political analyst. A Zimbabwean Rhodes Scholar with an MPhil in Development Studies from Oxford and an undergraduate degree from Harvard University, her areas of specialisation include democratisation, governance, and conflict management.

Alexander has moved from work on Transitional Justice in central and east Africa through managing Idasa's States in Transition Observatory to leading Idasa's Measuring and Monitoring Democracy strategic team. She recently managed the Web Index for the World Wide Web Foundation, and has co-edited the books A Fine Balance: Assessing the Quality of Governance in Botswana and Peace in the Balance: The Crisis in Sudan.

To read publications by Karin Alexander on our website please click here.

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