Libya’s Democratic Moment

 

Tripoli

Libyan Women Relished Their Right To Vote

Libyans in Tripoli achieved two rare things today. They formed orderly lines, patiently waiting their turn, and they voted for the first time in half a century to choose who governs their country. For some, this democratic moment was almost too much to bear, prompting tears and praise for Allah for bestowing such a gift. From my first filing yesterday for the Daily Beast on Libyans democratic moment.

Hurry Up

And from my second  Daily Beast piece: Delight mounted as the day unfolded, as Libyans began to take in their “democratic moment.” Many expressed sheer pleasure at exercising their right to vote—and also seemed a little amazed. “We never imagined we would ever be doing this,” said Aishe Liab, a social worker. Speaking at a polling station in the district of Fashlun, where lines formed quickly in the morning when the polls opened at 8 a.m., she said she had been up all night unable to sleep.

But delight was also mixed with relief. Libyans had feared these elections would be derailed by widespread bloodletting.

Searching The Voter Lists

Libyans Head To The Polls Amid Federalist Agitation in Benghazi

Tripoli

“Libyans will go to the polls this weekend for the first time in almost a half-century. For many—from young YouTube progressives who advertised the uprising that ousted Moammar Gadhafi to grizzled dissidents who endured years of prison—the election will be the fulfillment of a dream. Or it should be.” My Maclean’s piece published earlier this week.

Saif Is Safe

Zintan

“‘How’s Saif (al-Islam Gaddafi) now?’ I ask. Al-Ateri says he’s physically fit and has regular medical check-ups. ‘Mentally he seems a man accepting of fate, he appears resigned and pragmatic. Unprompted by us he asked for books written by different Muslim scholars and he’s built up a huge collection of Islamic texts. He reads when he’s not flicking between satellite TV news and sports channels.’”

From my piece today in the London Evening Standard.

Libya: Back To The Future

UN Envoy Ian Martin: But where are the women?

 

Tripoli

With prayers and a band playing the national anthem the Libyan election commission opened the media center for the July 7 polls. It is being housed in the Tripoli International Convention Center right in the compound of Gaddafi’s favorite hotel in the capital, the luxurious Rixos hotel.

It seems an odd place to have a media center for the first free elections in almost half-a-century. The hotel, close to Muammar Gaddafi’s compound of Bab al-Aziziya, is very much associated for ordinary Libyans with the Gaddafi family. It was here that Saif al-Islam, the despot’s son, gave his more rip-roaring threatening performances during the rebellion.

The Rixos was also where the regime insisted foreign journalists stay and it was here that 30 of them were trapped during the uprising. They were basically locked in and many of them feared they would be used as human shields when the rebels launched their assault on the capital. The reporters and cameramen were prevented from leaving by Gaddafi goons.

So the association for many people is not a happy one. But apparently the commission has decided to ignore that dark past and go in for a spot of re-branding with fine posters celebrating the sacrifice of mothers during the uprising. There is also a stirring poster of women of all ages with the title “Rebelling To Be Heard.”

A pity then that we didn’t hear from any women on the rostrum all evening — just men. We had the election commissioner, the Prime Minister, UN Envoy Ian Martin, etc. But no women.

For that matter there weren’t that many foreign journalists among the great and good and diplomatic corps who came. That may have something to do with the fact that international journalists have been finding it extremely difficult, in some cases impossible, to secure visas. The deputy Italian ambassador told me: “We have had a big problem. The Libyan embassy in Rome just wouldn’t give out visas. We have managed to secure a few but it is still not resolved.”

That is being echoed by journalists and officials in London, Paris, Washington DC, etc. Some things never change. The king is dead, long live the king.

 

Lacking Skepticism

The Wall Street Journal has a piece today about how the transitional Libyan authorities are planning to avoid the political chaos in neighboring Egypt by blocking the old Gaddafi guard from standing as candidates in the July 7 elections. True, the integrity committee has blocked about 320 candidates from standing. But the article lacks skepticism. The old guard is very much alive and present. Walk into any ministry and you will be dealing with Gaddafi-era senior officials. Many intelligence officials — including those specialized in electronic surveillance — have been recalled to work and it isn’t clear what criteria was used for calling some back but excluding others. Lastly, it isn’t clear how the criteria has been applied to reject some of the candidates — there are still some in the lists who were part of the Gaddafi structure.

Pre-Election Violence Surges In Libya

This is my log of recent violence in Libya and highlights the instability of the country as elections loom. The incidents have been gleaned from various reliable sources. It is not exhaustive.

June 9

Nighttime clashes between Libyan military units and Tibu tribesmen in the city of Al Khufra, near Libya’s borders with Chad and Sudan. Reports of five dead and a dozen wounded. Tibu tribesmen say they came under attack first — an accusation denied by the Libyan military.

Al Khufra has seen several clashes in recent weeks mainly between Tibu and Zwai tribesmen. In February, the transitional government dispatched Libyan armed forces units to the town.

June 10

Thirteen people killed in a second day of clashes between Libyan soldiers and Tibu tribesmen.

Armed thieves ransack a couple of office containers in Tripoli belonging to the Libyan Coast Guard then destroy them with RPG fire.

June 11

Grenade is thrown at two vehicles ferrying a British delegation around Sabha in the Southern region of Libya. No injures. Not clear if the assailant was targeting the British – the vehicles sported UN logos.

British diplomatic convoy comes under an RPG attack in Benghazi. Two security guards injured but the British ambassador unscathed.

Zintan militiamen seize several government vehicles in Tripoli. The action they say is a response to the government’s failure to settle their wage demands.

June 12

Heavy fighting reported in Mizdah between Zintan militia and Mashasha tribesmen, leaving 20 dead. There have been frantic appeals by locals to the government to put an end to the fighting.

June 13

Sixty-nine anti-aircraft missiles found discovered inside a fishing boat on Egyptian-Libyan border.

Two dead and a dozen left wounded after clashes in Sabha involving the “national army”.

A small mob gathered in Tripoli outside a courthouse near the Radisson Blu Hotel to demand the release of the former Gaddafi-era Minister of External Affairs Abu Zaid Omar Dorda, whose trial started that day. A nervous guard responded by firing into the mob, killing a driver working with a European Union delegation. The delegation responded by decamping from the Radisson for a day.

Several left dead and wounded in clashes in Al Khufra involving the Libya Shield force and members of armed groups.

Former Gaddafi-era internal security official Ibrahim Laaribi killed in a car bombing.  He is the second former intelligence officer to be assassinated.

June 17

Libyan government declares a military zone in the west of country (which will presumably mean that journalists and independent observers will be prohibited officially from visiting the area) after days of clashes between rival militias and tribes.

The zone includes the towns of Zintan, Mizdah and Shegayga, about 150 kilometres south of Tripoli. Most of the fighting in these towns involves Zintan militiamen backed by Guntrara tribesmen from the Mizdah pitched against Mashashya tribesmen based out of the town of Shegayga.

Sources have told me there are dozens of dead.

 

Libya’s Struggle With History

My piece in the latest issue of Newsweek examines what’s happening to history in the North African country and the competition to define the past that’s underway. “History, if it does its job, should tear away Gaddafi’s lies, document the tortures and slayings of his regime, and establish who did what to whom. For any country, however, working through the brutalities of a deposed dictatorship and apportioning blame can be risky, and throws up emotions of guilt, shame, and fury.”

 

Libyan Reflections


Gaddafi's Compound

Col. Gaddafi’s compound at Bab al-Azizia or the “The Splendid Gate” located in the southern suburbs of Tripoli served as the main base for the Libyan leader until his ouster. The 6-square-kilometre base was somewhere most Libyans didn’t want to go when Gaddafi was in power but since his fall and mainly at weekends families and out-of-towners like to walk around the site and stare. They still seem amazed that the uprising was successful – at least in the sense that it got rid of Gaddafi.

One of the biggest attractions is the byzantine network of underground tunnels that connect all of the buildings. Some tunnels stretch to adjoining districts. Gaddafi liked to sleep in a Bedouin-style tent pitched on the grounds. Of course, it was air-conditioned.

Increasingly a visit to the base is perilous because it has been turned into one of the biggest fly tips in North Africa. With garbage collection at best unsure in the capital the base has become the preferred dump. And then there is the added bonus of feeling that you are insulting the former leader by fouling his home.

International workers – and this correspondent – like to criticize the transitional government for lack of coordination between its various ministries and parts. Certainly it is utterly dysfunctional. Spokesmen contradict each other and even themselves several times in the space of a day and the same with ministers and the leading members of the National Transitional Council.

From the bottom up and the top down there is confusion. But it is worth noting, too, that the various international missions and foreign NGO groups also lack coordination. Various UN agencies hardly talk to each other, for instance. And the domestic NGOs are no better: there are three umbrella organizations for domestic civil society groups that I know of alone.

My exclusive in the Daily Beast on the new NGO legislation caused a stir both in Libya and overseas, especially on Capitol Hill apparently, according to a friend of mine at the National Democratic Institute. Not that it made much difference or caused the Libyan authorities to rethink or pullback. Five days after publication, on June 1, they issued the new law anyway. In it there were some details I didn’t have, which, I think, make the regulatory framework they want to impose on civil society even more sinister.

The long and short of it is that funding by foreign NGOs of domestic NGOs is going to be difficult and the Ministry of Culture can always hold funding up by delaying or declining the registration of a foreign NGO. Another worrying area is the inexact wording of what constitutes a “grant”. The legislation bans open-ended cash “contributions” but allows “grants”. The ministry says that grants means project-specific funding. But they don’t define it. How will that play out? Can a project be extended and so too the funding?

Foreign NGOs will have to register in Libya if they want to fund a project and they are required to provide a tremendous amount of detail about themselves – the source of their money, the names and background of senior officers and board members, etc. Many foreign NGOs – and that includes charities, by the way — are just not going to go though all of that. This is how the crackdown on civil society began in neighboring Egypt in the winter.

Apologists for the NTC say that they can’t have just anyone funding domestic civil society and whisper of dark and dangerous forces: the ultimate purpose of the law is to hinder the Qataris just flooding the place with cash or the Russians or Al Qaeda. I can understand the worry about Qatar: the Emirate has been playing hard and fast and expects to get some reward for supplying the rebels with arms and training fighters during the uprising. The NTC has pushed back on the Qataris and refused some of its cash to fund various projects.

But I see the NGO regulations as having a wider purpose than shutting the door on just Qatar. They are part of a Gaddafi-era control reflex that remains deeply embedded in Libya’s body politic.

That control reflex is behind some other disturbing laws – the so-called Glorification law that until the Supreme Court nullified it made it an offence punishable with up to life imprisonment to say anything in praise of the Gaddafi regime or to be detrimental about the uprising; a law that grants immunity to rebels for any crimes committed during the insurrection; and another law, described by Amnesty as “encouraging carte blanche abuse”, instructing the country’s courts to accept as evidence confessions extracted through torture.

Libya’s transitional Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Kib said during a recent trip to London that some of the laws international NGOs have criticized will “disappear from the scene” following the national election. It is a line several members of the NTC have been pushing on visiting American and European officials. They have told them the laws were a mistake.

But if the laws are such a mistake why aren’t they being withdrawn now? And why did the Justice Ministry bothered to defend the Glorification Law before the Supreme Court?

Further, how can the Prime Minister or any NTC member guarantee anything that the next national assembly or government decides to do?

Of course, it is not just on the big public things that you see the control reflex playing out. Journalists have found securing visas very difficult. CNN’s Nic Robertson told me the other day that he applied for a visa back in January and it only came through in March after he asked the interior minister on camera about it.

Foreign NGO workers are also having difficulty. And that was before their visas and journalist visas started to come under the authority recently of the Ministry of Culture, the authorizing authority under Gaddafi. Of course, that ministry is still run by Gaddafi-era bureaucrats.

It isn’t the only one. Go to any ministry and you find the old boys are still in charge. Of course, that in some ways has been helpful in the transition: at least they know how things work (or don’t). But there are no signs, alas, of change in the ministries in terms of fresh approaches and ideas or new ways of doing things.

The control reflex also plays out on the streets with various militias insisting on seeing your permission to film or to take photographs. A Libyan camera crew working for a foreign broadcaster tried to resist this the other week when militiamen told them they couldn’t film in Martyrs Square near the main souk and across the street from Libya’s national museum. A Libyan female member of the crew screamed at them that she had fought in the revolution for a new Libya not the return of the old. Apparently unidentified militiamen tell people that foreigners taking pictures are almost certainly western spies.

Depressingly, not even the NTC spokesman Mohammed al-Hareizi is a fan of the free press. The other week at his regular midweek news conference he lambasted the irresponsibility of the media and talked about how he hoped a future government would crackdown on the press and punish those who didn’t put national unity first, etc. Disturbingly, some local journalists agreed with him – including a reporter from the English-language Tripoli Post, who had urged the spokesman on by denouncing another newspaper for publishing a false report.

Libya: Civil Society And NGOs Squeezed

Tripoli

The Daily Beast ran an exclusive today from me on the new Libyan authorities aiming to cut the financial lifeline of domestic NGOs — namely, funding from overseas counterparts and partners. This is how the push-back on civil society started in neighboring Egypt earlier this year. There is a real behind-the-scenes tussle going on here in Libya between three main blocs: progressives who see this revolution as their property; Islamists, who are far better organized and more rooted than the liberals; and the old Gaddafi business and administrative elite who want to protect what they have. The next few months here are going to be fascinating as this plays out.

What To Tell The Children

A U.S.-educated woman here in Tripoli told me that during the Libyan revolution when NATO was bombing targets in Tripoli her three children – ages, 12, 8 and 5 – were very excited. “Weren’t they scared?” I asked. She responded: “No, because we told them the bombing was hurting bad people and was being done by people who were coming to help us. Our parents were saying, ‘don’t tell them that, we don’t know who will win and Gaddafi could come back.'”