Feb 10, 2014 | 11:07 GMT

6 mins read

Libya Prepares to Restart the Constitutional Process Despite Risks

Libyan protesters hold placards as they demonstrate against the extended mandate of the General National Congress, the country's highest political authority, in Tripoli's Martyr Square on Feb. 7.

Libya's beleaguered central government is again attempting to restart its constitutional drafting process. The efforts come as a paralyzing political competition in the country not only has brought most of the country's oil production offline but also threatens to further divide the country's tribal, political and geographic competitors. This situation is unsustainable for Tripoli's national ambitions. Regional leaders, concerned international observers and national-level interests in the capital and Libya's urban areas are pushing the transitional national government to codify its economic prerogatives and political, military and security powers within a more permanent legal framework, despite the risks of increased unrest. As the authority and cohesion of the General National Congress continue to weaken, Tripoli will face rising domestic and international pressure to deliver on its plan to draft a constitution and elect a permanent representative government by 2015.

The constitutional drafting process is likely to encounter the same kind of difficulties and delays seen in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. However, Libya's unique challenges — including the historical and geographic divisions within the population and the relative strength of ethnic and tribal groups and their local governments — will mean that the constitutional process will inspire increased political competition. This will manifest as increasing strikes, cuts in utilities, armed confrontations and continued disruptions to the nation's energy sector.

Libya's interim government, the General National Congress, has announced Feb. 20 as the date for constitutional commission elections. Nominations for candidates were held from Oct. 6 to Nov. 11, 2013. Each of Libya's three regions — Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan — will elect 20 members to represent them equally during the constitutional drafting process. Libya held relatively free and fair elections in July 2012 that saw the General National Congress take over from the unelected National Transitional Council, which represented the opposition during the Western-backed rebellion that overthrew previous leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Libya's Fractured Political Scene

Libya's political landscape has become much more divided and dangerous since the relative stability and cooperation of 2012. With the fall of Gadhafi and the specter of a post-revolutionary insurgency led by pro-Gadhafi militias fading, the loss of a common enemy has led Libya's fragmented population centers to begin competing for the country's limited resources and control of strategic energy reserves. The population has become increasingly disillusioned with the transitional central authority's ability to secure large swathes of desert territory from competing tribal and ethnic groups and regional militants who find sanctuary in Libya's ill-secured territory.

After a short-lived resurgence in 2012, Libyan oil exports have declined precipitously since June 2013. Fuel shortages are becoming more common in some parts of the country, and water and electricity supplies face increasingly frequent interruptions due to tribal or ethnic clashes. The already weak central authority has lost even more power, especially as parallel local and tribal structures have themselves faced the deterioration of traditional authority structures.

Libya's political landscape has become much more divided and dangerous since the relative stability and cooperation of 2012.

The Constitutional Commission's Challenges

The constitutional commission will have the daunting task of defining the nature of a post-Gadhafi Libyan state within a framework of a constitution. The geopolitical imperatives of crafting a stable Libyan state — a centralized political system and a strong central security and military apparatus, all funded by oil revenues — run contrary to many of the ideals championed by the country's numerous revolutionary forces. Expectations regarding the nature of Libya's post-revolutionary society — whether federalist or Islamist, for instance — along with the question of how to best address the issues of the country's militias, jihadist elements and pro-Gadhafi fighters, will dominate negotiations during the drafting process. Libya's various ethnic and sectarian minorities will also seek protection and recognition under the aegis of the constitution, sparking conflict with Arab tribal groups who enjoyed decades of preferential treatment under Gadhafi.

This partly explains the General National Congress' difficulty in managing the various competing claimants of authority and importance in post-Gadhafi Libya and lays the groundwork for what is sure to be an intense and combative constitutional drafting process. Though similar processes have been undertaken by Tunisia and Egypt, both states had a more unified national identity than the Libyan peoples. These divisions among the Libyan population will add to the difficulties and delays ahead.

For now, the eventual format of the constitution, the members who make up the drafting body and the tenor set for the future of the Libyan state are a more distant issue. The long, arduous debates will be followed by a parallel track of local unrest, intertribal fighting and a rise in insurgent attacks from revolutionaries, ethnic groups and regional militants, all of whom will seek to shape or disrupt the constitutional drafting process. Central to this process will be fierce competition over control of the country's hydrocarbon networks. Tripoli will forge a timid attempt to regain oil revenues and prevent the full host of disgruntled Libyan constituent groups from leveraging them to gain concessions from Tripoli and the future constitutional committee.

The current government is also in the midst of trying to manage rising public anger over the extension of the General National Congress' mandate, which was originally set to expire Feb. 7. The interim government's often-divisive internal squabbles have, for now, largely been set aside as the body works to ensure elections are held smoothly and safely. The General National Congress also hopes that traction in the constitutional drafting process will dissuade attempts to remove it and install a caretaker government, which would further destabilize Libya's political and security environment by bringing in a new group of politicians to manage Libya's complex regional, international and domestic relations. The following months will be critical for the General National Congress to maintain enough internal and national cohesiveness to guarantee progress in the drafting process amid militant, militia and public frustration. If the constitutional commission elections are held, however, it is likely that the General National Congress can continue its mandate until a draft is completed, similar to Tunisia's beleaguered Ennahda-led government that was replaced by a caretaker body after the completion of an initial constitutional draft.

The constitution is the document that the various constituent groups of the Libyan socio-political landscape seek as the ultimate arbiter of their often conflicting demands. Eastern federalists, southern Tubou and western Amazigh tribesmen, and the various local bastions of militia and tribal authority are all loath to cede authority back to Tripoli. The constitution is incapable of defending or enforcing itself, which is why it is so difficult to convince various groups to disarm, and why the ongoing military development NATO is aiding is so important. Even if Libya produces a finalized constitution, the document in and of itself is meaningless without any enforcement mechanisms.

While the General National Congress and many in the international community are likely to laud the constitutional commission and its labors, the process is unlikely to have the desired effect of unifying and stabilizing Libya. Instead, it is likely to lead to a period of extended and increased unrest as Libyans adopt familiar strategies of opposition, hoping to pressure or intimidate lawmakers and drafters into including their demands in the constitution.

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