A Libyan election on NATO’s terms

The first election in 47 years should have been momentous, but Western meddling warped Libya’s democratic struggle.

Patrick Hayes

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This Saturday, Libyans will be able to vote for the first time in 47 years. Only the elderly will have a recollection of voting in the last national election under King Idris in May 1965, and even then political parties were outlawed. Following the Arab Spring last year, this new election should have been momentous – a testament to the Libyan people’s struggle for democracy against the Gaddafi regime. And perhaps it would have been, but for Western intervention.

Sadly, this is election that has been administered by the National Transitional Council (NTC), a body that has never been granted authority to rule by the Libyan people. At its head is Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Gaddafi’s former chief of justice. Jalil’s deputy was human-rights lawyer Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, who was forced to resign due to public fury over his opportunism during last year’s uprising. Moreover, during the uprising last year, the NTC’s priority had been to gain approval from Western leaders, rather than from the Libyan people themselves.

No wonder, then, that rather than leading the Libyan people towards a strong democracy, the NTC has instead been largely impotent in controlling events in Libya. It has, for instance, struggled to control the disparate militias, which are greater in strength than the official police and army. It has also been unable to prevent tribal fighting in the south of Libya and clashes in the north-west. And it is facing increased pressure from protesters in the east, most notably in Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi. Indeed, earlier in the year, Jalil even went so far as to threaten the people of Benghazi with force, should the eastern region of Cyrenaica press on with its plans to become semi-autonomous. Despite being a former Gaddafi crony himself, Jalil announced: ‘We are not prepared to divide Libya. [Cyrenaica] should know that there are infiltrators and remnants of Gaddafi’s regime.’

Such threats were a desperate response to the increasing fragmentation of post-Gaddafi Libya into autonomous city states rather than an indication that Jalil was following in the dictatorial path of ‘Mad Dog’ Gaddafi. The NTC’s lack of authority, poor communication and stalled reforms have meant that some Libyans have reverted to local tribal allegiances. It has also meant that Libya’s old federal regions, which evolved under Italian rule, have taken on an increased significance, and cities such as Benghazi and Misrata have staged council elections in defiance of NTC wishes.

But it would be a mistake to assume that a reversion to such divisions was inevitable following Gaddafi’s fall from power. Rather, this fragmented state reflects the vacuum that was left following the haphazard intervention by NATO countries last year. The naive assumption made by Western leaders was that once Gaddafi had departed, Libyans could begin to build, in the words of UK prime minister David Cameron, ‘a strong and democratic future’. What Western leaders failed to recognise is that, through their meddling, they had interrupted the struggle for democratic freedom and the clash of ideas necessary to develop a collective sense of what a post-Gaddafi Libya should look like. By simply attempting to oust Gaddafi and leave Libya in the hands of what it deemed to be the appropriate caretakers, Western interveners warped the popular struggle in Libya.

Given the post-Gaddafi instability and fragmentation, it is hardly surprising that what should have been groundbreaking, historic elections in Libya this Saturday have been mired in controversy, and beset by threats of violence and boycotts. A key area of contention has been the NTC’s allocation of seats to the 200-strong national assembly, with the east being allocated just 60 seats compared to 102 for Tripoli and Western Libya. This has sparked fears that the east would have minimal influence over the formation of a new constitution, which will be the initial priority of the elected assembly. Last Sunday, frustrations mounted when protesters – carrying signs saying ‘Jalil is a traitor of Cyrenaica’ and ‘No elections without a constitution’ – stormed an electoral office in Benghazi and burned election papers and computer equipment.

The lack of experience of democracy under Gaddafi, alongside the notable lack of prominent campaigning for the elections, has led some Western observers to dismiss the Libyans as unprepared for democracy and to be cynical about the election results. The predicted rise of the Islamist parties closest to the Muslim Brotherhood has also caused concern, ostensibly due to their inexperience in engaging in political matters.

While Western intervention has hindered the development of political leadership and ideas for a post-Gaddafi Libya, the paternalistic concerns that the Libyan people are unable to handle democracy are unfounded. Despite being conducted on the NTC’s terms, the election is at least a chance for the Libyan people to cast off the shackles of their Western-backed caretakers. The sooner Libyans are left to forge their own future, apart from external interference, the better.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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