In Libya, ethnic and tribal tension threatens democracy

TRIPOLI, Libya — Libyans vote for a national assembly Saturday amid sharpening ethnic and tribal tension threatening the nation’s transition from Moammar Kadafi’s repressive rule to the newest democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring.

This North African country, rich in oil and scarred by Kadafi’s legacy, is at once a cause for hope and a dangerous tinderbox. Heavily armed militias hold sway in many towns. Talk of secession echoes through the east. Islamists are angling for a political voice and tribal leaders from the Sahara desert to the Mediterranean coast have only a cursory notion of how to build a civil state.

“People are really withdrawing into their communities. Everyone is on the defensive,” said Hanah Salah, Human Rights Watch’s Libya researcher. “In Zintan, I noticed a definitive isolation of the town. The same is happening in Surt and in Bani Walid, to quite worrying levels.”

The dynamic that set the Libyan uprising apart from almost all the other Arab Spring countries — a rapid recourse to armed insurgency — is now threatening the shaky transition. The International Crisis Group has called for national unity to calm multiplying dangers, including anti-election militias massed in the country’s east.


“No, there is no democracy and there never will be. Democracy is not the will in Libya and nothing can change that. The [societal] rules will never change,” said Saad Zabouh, who works in a cafeteria in the coastal Berber town of Zuwara. Libyans “are just like Kadafi; everyone thinks the same way as him. You will see this is in the future.”

An estimated 2.7 million registered voters in more than 70 constituencies in 13 districts will chose a 200-member national assembly responsible for forming a government and appointing a committee to draft a new constitution to be ratified by national referendum.

Yet the election has drawn criticism. The country’s heavily armed Berber minority fears continued marginalization, while Tibu tribal leaders in the south have threatened a boycott to protest violence in Kufra and long-standing discrimination against their traditional communities.

“People think we are all criminals and murderers; all these bad characteristics,” said Adam Ahmed, a Tibu leader in the remote southern city of Sabha. “All the [Arab] Libyans have this stereotypical view of us.”

But it is the country’s east-west split that is most volatile. Neglected during Kadafi’s 42-year rule, the east, with its capital in Benghazi, has been allocated 60 seats in the national assembly, compared to the western region’s 102 seats. The remaining 38 seats are apportioned to the country’s remote, sparsely populated south.

Militiamen recently stormed the electoral commission in Benghazi, the symbolic heart of last year’s insurgency, in protest of seat allocation, setting voting slips ablaze and smashing computers. They demanded increased representation for the east, where about 80% of Libya’s oil reserves are found.

On Friday, state officials said militias shut down an oil refinery in the eastern town of Braga to press for cancellation of the election. The Associated Press reported that a helicopter carrying voting material had been shot down by unknown gunmen, killing one election worker.

Libyans in the east “feel virtually as short-changed today as they did under Kadafi,” said the International Crisis Group statement.

The governing Transitional National Council appears unwilling to revise seat allocations. Most observers note that the country’s fledging security forces will be unlikely to contain serious violence aimed at disrupting the vote or contesting the outcome.

“The central authorities would make a potentially grievous mistake by resorting to force against the armed groups, however provocative they have been; by the same token, they ought to do all in their power to prevent brigades or individuals angered by these events in the east from taking matters into their own hands,” the ICG statement advised.

Since the fall and death of Kadafi, Libya has disintegrated into a series of fiefdoms guarded by militias, undercutting any real sense of national unity and triggering clashes between rival communities.

The Transitional National Council, to be dissolved after the vote, has never encapsulated the Libyan context: a patchwork of tribal loyalties, exploited by Kadafi yet also intrinsic to Libya’s social fabric. That has led to increased distrust around its rule.

“Society will overcome these issues with time,” says Mohammed K. Arab, chairman of political science at Tripoli University. “Somewhere, somehow the people will solve the issues.”

About 2,500 independent candidates are vying for 120 seats, with the remaining 80 seats allocated to candidates from an array of political parties fielding 1,200 candidates.

As it has done in neighboring Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood seems likely to secure a sizable share of the vote. All eyes will be on the performance of hard-line Islamist elements, particularly Abdelhakim Belhaj’s Watan party.

Islamist brigades have become increasingly visible, particularly in the east. According to news reports, a group called Partisans of Islamic Law — the same name used by a Yemeni Salafi militant organization — has condemned the elections as illegitimate and un-Islamic.

Behind all the political wrangling, major problems loom. Despite international endorsement of the rebels as liberal forward-thinkers, the real issues affecting Libya remain social.

Some people doubt that the country can make the transition to democracy, arguing that regressive strictures — a toxic mix of patriarchy, religious conservatism and tribalism — render any progressive political process meaningless.

The national assembly itself will face daunting challenges, said Salah, of Human Rights Watch, such as dealing with potential mass displacements, reconciling rival factions and forming a panel of experts.

“The Libyan people have to be reassured that justice will be served to all and that there will be no immunity from prosecution for serious crimes, whoever the perpetrator,” said Salah. “Failing to do so will only foster a culture of impunity which may encourage perpetrators to continue with violations.”

Johnson is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.