Libya’s new electoral law, passed by the National Transitional Council last month, provides guidelines for selecting the country’s first-ever democratic government. Many, including the United Nations, hailed the law’s passage as a significant step down Libya’s rocky political road.
But even if, as planned, a government is elected later this year, the law contains a plank that may ensure that Libya remains unstable and economically precarious, a danger to both itself and its neighbors: namely, it prohibits members of the military from voting.
Excluding soldiers from elections is an understandable and real concern for countries transitioning from dictatorship, which relies on brutal militaries to quash domestic support for democracy. Libya clearly fits into this category: Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime was unrelentingly violent, and the military was often the manifestation of that violence.
In transitional, post-conflict states, similar laws are intended not only to keep generals out of the presidential palace but also to ensure that the military remains a professional body responsible for securing the country’s sovereignty and protecting its national interests.
Egypt, Libya’s eastern neighbor, provides a cautionary lesson: in Cairo, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took over the government after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled, but despite assurances that it would hand power over to civilian authority, it has not done so — nor is it likely to do so soon.
At the same time, what works in other countries may be counterproductive in Libya. Unlike Egypt, Libya has a strikingly weak military that poses very little risk of becoming a political bloc.
Instead, the country is awash in militias — there are reportedly as many as 200,000 militia members in a country of six million people. And the militias are shockingly well- armed, the result of having raided Qaddafi’s weapons depots during the active stages of the conflict.
The militias act with impunity, and the government is unable to do much about them except plead with them to lay down their weapons. Political maneuvers, like incorporating former militia leaders into the cabinet of Abdel Rahim el-Keeb, the acting prime minister, have all failed. Put differently, the transitional council and Mr. Keeb rule a population that is better armed than they are.
One of the proposed solutions for resolving the situation is to recruit more than 50,000 militia members into a regular, professionalized Libyan military under the control of the Ministry of Defense (other militia members would presumably turn over their weapons of their own accord as economic opportunities increase, and still others would be disarmed through weapons buy-back programs).
And this is the problem with the electoral law: Why would militias, whose members can vote and thus express themselves as a powerful bloc, disband so their members can join the military, which is explicitly excluded from elections? In other words, the law’s consequences — keeping the militias alive — will run directly counter to its aim, namely that of reducing the role of armed groups in Libyan politics.
As long as militias have power, Libya’s economic normalization will be postponed. If groups outside the government can shape the security environment, outside investors, particularly oil companies, will be wary of returning to the country. Without foreign companies, Libyan oil production will not return to preconflict levels and, worse, it risks slipping backward. Revenue could decrease at the very time the government needs it most.
Passing an electoral law within a year of the revolution should give free Libya something to celebrate. But in this case, the quick passage of a fundamentally flawed electoral law means that the National Transitional Council is on the cusp of institutionalizing democratic failure.
By Geoff D. Porter, a risk consultant specializing in North Africa.