Above the Fray: Elections in Libya should be deferred

The transitional government must first focus on internal security, reconciliation and economic development.

Muammar Gaddafi 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Muammar Gaddafi 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
While the Libyan rebels have rightfully celebrated the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi after a 42-year reign, turning him from all-powerful dictator to cowering fugitive, the real challenges for a new Libya are just beginning.
The road to writing a new constitution, forging new political parties, rebuilding a battered infrastructure, repairing a broken economy and fostering civil society will be long, difficult and punctuated by violence.
Having starved his people of any semblance of participatory governance, Libyans must begin to pick up the pieces Gaddafi left behind in order to build the foundation of a free, secure and stable nation.
Restoring the rule of law and order throughout the country must be the first priority. As long as Gaddafi loyalists maintain pockets of resistance – and Gaddafi himself remains a fugitive – Libya’s transition cannot begin in earnest. Gaddafi must be captured, and full control of the country must be won before security and basic public services such as electricity and clean running water can be fully and reliably restored. These must be steps 1 and 2 for the nascent transitional government.
Collecting weapons will be a key task in this effort, including the arsenals looted by rebels from Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound.
Reinstating police forces and ensuring that they are fully paid and functioning properly to maintain internal security is a sine qua non for achieving any additional progress.
Many Libyans have suffered under the ruthlessness of Gaddafi’s internal security forces. Revenge and retribution will be only a natural course of action for many Libyans to settle old grievances. The transitional government should learn from the mistakes made in Iraq and immediately begin a campaign of reconciliation by welcoming the integration of police and soldiers, who were loyal to Gaddafi, rather than disbanding them and fueling further violent retribution that would derail the effort to establish genuine security.
HEALING RATHER than exacerbating the historic east/west divide in the country must begin now. Consolidating factions to form a government that “affirms the Islamic identity of the Libyan People, its commitment to the moderate Islamic values, its full rejection [of] the extremist ideas and its commitment to combating them in all circumstances,” as stated by the National Transitional Council (NTC) in a March 30 statement, would be a critical step toward a stable and prosperous Libya.
If a thriving economy is to be built and the hordes of foreign expatriates are to return to Libya, establishing security throughout the country will be crucial, and potentially trying. As security comes into place, the NTC, the legal authority in Libya recognized by scores of countries and the Arab League, must work to bring the nation’s oil production back online in order to infuse the country with much-needed capital. Industry analysts speculate that it could take as long as two years to bring production to the level it reached during Gaddafi’s reign, which amounted to 1.6 million barrels a day. In fact, as the head of the Libyan Stabilization Team in the NTC, Ahmed Jehani, recently told the BBC, the “utter neglect” of the oil industry and national infrastructure under Gaddafi could take as much as a decade to rehabilitate.
With the country at only 60,000 barrels a day today, the unrest has left the NTC with a considerable task in overhauling the state’s handling of oil contracts to ensure both transparency and equitable distribution of oil wealth. Finally, since oil production accounts for as much as 95 percent of the country’s export earnings, and resumption of full oil production will take time, the gradual unfreezing of Gaddafi’s assets – estimated at over $100 billion – is critical to meeting the government’s obligation to remain financially solvent and retain the people’s confidence.
Genuine economic development will be central for a country that experienced over 30% unemployment prior to the outbreak of the uprising. Yet there are opportunities for growth should the NTC prove successful in maintaining the kind of competent governance that can generate confidence for companies and investors. Libya could capitalize on its coastal location and proximity to Europe by investing in robust tourism, industry and manufacturing. In addition, the building of educational institutions to provide young Libyans with the opportunity to acquire the necessary modern skills will open the door to greater foreign investments, and with that an expanded job market.
Restoring internal security, reconciling between the old and the new guards, and making major efforts to rebuild the economy will lay the strong foundation needed to move toward significant democratic reforms. The transition to a new central and democratic government will be long and arduous. Gaddafi left Libya with nothing: no political parties, no civil society, no non-governmental organizations and no parliament.
The political transformation should begin by developing a new Libyan National Assembly representing all corners of the country. Although much has been done to prepare for a new constitution, the formal committee that will be officially tasked with writing it should be selected from and empowered by the Libyan National Assembly. A successful constitutional framework is one that will reflect the needs of the people and allow tribal leaders to have a say as long as human rights remain constitutionally enshrined and fully enforced.
The planned general elections must be postponed at least two years. Indeed, elections in the near term, as the US and EU countries are prone to push for, would be a catastrophic mistake for Libya. In Tunisia and Egypt, observers have witnessed the growing pains of the nascent democratic movements in nations where dictators were ousted, but the civil society infrastructures in those countries are far superior to the shambles that Gaddafi left behind.
Political parties must be given time and resources to organize, develop political platforms and familiarize the public with their stands on various issues affecting the country’s future security and economic developments. Opting for elections too soon would give too much credence and undue power to isolated tribal factions and Islamists, especially the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which is the only likely group to be able to garner loyalty in the immature Libyan political landscape.
It remains to be seen whether in a new Libya, the remnants of the LIFG will adhere to their November 2009 pledge to renounce jihadist violence against “women, children, elderly people, priests, messengers, traders and the like.”
The West was right to utilize NATO to assist the rebels in overthrowing the lunatic who ruled Libya for 42 years. The strategy was successful chiefly because while the West aided the rebels’ fight, the victory was led, and ultimately achieved, by the Libyans themselves. The construction of a new Libya must be achieved in the same manner. While the international community has a critical role to play in infusing the country with much-needed investment and development, the success of the transition will ultimately hinge on continued determination by the Libyan people.
Any development that takes place in any of the Arab countries has a direct or indirect effect on Israel. Over the years, for example, Israel enjoyed good relations with Morocco, which were maintained quietly yet effectively. I believe that Israel has an opportunity to reach out to the new Libyan government and offer help in the medical field in particular; there is a dire need for doctors, nurses, and medical supplies to meet the country’s humanitarian needs. In this context, Israel could offer a field hospital, which could include professional Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens.
The transitional government is not likely to accept the Israeli offer, but a quiet gesture at this particular time of need may still resonate favorably in the future.
Demonstrating progress by the NTC and communicating the steps toward a strong and secure Libya while adhering to human rights from day one will be critical to engendering confidence among all Libyans. While permanent change may be slow to achieve, progressive change will begin at once.

The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.