The GNC, One Year On

This is not what Libyans expected when they voted in such numbers and with such hope, a year ago today. On the first anniversary of  the General National Congress elections the mood is more tense than jubilant. Several protests are planned demanding a ban on political parties, the dissolving of militias, or  at least kicking some of them out of the capital.

Abusahmain, the new head of Libya's General National Congress, raises the signature sheet during a signing ceremony in Al Bayda
Abusahmain, the new head of Libya’s General National Congress, raises the signature sheet during a signing ceremony in Al Bayda

The GNC has had some achievements. But has failed in its main task, which is to draft the constitution. It has not only failed even to form a committee that would draft this constitution, but almost a year on, it still has not agreed the mechanism by which this committee should be formed.  Yet while Congress has missed out so signally on performing its prime task, other important issues have been neglected or fudged, such as transitional justice, the political isolation law and decentralisation.

Its productivity, or lack of it, now poses questions over its very existence.  There were calls for fresh elections as early as last November, but these were largely informed by an unhappiness at the appointment of scores of officials who, it was alleged, had ties with former regime,

It was obvious from the beginning that the GNC was on a long and difficult road. It had 200 members from very different backgrounds, most of whom had never been exposed to democratic politics.

The nomination of first Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur and then his removal, the appointment of Ali Zeidan as the new PM and several changes to his cabinet, (he still doesn’t have an Awqaaf Minister),  were symptomatic of the deep divisions in the GNC. The body did not demonstrate any willingness to make compromises,  to enable members to get on with the real job they had been given, the constitution. They have sometimes appeared to forget that they form an interim body ,with very specific tasks to perform,  in order to take the country to the next elections.

A revolutionary-turned-activist from Souk Al-Juma recently said that he failed to understand why a committee would be formed  to travel abroad to assess Libyan investments in various countries. He wondered if these members of Congress were technically capable of judging investments and whether under the current mandate, it was even appropriate that they make such trips anyway.

The formation of governments, the approval of ministers and certain key directives all require a minimum level of support in the chamber.  Politicians within the GNC are sensitive to the government apparently favouring their rivals and therefore taking issue with it as a matter of principle. This has boosted the argument that there should be an inclusive government led by a neutral figure.

The composition of the GNC is tricky given the conservative nature of most members. Contrary to what many believe, the majority of members does not belong to supposed liberal bloc of Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA).  The NFA remains as a distinct bloc in a GNC, which has four other blocs. Their close coordination with another bloc enabled them to rally roughly 80 votes out of 200.

The biggest bloc of over 50 members consists of an alliance between few different political bodies and remains a key force inside the GNC. It is closer to the bloc of the Muslim Brotherhood-related Justice & Construction Party (JCP) that has roughly 30 members. The last bloc is made up of around 10 members that support the resolutions from different blocs based on their merit. There are a few unaligned members as well, that see some serious lobbying efforts from different blocs but only vote in favour of resolutions that they feel convinced of.

The seats reserved for party lists were 80 out of total 200 but all parties had their members contest seats as individuals. These figures include both the individual members and the party lists. The strength of these blocs has changed depending on the decisions of the Integrity Commission, which have seen new members being sworn in place of those deemed ineligible according to the set integrity standards.

The work of the GNC was made further difficult by continuous public protests demanding the Political Isolation Law barring from holding high level office in the new administration, people who had served in the former regime. The legislation was debated for months but was passed after pressure from the brigades that besieged two ministries and refused to leave until it was enacted. Some members would later slam this external pressure. Others alleged that they found threatening notes under their chairs in the chamber. The law was voted through, section by section with 157 members present.

Muhammad Yusuf Magarief,  then GNC president resigned from his seat voluntarily before the law came into force, as he fell in the category that was to be barred. Magarief is perhaps the most glaring example of where the sweep of the PIL has obliged someone to  resign who had opposed the former regime for over three decades.

A recent decision by the GNC to dissolve all militias and to implement the isolation law on armed forces, to ensure nobody that served the former regime holds any position, has been received positively. The recent rise in the number of civilian casualties has created an atmosphere that might allow the decision to be  carried out. But current fighting in the capital  has demonstrated  that regional and tribal politics  may be flaring up again. It has forced some religious people to reactivate their military organisations, as what they see as a precaution, not least because they are taking events in Egypt as a warning.

This is a very serious move that shows the lack of trust some have in the system, to which the short-comings of the GNC have contributed. Its delay has engendered instability which has provided the excuse for different groups to cling onto their weapons.

The new GNC president, Nuri Abu Sahmain, has assured the people he will focus on the constitution and will try to take all parties together. But this is easier said than done with every party seeking  bigger role in drafting the constitution. However with their announcement that they will boycott all GNC business except work on the constitution,  the NFA and the Justice and Construction Party may just boost Sahmain’s position.

A year after it was elected, the GNC has never been under such pressure. Its members have tough choices in the very near future, to head off a descent into chaos.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Libyan Express.
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