Libya is preparing for its first elections after 42 years under the leadership of Moammar Gadhafi. The elections, which were originally scheduled for June 19, were recently rescheduled to July 7. In the coming weeks, therefore, Libyans will be electing a national assembly, which will then draft a constitution, and the assembly will also appoint a transitional government.
Last month, the National Transitional Council issued a ban on the participation of all parties with any religious, tribal, regional or ethnic affiliation in the elections. Although the ban was quickly dropped, the discussion around the decision raised a number of key issues about what truly unites and divides the Libyan population, and how to deal with diversity when it comes to the new democratic system.
Many people in the West have focused on the existence of religious parties in countries in the Middle East and North Africa as forces that could interfere with transitions to democracy. Libyans, however, are not afraid of parties with a religious affiliation and they do not generally regard them as a threat to democracy – a fact that was demonstrated by the criticism that was directed against the ban by many Libyans.
During the Gadhafi era, political parties were banned in Libya, This decision was only reversed during the democratic transition that followed the revolution and the overthrow of Gadhafi. More than 30 political parties have been formed and are waiting to participate in the forthcoming elections. This will be the first time that Libyans will be able to participate in a democratic system and will be able to voice their opinions without risking their lives. In doing so, they will be helping build the Libya that they have long being awaiting.
While Islamic parties have garnered attention in the West as a potential threat to democracy, tribal affiliations concern most Libyans more than does the existence of religious parties. The reason for this reality is that forming a party based on tribal affiliation is more likely to stir conflict in Libya. Individuals become part of a tribe through their family, which means that their tribal affiliation cannot be changed. Tribal parties are, therefore, exclusive by nature.
Under Gadhafi, belonging to a certain tribe provided protection. As a survival tactic, the late Libyan leader used his influence with tribes to gain support and help prevent his regime from collapsing.
Accordingly, banning parties with a tribal affiliation is an important step to prevent voters from electing parties solely because of their own tribal affiliation. The idea behind this is to avoid measures that would only exacerbate divisions in Libyan society.
In contrast, religious parties allow for a wider membership. In Libya, the overwhelming majority of people are Muslim. Libyans do not view their religion as being in conflict with values, such as respecting women’s rights and participating in a democratic system. A party with religious associations is not seen as being divisive, because the vast majority of Libyans share the same religious beliefs, and see these beliefs as able to accommodate diversity and differences of opinion.
Additionally, when looking at neighboring countries where Islamic political parties have won parliamentary elections, such as Tunisia and Egypt, it is clear that a similar pattern may occur in Libya. Allowing these religious parties to participate in elections will help lessen the tension that could otherwise occur if they were excluded. It may also provide an example of a stable transition into democracy.
Libyans are new to the world of democracy. For the population to participate in the decisions of its government was unheard of a little over a year ago. The diversity in Libya today is mainly related to the political views of individuals about the type of political leaders that they would like to see in the government after four decades of living under authoritarian rule.
Ultimately, Libyans today are learning to deal with diversity in a way that can help unite rather than divide their country. And it is this principle that they will be carrying forward into the elections next month.
Samah Elmeri is a graduate of the University of Iowa and a Libyan civil society activist who is focusing on women’s issues and youth reintegration in post-conflict societies. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).