As Libyans head to the polls today to elect a national assembly, distrust dominates the nation.
With brazen acts of violence now common, fears are mounting that elections may trigger further bouts of bloodshed, imperilling Libya’s fragile transition, while cementing divisions in a country torn along tribal, ethnic and political lines.
Libya is suffering a chronic trust deficit.
“People are really withdrawing into their communities; everyone is on the defensive,” said Human Rights Watch’s Libya researcher Hanan Salah.
“In Zintan, I noticed a definitive isolation of the town. The same is happening in Sirte and in Bani Walid, to quite worrying levels.”
National unity and negotiations are urgently needed, according to the authoritative International Crisis Group, this week urging cool heads, as a number of anti-election militias massed in the country’s east.
Voting in more than 70 constituencies through 13 districts, 2.7 million Libyans – around 80 per cent of eligible voters – will choose a 200-member national assembly tasked with forming a government and appointing a committee to draft a new constitution to be ratified by national referendum.
Yet, the election has drawn flak from critics.
The country’s Berber minority – armed to the teeth and deeply traditional – fear continued marginalisation, while Tibu tribal leaders in the country’s south have threatened a boycott, angered at violence in Kufra and long-standing discrimination against their 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 which is most volatile, threatening serious escalation.
The country’s east – neglected during Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule – has been allocated 60 seats in the national assembly, compared with the western region’s 102 seats.
The remaining 38 seats are apportioned to the country’s remote, sparsely populated south.
On July 1, militiamen stormed the electoral commission in Benghazi, the symbolic heart of last year’s insurgency, in protest of seat allocation, setting voting slips ablaze, smashing computers and demanding increased representation and political clout for the country’s eastern region, where around 80 per cent of Libya’s oil reserves are found.
“In the same spirit, they [the east] fault the Government for making million-dollar deals with brigades from Zintan and Misrata, the two main western centres of armed groups,” said the ICG statement.
“In short, they feel virtually as short-changed today as they did under the Gaddafi regime.”
The NTC appears unwilling to revise seat allocations, a move that would likely disrupt voting in the east, having already made a number of concessions.
Most observers note that the country’s fledging security forces will be unlikely to contain any serious election-day violence aimed at disrupting the vote, or occurring later and contesting the outcome once announced.
“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 of Gaddafi, Libya has disintegrated in to a series of fiefdoms, guarded by heavily-armed militias, wholly unaccountable, as people withdraw firmly into their communities, undercutting any real sense of national unity and triggering, at times, intense clashes between rival communities seeking to protect their interests.
The National Transitional Council, to be dissolved after the vote, has never really encapsulated the Libyan context – a patchwork of tribal loyalties, exploited by Gaddafi yet also intrinsic to Libya’s social fabric – leading to increased distrust around its rule.
“Society will overcome these issues [fragmentation] with time,” says Mohammed K. Arab, chairman of political science at Tripoli University. “Somewhere, somehow the people will solve the issues.”
Around 2500 independent candidates are vying for 120 seats, with the remaining 80 seats allocated to candidates from an array of political parties fielding 1200 candidates.
As it has done regionally, the Muslim Brotherhood seems likely to secure a sizeable share of the vote.
All eyes will be on the performance of hard-line Islamist elements, particularly Abdelhakim Belhaj’s al-Watan party.
Islamist brigades, responsible for the desecration of dozens of Sufi shrines in the country, have become increasingly visible.
Yet behind all the political wrangling, larger problems loom.
Despite international endorsement of the rebels as liberal, forward-thinkers, the real issues impacting Libya remain social.
Some people doubt that the country can transition to democracy, arguing that regressive strictures – a toxic mix of patriarchy, religious conservatism and tribalism – render any progressive political process meaningless.