Libya's Deepening Power Struggle

Each day, Libya's General National Congress (GNC), the highest political authority in the country, draws closer to a looming existential crisis that could lead to a total power vacuum and the collapse of Libya's democratic transition. The GNC, the interim legislature elected among high hopes in August 2012, faces mounting pressure from the public, civil society groups, political activists, and some blocs within the GNC itself to complete its mandate and hand over its power to a new body early next year.

The groups are demanding that the legislative body end its mandate on Feb. 7, 2014 -- a date calculated according to the deadlines set by the country's constitutional declaration (the transitional roadmap), which was drafted by the National Transitional Council in May 2011. (In the photo above, protesters continue to demonstrate two years after Libya's revolutionaries declared victory.) But despite the relatively wide consensus on ending the GNC's mandate, there is no clear agreement on how to replace the congress or what the GNC's successor should look like.

The country has yet to elect the Constituent Assembly in charge of drafting the constitution, though it has set an ambitious deadline for its election: Dec. 24. Technically and logistically, the Higher Elections Commission, which is in charge of running the electoral process, is capable of conducting the vote, but the growing chaos makes it look increasingly unlikely the election will actually be held.

Anti-GNC sentiment is growing because of ebbing public trust in the GNC and the political parties, which have been mired in an unhealthy political struggle for power. Many blame the various factions within the GNC for the trouble. Indeed, polarization has deepened since the GNC elections in July 2012. Different political groups are pursuing their own narrow-minded agendas with complete disregard for the interests of the nation and its people. The intensifying struggle for power means that the current government is unable to make decisions even over matters of huge importance to national security. These issues include the rebuilding of the national police and army forces. More immediately, deciding which currently existing armed groups should be deployed to improve security often prompts clashes of interest, since the factions are usually keen on approving the use of forces that are loyal to them.

A new campaign called the "November 9th Movement" emerged a few weeks ago with the express mission of addressing the GNC's failings. It has been gaining momentum in its quest to re-elect a new GNC on Dec. 24, the same date set for the Constituent Assembly elections. The movement is calling for the new GNC elections to be based on independent lists (rather than closed party lists, where candidates are elected based on what party they belong to). The movement blames the continuing political infighting on closed party lists, despite the fact that 120 out of the 200 GNC members were elected the first time around using independent lists. What's more, the movement does not have a clear vision or framework to guarantee progress after the election of a new GNC. Re-electing another GNC using only individual lists would only reproduce the problems of the current political arrangement in a new form. There are no guarantees that the new GNC will automatically start to form new political blocs on regional, tribal, or ideological bases.

Another initiative called the "National Working Group," led by ex-government officials and known figures and activists from Benghazi, is also urging the GNC to end its mandate on Feb. 7, 2014. This movement does not, however, support new elections for the GNC. Instead it is calling for the creation of a presidential council led by the head of the Constituent Assembly (to be elected in December), the head of the Higher Judicial Council, and the head of the Supreme Court. The initiative also stresses that Libya should adopt the pre-Qaddafi 1951 constitution as the basis for the country's new constitution. This proposal makes a fundamental change to the current political arrangement in the country, and could minimize political feuds and struggles for power between different political factions as the country drafts its permanent constitution. This initiative seems to answer more questions and offer better prospects for change than the November 9th Movement's plan. Nonetheless, the National Working Group seems to lack the youthful enthusiasm, the drive, and the favorable media coverage that the November 9th Movement has.

Not surprisingly, GNC members are divided even on the issue of the legislature's own existence. The National Forces Alliance supports ending the GNC's mandate on Feb. 7. On the other hand, the Islamists within the GNC oppose the idea and say the GNC's mandate only ends when it completes its required tasks, not when the time limit passes. They say that it shouldn't be dissolved until a new constitution is ratified by the people.

Libya is now confronted by a significant failing: the inability of civil society activists and organizations to work together as a unified front to wrest the country from the grip of polarization. Any change in the current political roadmap must ensure the continuation of the democratic process. Abandoning or breaking that process will leave Libya with only two options: to remain mired in an indefinite transition or to fall back into another dictatorship.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.



The Country That's Never Had an Election

Eritrea, a country of roughly 6 million people on the Horn of Africa, is one of the world's most repressive states. There is no freedom of speech, press, or religion. Not a single election has been held since the country achieved independence two decades ago after a 30-year war with Ethiopia. Prolonged detention and torture are routine for any dissenters. And adults are forcibly conscripted mandatory military or national service that can last as long as the government decides.

Yet despite Eritrea's ghastly human rights record, few human rights activists, policy makers, or world leaders ever mention the place.

Here are ten reasons why we should care about the state of human rights in this oft-forgotten corner of the world:

For the past 20 years, since the country was formally recognized by the international community on May 24, 1993, Eritrea has been ruled by President Isais Afwerki (pictured above) and the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). After an initially promising start toward democratization, the Isaias regime became insular and repressive. Over the years the ailing President Isaias has become exceedingly paranoid about losing control. The country has yet to hold an election, and its 1997 constitution, which recognizes universal human rights, remains suspended.

Amnesty International estimates that there are 10,000 prisoners of conscience in Eritrea. They include government critics and dissidents, journalists, followers of registered and unregistered religious communities, national service evaders and military deserters, returned asylum seekers, and family members of those who fled the country. Detention can last for years or decades. Prisoners are often held incommunicado, in secret, with no family or legal counsel contact, and without charge or trial.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, where I serve as a senior policy analyst, reports that there are 2,000 to 3,000 people imprisoned because of their religious beliefs. In interviews I conducted with Eritrean refugees in December 2012, many former religious prisoners spoke of being subjected to torture and other inhumane treatment.

Only four religious communities (the Coptic Orthodox Church of Eritrea, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea) are legally recognized. The Eritrean government interferes in the leadership of the communities and imposes a number of invasive controls over these religious groups. The government has refused to register all other religious communities and has prohibited their public religious activities and closing their places of worship. The situation for Jehovah's Witnesses and Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians is particularly dire.

The number of prisons, military prisons, town and/or district jails, and secret prisons in Eritrea is unknown. What we do know is that political and religious prisoners, as well as persons caught trying to escape the country, are held under shocking conditions. Reports of torture and other inhumane or humiliating treatment are common. These prisoners, including former religious prisoners whom I've interviewed, report sustained exposure to the sun in the desert, having hands and feet tied behind their back for prolonged periods of time, beatings, forced recantations of faith, and confinement in cramped conditions, such as 20-foot metal shipping containers or underground barracks in the desert where they are subjected to extreme temperature fluctuations. Reports of death in detention due to torture, ill-treatment, or denied access to medical care are common.

There are no independent political parties, civil society organizations, or independent news organizations operating in Eritrea. Independent public gatherings are prohibited.

The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Eritrea as the world's most censored country in 2012, reporting that it is Africa's leading jailer of journalists (and the world's fourth worst). Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea at the bottom of its Press Freedom Index in 2013. No independent, domestic news agency has operated since 2001, the same year that the Eritrean government expelled its last accredited foreign news reporter.

Men and women between the ages of 18 and 50 can be called up for mandatory military or national service. National service is indefinite and begins during Eritreans' final year of high school at the Sawa military camp. What's more, Eritreans can be called to service up to age 55. When conscripts do not perform military service, the Eritrean Department of Defense assigns them to civilian development projects or commercial enterprises and pays their salaries.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported in January 2013 that more than 285,142 Eritreans have fled the country. A large percentage of Eritreans are young men and unaccompanied minors escaping Eritrea's indefinite military or national service. Others are fleeing abuses of human rights and religious freedom.

The Eritrean government apparently has a "shoot-to-kill" policy ordering military officers to shoot anyone trying to cross the border -- an issue that recently brought the regime some unwelcome scrutiny at the United Nations.

Family members of Eritrean refugees abducted from Sudanese refugee camps by Sudanese and Egyptian smuggling networks and held for ransom in the Sinai are asked to pay up to $30,000 for their release. The victims of human trafficking endure torture and other ill-treatment, including rape, beatings by various objects such as whips or chairs, burnings with cigarette butts, suspension from ceilings for prolonged periods of time in contorted positions, electric shocks, etc. There are also reports of organ harvesting.

7 percent
The Eritrean economy is expected to grow by 7 percent in 2013 and 6.5 percent in 2014 due to a mining boom. Australian and Canadian mining companies are helping the nation grow by mining for zinc, copper, gold, and silver. But, as the numbers above demonstrate, this wealth doesn't necessarily guarantee the happiness or well-being of the majority of the population.

Tiffany Lynch, a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed are her own and may or may not reflect the views of the Commission.