February Is a Make-or-Break Month for Libya

Three years ago, Libya's hopeful leaders decided that tomorrow, Feb. 7, would mark the day Libya retired its transitional government to make way for a stable, permanent one. But after months of political infighting and stagnation, the country's interim legislature voted on Dec. 23 to extend its own mandate. Now, on the eve of Feb. 7, the country is on tenterhooks, bracing itself for politically-motivated violence as government-allied militias ready their guns to defend the General National Congress.

According to the timeline established by the Temporary Constitutional Declaration, the transitional roadmap, the General National Congress (GNC) is supposed to step down on Feb. 7, 2104. The GNC, however, has its own ideas on that score. Its members have proposed a plan that would keep them in office another year, until Dec. 24, 2014. Supporters of the extension point out that, because the country has yet to draft a new constitution, there is no legislative body in place to replace it.

But what's become clear is that different groups have taken to interpreting the text of the roadmap to suit their own political agendas. Those who favor the extension argue that the GNC's mandate is linked to the drafting of the constitution, and that it ends only once a constitution has been drafted and ratified. Those who oppose the mandate extension argue that the roadmap sets clear deadlines and milestones that the GNC has completely failed to meet -- and that the legislature is, correspondingly, unjustifiably clinging to power. They argue that the GNC has failed to lead the country through its transition, and has instead languished in political infighting, causing nationwide polarization. (In the photo above, Libyans protest the GNC's mandate extension in Tripoli's Martyr Square.)

In fact, this confusion can be blamed on the poorly designed roadmap itself. The roadmap was first produced by the then-ruling National Transitional Council in August 2011, but was then hastily amended just two days before the first GNC election in early July 2012. In response to the federalists in eastern Libya, who threatened to prevent the GNC election, the Council fundamentally changed the way the Constituent Assembly (the body in charge of drafting the constitution) would be selected. Instead of being appointed by the GNC as the roadmap initially proposed, the amendment states that the Constituent Assembly must be directly elected. However, it failed to adjust the timeline to reflect such a fundamental change. Instead of being appointed by GNC in November 2012, the Constituent Assembly's elections have yet to take place, and are currently scheduled for Feb. 20 of this year.

This confusion is only deepening polarization as political groups battle it out in the GNC hall. On Feb.3, the GNC voted to adopt a new roadmap that offers two scenarios, both of which would see an end to the GNC's mandate by August 2014 instead of December 2014. In the first, the Constituent Assembly would successfully finalize a draft constitution four months after its first session. The country would then ratify its new constitution in July 2014, and hold general elections in August 2014. This would mean Libya's transitional phase would end in September 2014 at the latest. This is an extremely ambitious scenario that is unlikely to materialize. In the second, the GNC would amend the current Constitutional Declaration to include a third transitional phase. In this case, Libya would hold another interim presidential and parliamentary election in August to replace the GNC, and this new government would preside over the transition process until the Constituent Assembly passes a constitution. This seems more likely. The new roadmap presents a reasonable way forward for the deeply-polarized country.

Unfortunately, after the GNC approved the new roadmap, the deal between the National Forces Alliance (NFA) and Islamists fell apart -- and now the militias are readying their guns for a possible standoff.

The NFA rejected the new roadmap, accused the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists of hijacking the country, and urged Libyans to take to the streets on Feb. 7 and see GNC gone. The NFA claims that Islamists are clinging to power and delaying any peaceful transfer of power because they realize they will not be successful in any upcoming elections. This position prompted a quick response from the country's Grand Mufti, Sadeq al-Gheriani, who accused the NFA of being secular and prohibited citizens from taking to the streets against the GNC, saying that the protests would violate Islamic teachings. Now, pro-GNC Islamist militias (such as the Misrata militia) are preparing for a standoff with pro-NFA militias (such as the Zintan militia), who have promised to enforce and protect the will of the people on the streets. Meanwhile, in eastern Libya, the federalists and their militias are also demanding an end to the GNC's mandate.

The city of Benghazi has already started to feel the heat as the day approaches. On the night of Feb. 5, Libya Ahrar TV's offices were attacked by unknown assailants who are likely linked to the pro-GNC camp, and the director of al-Assema TV's office was kidnapped by another group that has not been identified. Both channels are seen to be against the new roadmap and GNC's decision to extend its mandate. Also, last night, an armed mob burned down tents set up by anti-GNC campaigners in Benghazi's freedom square. The mob then went on to attack an army special forces station nearby -- even though the special forces have also insisted that they would support and defend the people of Libya, no matter what they decide. Militias associated with Islamists are reportedly taking up positions throughout the city in anticipation of what might unfold on the day. And, indeed, Benghazi already witnessed heavy clashes between army units and Islamists militias on Wednesday night, and a leading activist in the anti-GNC campaign, Abdullah al-Senussi, was assassinated when his car exploded this morning.

It remains to be seen if huge crowds will take to the streets on Feb. 7. Nevertheless, what is clear is that tensions are high and armed groups are ready to battle in Libya's streets, as politicians fail to reach an agreement and end the standoff. The politicians must act with a sense of urgency -- Libya is falling apart, and at this point, every moment counts. The country is in urgent need for compromise, teamwork, and national unity as it battles its way through these extremely turbulent times.

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



Why Venezuela's Newspapers Can't Afford the Paper They're Printed On

Everybody knows print is dying. The Internet sounded the death knell for newspapers all over the world, while many are struggling to stay afloat.

Venezuela's newspapers are also dying, but not because of the market. They are being killed off, slowly, by a resentful government.

Venezuela's media have long been critical of the government. In 2002, TV channels as well as other media actively encouraged street protests that led to a short-lived coup against then-President Hugo Chávez. Their role in those events led the government to see independent media as enemies to be vanquished.

Since then, it is safe to say the government has largely tamed broadcast media. After the failed coup, most Venezuelan TV stations began self-censoring in order to survive. Meanwhile, the government has also continued the policy of constant mandatory broadcasts. According to Monitoreo Ciudadano, an NGO, President Nicolás Maduro has averaged 28 minutes per day of mandatory simultaneous TV and radio broadcasts, locally known as "cadenas," or chains.

Those that did not self-censor have either disappeared or been bought out by government allies. In 2007, the government famously refused to renew the broadcasting license of RCTV, Venezuela's most popular TV station at the time and a bastion of the opposition. The move sparked a student protest movement that still shows occasional flickers of life. Similar moves against radio stations across the country followed. Last year, businessmen linked to the government bought the last TV channel critical of the government, the all-news outlet Globovisión.

Newspapers, however, proved more difficult to tame. With TV and radio, the argument is that the government owns the broadcast space through which they transmit, and therefore is entitled to have a say in what is broadcast. There is no such ownership issue when it comes to print media -- but there are other ways to make newspapers suffer.

The government has started limiting advertising space in Venezuelan newspapers on political grounds, refusing to place ads in opposition-minded newspapers. In a country where the main exporters and many of the largest companies are owned by the government, this is a significant problem. They have also limited reporters' access to government sources, and have set up pro-government newspapers to compete with established ones.

But the main reason the crisis is reaching a boiling point is because the government refuses to sell newspapers the currency they need to buy printing paper.

One of Caracas' main newspapers is El Nacional. Founded in 1943 by legendary Venezuelan author Miguel Otero Silva, it is an established institution in Venezuela. On Jan. 29, the paper announced it was reducing its content by 40 percent due to a lack of printing paper. According to the current publisher, Otero Silva's son Miguel, the newspaper only has enough stock of paper to last a few more weeks. Other papers, such as Barquisimeto's El Impulso, the oldest in the country, are saying the same thing. Some smaller papers outside of Caracas have already closed. Journalists have hit the streets to protest. Even the Roman Catholic Church has expressed concern over the shortages.

In the meantime, the government's changes to currency regulations are only making matters worse. In order to expedite currency transactions, the government announced on Jan. 22 that it would increase the amounts sold via currency auctions -- but since then, no auctions have been held. On Feb. 4, an auction where El Nacional was expecting to land some currency was suspended at the last minute.

Marianna Párraga, an influential journalist, claims the currency problem stems from the fact that many of the country's oil sales do not generate enough cash. Large amounts of oil are either sold at a discount to political allies, or sold to China in exchange for funds the Chinese have already handed over and the government has already spent. The claim is that Venezuela only generates sales for 1.5 million of the 2.8 million barrels it produces every day.

Venezuela's allies in the region frequently put pressure on newspapers. Ecuador's president has famously fought his country's press in the courts, and Argentina's president Cristina Fernández has done the same.

But nowhere is the conflict more acute than in Venezuela.

The demise of newspapers is bad news for freedom in the country. Internet penetration in Venezuela is below average for the region. Internet speed is one of the lowest in the world. For Venezuelans -- who are frequently stuck in buses in traffic for hours, and who cannot rely on TV for reliable news coverage -- newspapers are a vital source of information and entertainment. Most Venezuelans get their news from traditional media, and newspapers remain the last bastion of independence.

In the old days, government bureaucrats would censor the press by telling journalists which stories were OK to report, and which were not. Cutting off newspapers' paper supplies is not as blatant a move, but it is an equally effective one.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.