Transitions

Diplomats Abandon Libya as Conflict Worsens

On July 26, the United States suspended operations at its embassy in Libya's capital, Tripoli, and evacuated its diplomats and staff to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort. The evacuation was due to the ongoing clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.

U.S. Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones assured Libyans that despite the relocation to temporary offices in Malta, the embassy is still working nonstop to find a peaceful resolution to the current clashes. But Libyans don't see this as a good sign. Many feel the U.S. evacuation is a win for the extremists and militias that are inflicting extensive damage to Libya's infrastructure, and whose actions threaten to destroy the country's democratic processes altogether.

Ordinary people on the streets, who were supposed to be celebrating Eid al-Fitr, said the holidays were the worst they have ever experienced in Libya. The ongoing fighting in Tripoli and Benghazi and the U.S. evacuation dominated all conversations. Many seem to agree that the U.S. evacuation is a sign that mediation efforts have failed and that the situation is likely to get worse. After the United States left, many turned their hopes to Britain, which was leading the international community's efforts to mediate between the warring factions to find a way to stop hostilities. But over the weekend, Britain also evacuated nonessential staff to Tunisia, transported over a hundred British nationals to Malta, and temporarily closed its embassy. Even Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Libya, has "reluctantly" decided to leave, due to deteriorating security conditions. (The photo above shows a French embassy employee embracing a friend after being evacuated from Libya on Aug. 1.)

In the last two days, a coalition of extremist militias in Benghazi called the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries overran an army base used by the Special Forces unit in Benghazi. One of the coalition's leaders, Mohamed al-Zahawi, promptly declared victory over Gen. Khalifa Haftar and his men, who have been fervently defending eastern Libya against Islamist militias. Zahawi apparently went on Ansar al-Sharia's local radio show, Tawhid, to declare Benghazi an "Islamic Emirate." They have, of course, declared this victory prematurely -- the war in Benghazi is far from over. Haftar was quick to deny Ansar al-Sharia's claims that they have gained full control of Libya's second city. "Claims that Ansar al-Sharia militants have full control of Benghazi are nothing but lies," he said during a TV interview. Indeed, his forces were quick to lead an air and ground offensive against Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi.

Many people I spoke to feel that the West abandoned Libya after the overthrow of Qaddafi, leaving the country in the hands of heavily armed militias. One Benghazi resident, a 24-year-old male who works for a warehouse for one of the city's leading supermarkets, which was bombed during the fighting, commented: "This is the worst I have seen Benghazi, even worse than the day Qaddafi's forces were on the outskirts of [the city] in 2011 at the start of the uprising."

Tripoli's residents seem to share this sentiment. Hundreds are being killed and many more injured, vital infrastructure is being destroyed, and the democratic process is under real threat, as the militias are attempting to prevent the newly elected House of Representatives from convening. Many are asking what Libya's friends in the West intend to do to help.

So far, the governments of the United States, Britain, and other European countries have insisted that the solution to Libya's problems is political. The West has issued countless statements on this mythical political solution in the last few weeks -- but that has not stopped the warring factions from indiscriminately shelling Tripoli International Airport, destroying the city's gas and fuel tanks, and endangering civilian populations with their indiscriminate shelling.

No dialogue to find a political solution can take place while these violent clashes continue. The sound of guns and bombings is louder than everything else. The only break happened when the militias paused to watch the U.S. Air Force's F-16s fly over Tripoli as they evacuated the embassy staff. One Tripoli resident jokingly remarked, "If only the F-16s were around a little longer, we could have had a better night's sleep." Many in Libya believe the United States and the West could be doing much more to quell the conflict. They could, for example, push for a U.N. Security Council resolution that would allow the use of targeted airstrikes against the armed factions. The U.S. embassy's evacuation is a worrying sign for Libya's democratic transition, but the United States can still work with its allies to push for meaningful intervention that would help put Libya's transition back on track.

Karim Mezran, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, summarized it perfectly in his recent op-ed for the New York Times: The West must combine threats, intervention, and mediation to stop the fighting that has already killed hundreds in the country. Simply waiting for a "political solution" is not enough.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.

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Democracy Lab

The Good News from Indonesia's Election Stalemate

We don't know who the winner is yet, but the presidential election in Indonesia, the world's third largest democracy, is already proving to be the most exciting in recent memory: messy, polarized, and full of drama. Both candidates -- Djoko Widodo (known as Jokowi) and Prabowo Subianto -- are claiming victory, each citing unofficial results produced by several private polling agencies. Indonesia's official news agencies have now withdrawn their initial vote projections in order to calm the waters before the official results are released.

The Indonesian Election Commission is expected to complete counting the votes on July 21. According to the English-language Jakarta Post, cases of foul play are spreading "like a rash during the vote tabulation phase." Most of the complaints are coming from Jokowi's supporters.

Whoever wins, his margin of victory will be small. Both candidates have already made it clear that they will not accept defeat on the basis of the vote count determined by the Indonesian Election Commission (KPU). That means that the second-place candidate will probably take matters to the Constitutional Court, which will delay the official announcement of the results by a month, complicate the country's already chaotic post-electoral politics, and test the (so far admirable) discipline of each camp's supporters. On the positive side, an appeal will further institutionalize these procedures and establish a road map for future contingencies. Indonesia has approximately three months to complete the electoral process before a new president takes the charge by mid-October 2014.

Over the past three months, the election has opened up a sharp political divide between the traditional political elite and groups that are demanding greater political change. The former camp has coalesced around Prabowo, an ex-general who played a leading role in Suharto's security apparatus. The latter, consisting mainly of civil society groups and ordinary citizens, have supported Jokowi, who has used his position as mayor of Jakarta to buttress his reputation as a reformer. These two sides of the Indonesian electorate have found themselves at odds over the question of how much democracy is good for Indonesia and how much political space is needed for Indonesian citizens.

The Prabowo-led coalition of forces from the established political elite has been dueling with a Jokowi-led movement that is demanding more democratic reforms, clean government, and greater political accountability. While Jokowi is widely viewed as a champion of good governance, Prabowo has been linked with large-scale human rights violations during the riots of May 1998, when the businesses and homes of Indonesians of ethnic Chinese origin were attacked around the country.

Jokowi, the man of the masses, represents the Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the largest political party in the Indonesian parliament. Prabowo, a former military general and son-in-law of Indonesia's former dictator, Suharto, is the leader of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), the third-largest political party in parliament.

You might think that Jokowi would have the edge simply because of his populist reputation as a man who represents the aspirations of ordinary Indonesians -- and you wouldn't be far off, since he has indeed been the national favorite ever since the campaign first got under way. Yet Prabowo has gone from single-digit approval ratings at the beginning of this year to his current status as a challenger on almost equal terms with the front-runner. Why has his candidacy taken off so dramatically? What is the source of his appeal?

Above all, Prabowo has tapped into growing popular frustration with what many see as Indonesia's chaotic democratic process. His vote-winning strategy has relied on a highly effective media campaign organized around themes of economic nationalism and xenophobia. He has built a strong electoral alliance, mobilized lucrative support from business elites, embraced religious hardliners, and cast himself as a strong leader who will vigorously defend the country's national interests and natural resources. It was the government of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the leader of the PDI-P, that allowed international companies to start mining in protected forests in 2004. Prabowo's economic nationalism has proven so popular during the campaign that Jokowi was forced to include similar planks in his agenda several months ago.

In order to win over the support of Indonesia's majority Muslims, Prabowo has openly embraced the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a religious militia that has launched several attacks not only on religious minorities but also on non-Sunni Muslims.

Prabowo has also proven to be a skilled coalition-builder, ultimately putting together a broad alliance of seven conservative parties. The coalition's members, who include four Islamist groups as well as Suharto's own Golkar party, potentially command more than two-thirds of total votes as well as a parliamentary majority. The coalition not only drew in supporters and sympathizers but also extended Prabowo's political and social appeal.

Shortly after the election, Prabowo announced plans to transform this electoral alliance into a five-year permanent coalition -- one that will stand for unapologetically majoritarian rule, policies closely tied to moneyed interests, and resistance to further democratic reforms. (In reality, Prabowo's "permanent" coalition may not last very long if he loses; Golkar, in particular, has a long history of opportunism, switching sides whenever it sees fit.)

Prabowo's most effective (and polarizing) campaign tactic, however, has been his smear campaign against Jokowi. In a significant departure from past presidential campaigns in the democratic era, Prabowo launched a frontal attack on his rival, charging him with insufficient Islamic piety, Chinese origins, and communist sympathies. This is, essentially, a reprise of the approach favored by Suharto, who used the same three accusations as the basis for eliminating a large number of Indonesian citizens during his three decades of authoritarian rule. Prabowo's apparent success at reviving the old formula has raised uncomfortable questions about the extent to which the legacy of Suharto-style authoritarianism remains alive and well. Indonesia's dark past, as Australian journalist Hamish Macdonald noted, "is proving uncomfortably persistent."

Yet there is actually quite a lot of good news amid the darkness. The same very ingredients that Prabowo has used to his advantage -- the politics of exclusion, fear, and intimidation -- have mobilized common citizens and civil society against his candidacy. Indonesians began to worry that his victory could mean an end to democracy. On July 4, The Jakarta Post, one of Indonesia's most influential daily papers, broke a 30-year policy of neutrality and officially endorsed Jokowi as a presidential candidate. The paper's editorial staff defended their decision by arguing that the stakes were too high in this election, and that the fate of Jokowi's candidacy would also decide the fate of Indonesian democracy.

Even though this contest has sorely tested Indonesian democracy, it has also demonstrated once again the strength of popular participation and of respect for democratic norms. Turnout in this election has broken all previous records, proving that Indonesians are determined to see that their votes count.

Equally importantly, this election has been almost completely free of violence. Indonesians have adhered to the democratic norm of expressing their political differences by peaceful means. The Indonesian security forces have remained neutral, successfully maintaining law and order throughout the country. Meanwhile, electoral authorities, civil activists, and party volunteers have been keeping a close watch on ballot boxes and vote tabulation processes in order to prevent tampering.

In this respect, Indonesia's presidential election is reinforcing the broader positive trend among Asian democracies. As in many other countries, the burgeoning Indonesian middle class is pushing for corruption-free, reform-oriented, distributive politics. This class, which now includes around 75 million people, and which is growing by some 10 percent per year, is demanding transparency and accountability.

The likelihood of Jokowi's victory (in the absence of mass-scale electoral fraud) implies that the majority of Indonesians reject Prabowo's revival of Suharto-style authoritarianism. For now, the idea of inclusive, progressive, and good governance-driven democracy seems to have trumped the exclusivist, conservative, and elite-driven politics of the few.

Vibhanshu Shekhar is a Scholar-in-Residence at ASEAN Studies Center, American University. He is also a Visiting Fellow at New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He can be reached at vibesjnu@gmail.com.

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