international analysis and commentary

Libya’s election as a learning process, conversation with Mohamed Wefati


Long-awaited political participation and a return of the air of the Arab Spring – the people of Libya are finally reaping the benefits of their painful revolution. For the first time in five decades, democratic elections were held in Libya on July 7th. We spoke with Mohamed Wefati about the election process, women in politics and Libya’s economic future. Wefati is a consultant with the World Bank and the African Development Bank, focusing on developing public policy on decentralization, private sector development, and economic governance in Libya. He also is co-founder of the Libya Development Policy Center, a Libyan think tank. During the revolution, Wefati also worked at the office of the Chairman of the Executive Committee (interim Prime Minster), Libyan National Transitional Council.

In a country that hasn’t held elections in more than a generation, the atmosphere on Saturday must have been exceptional. Could you please describe the feeling as people cast their votes – especially considering that many voters had never had such an experience.

The scene in Tripoli and other major metropolitan cities was euphoric. It was clear that the initial response to the elections was positive both from the perspective of the people participating in the elections and the observers monitoring them (domestic and foreign). Approximately 60% of eligible voters came forward to participate – Libyans have been keen to show that their nascent process towards state building is on the right track, at least from the political participation perspective. There were signs of jubilation and unity amongst Libyans from all walks on the day of the elections and the atmosphere of celebration was reminiscent of other key milestone days in the country’s transition. Somehow, however, there was also a bit of relief afterwards as some indicators leading up to the elections were worrisome in terms of instability in the East of the country, but the response on election day was by and large comforting – even in Benghazi there were not a lot of incidents reported. Out of 1,554 polling stations all over Libya, only 101 (6%) were not able to fully operate, so in retrospect these elections from an organizational perspective were a “major success” to quote the head of the UN Support Mission in Libya.

Political participation is new to Libya as political parties were banned even before Gheddafi took power in 1969. How would you describe the new political parties, and candidates, in terms of organization, professionalism and ability, not only to move voters, but to promote democracy?

These elections were rushed through a mirage of ambiguity, there were several delays in issuing the electoral law, and the political parties law was very recently ratified. In fact, most political parities were formed just one or two months before the elections, so there was not sufficient time for party platforms to develop or for coherent visions or political programs to emerge. These elections were mostly driven by allegiances that were either tribal, regional, ideological, or social. Therefore, trust in the backgrounds of the individuals coming forward was a key factor for the electorate, rather than the rhetoric or program of the respective candidates or parities. The election commission chose to give parities and candidates a very limited period to conduct their campaigning. Most campaigns were managed over a two-week process. Most of the debate leading up to the election was on slogans and ideological positions rather than on programs. It has been noted that the level of campaigning was limited, in that there weren’t many rallies, speeches or local debates. By and large, voting took place as a series of local elections rather than a full-fledged national election.

However in the context of the pressures that are associated with a post-conflict era, these elections can be considered a strong and positive stepping stone in Libya’s transition. Tn any case, almost everything will depend on the acceptance of the election outcome – as events in Egypt have suggested there can be major fall back on election results even months after the vote. A key test will be to see if the political parities and movements that have forged alliances can maintain their cohesiveness in a post-election period.

Islamic rhetoric was clearly central in all campaigns, even by more liberal party figures. Could you explain why political language focused on religion, culture and traditions is important to Libyan voters?

The rise of political Islam has been well noted in all of the Arab Spring countries. In fact, this rise has been happening over the past decade – some would say due to the increasing influence of the AKP in Turkey. One characteristic of this phenomenon is the focus on preaching to people’s hearts, rather than to their minds. In times of turbulence and tectonic change, the so-called “Arab street” seems to be in need of comfort, of knowing that these ordeals are divinely ordained – thus it is important to get the blessing of religious leaders to ensure that there is a shared moral compass.

The Libyan society is no different from that of Egypt or Tunisia in this sense. However certain specific factors could explain a more deeply religious rhetoric in Libya. Firstly Libya’s almost uniform Muslim society is different from the mosaic of religious strata in other countries in the region: although there is some ethnic diversity, the consensus is that Malaki Sunni Islam with a strong element of Sufisim has been the dominant religious ideology for the past couple of centuries. This fundamentally conservative and religious society thus has more of a tendency to yearn for religious rhetoric in these times of change.

Secondly, the lack of real and informative political discourse over the past few decades has yielded a middle class that is increasingly non-compromising and effectively partisan in its approach to political dialogue. This suggests that Libya’s intellectual class leans toward more technocratic political dialogue, but as a consequence the majority of the people have further turned to religious leaders who have been more than willing to fill this void with assertiveness.

Thirdly, Libya’s economic development model is built on a very aggressive form of “rentier” structure combined with a socialist ideology of equality that is contrasting with that of societies with more distinct social classes such as those of Egypt and Tunisia. Thus Libya’s economic model, which is totally dependent on inherited prosperity, has paved the way for a more ideological approach to governance and policy making. In other words, political accountability is limited due to the excess wealth, and thus ideological rhetoric (inducing religious ideology) has more fertile ground.

Also, the more economic mismanagement exists, the more inequality will increase, and the more radical rhetoric will become along tribal, religious and regional lines, Libya’s economic governance problems are well noted and resolving these issues will be key to mitigating the risk of increasing extreme right-wing politics.

On balance, is the religious issue in Libya more acute than in most of its neighboring countries?

The aggressiveness of the religious movements in Libya probably outweighs what is present in both Tunisia and Egypt. This was to be excepted, but what will be a key test is the production of a development model for Libya – some of the core public policy issues facing Libya have yet to be debated by these movements, as such the political manifestos are mostly vague.

What is interesting in Libya is the insistence of some religious leaders to over simplify the problems facing society and to focus the political narrative on issues that have to do with the legislative foundation for future laws (e.g. insisting that the constitution reflect that Islam is the only source of legislation). They do this without clarifying the institutional ramifications of such broad slogans and the impact on the division of the powers of the state. In other words at the core of the religious debate, there is an underlining power struggle for civil leadership – the outcome of this struggle will probably be influenced by regional factors as much as domestic ones.

Libya is also seeing women enter into politics. This has happened in other countries after the Arab Spring. Could you describe the importance of this particularly in regards to Libya’s case?

The most impressive aspect of Libya’s transition is the effectiveness of women in leading the political process. This was evident not just in the post-conflict era, but even more so during the conflict. It is interesting to note that Libyan women of all ages have managed to provide an example of leadership that was probably totally unexpected from such a conservative society. There have been many examples that manifest this leadership. In terms of social movements, some of the most effective NGOs are led by women, whether they are fighting for human rights or raising awareness on social problems. In terms of local governments, there have been leadership examples as well. Benghazi has recently celebrated the success of its local council’s (municipal) elections, and the person with the most votes was a woman.

At the central government level there probably is more room for improvement. Only two cabinet ministers currently are women and there seems to still be some tendencies to doubt the effectiveness of female political leaders in senior influential seats of power.

The different political parities in the elections have maintained a strong female influence. There have also been many female individual candidates who have presented themselves. These are all positive signs that will need to be built upon for the future political institutional development of the country.

There are of course some concerns over extremism, for instance with some photos of female political candidates being trashed or disfigured, but these have remained isolated incidents. The willingness of women to participate in politics currently has not been compromised by such factors.

How mature is the debate on the country’s economic future? How has this been reflected in the electoral campaign and how can the emerging political balance affect future choices?

There has been very limited debate on the economic future of Libya. The main strategy in economic policy making has been to maximize recurrent expenditure through cash handouts, increasing public payroll budget, maximizing subsidies. All of these policies are comforted by the fact that Libya’s oil production levels have returned to pre-conflict numbers. This increased rent-seeking culture has been enforced by a nascent political leadership that is mostly unaccountable in the medium to long term, and thus has sought to adopt a populist rhetoric that is designed to appease the political pressures coming from different groups that are yearning for the chance to seize the country’s inherited wealth.

So far,the economic focus has been on ideological and sometimes religious issues (such as the prohibition of usury in compliance with Islamic law), the fundamental economic woes that Libya’s economy suffers from are complicated, and the require fundamental shifts in terms of the policy making that is adopted in regards to issues such as public financial management, fiscal suitability, oil revenue management etc.

Currently, unfortunately, the debate has not taken its course on such issues.

Libya has been a relatively rich country for many years (especially in comparative regional terms), but has suffered from a lack of diversification: is this the key to becoming a more wealthy economy and possibly a more cohesive society as well? There is an ongoing discussion in other Arab countries on an “inclusive” growth model that could also apply to Libya.

Libya’s numbers are healthy from a fiscal balance perspective. Since 2004, the country current account surplus has averaged at more than 25% of GDP. By 2010, it had accumulated foreign asset reserves in excess of $140 billion. This rapid increase in wealth has yielded many expectations and the government launched a large capital expenditure program in 2008 that included a portfolio of over $130 billion to be spent over a five-year period.

However Libya had structural problems in its economy, increased corruption, lack of governance, and increased dependence on oil, according to a 2006 World Bank report, the country is one of the least diversified oil economies in the world. Libya also has a large public sector – approximately 80% of its work force is estimated to work in the public sector (both government or state-owned enterprises).

Libya thus faces fundamental economic challenges. Economic diversification requires infrastructure and capital investment. Due to reliance on oil, Libya’s capital expenditure policies were pegged to oil price fluctuations, so for over 25 years there was no significant capital investment programs.

A key concern from the current economic policy climate, is the inflation of recurrent expenditure which is increasing the contingent liability on the Libyan state and decreasing the availability of resources for capital investment – thus decreasing the likelihood of the country achieving economic diversification over the next decade(s).

Libya’s new economic vision will need to be shaped in a regional context, as such the horizontal integration with regional Arab countries will be key to fostering an economic model that mitigates against the risks of relying on inherited prosperity. This fundamental challenge will face the incumbent leaders in the post-election process.