By Yusra Tekbali.
Tripoli, 23 July:
By almost any measure – and particularly given the circumstances – Libya’s historic 7 July elections were . . .[restrict]a success.
According to both national and international observers alike, the elections were free, fair and surprisingly well organised. Moreover, in spite of a few disruptions in the east from federalist protesters, the elections passed off peacefully, with the vast majority of voters casting their ballots in an environment of security, free from coercion or intimidation.
But perhaps most importantly, these elections gave Libyans the chance to put democracy into practice; to make their voices heard within the rule of law through the ballot box, as opposed to outside of it through the barrel of a gun. Critically, this was an experience that was shared in by both civilians and militia alike.
Nobody is under any illusions that this experience will prove sufficient to deal with the militia problem, arguably the most serious of all Libya’s post-election challenges. With extrajudicial killings, torture and kidnappings an all-too common occurance, the same men hitherto described as the “guardians of the revolution” have now become the greatest obstacle to its success.
Encouragingly, and contrary to popular assumption outside of Libya, most militiamen do want to lay down their arms, circumstances permitting. According to a recent study of more than 200,000 militia by the Warriors AffaIrs commission, 70 per cent favour a return to civilian life, with the remaining 30 per cent wanting to join either the army or the police.
The challenge, therefore, is not confronting the militia head-on, but allowing the conditions to emerge that will turn this aspiration into practice. As Younis Adinaly, a revolutionary fighter from Benghazi, said recently: “Now there is no security. When we have law (a constitution) we will surrender our guns. Before that it is impossible.”
The solution to this problem is two-fold. Persuading militiamen that democracy and the rule of law can provide security and stability more effectively than they can is the first step. Persuading them that alternative sources of employment will be available to them if they do lay down their arms is the second.
One of the most fascinating examples of this ideal being turned into practice has been provided by Surur Ben Musa, a Benghazi businessman who founded the Abshar Foundation. Ben Musa’s idea was to turn the guardians of the revolution into the guardian’s of Libya’s democratic transition – literally – by turnig revolutionaries into election monitors and trainers.
“My thinking was simple”, says Ben Musa. “I wanted not only to get former fighters involved in other activities, but also to give them some practical experience of democracy in practice.”
The foundation, which had the approval and support of the Warriors Affairs commission, took in more than 200 revolutionaries across five Libyan cities, Benghazi, Misrata, Sabha, Tripoli and Zawiya. It also had the support of Eris, a UK-based NGO specialising in election observation and training.
“Phase one was the screening and evaluation process”, says Ben Musa. “The fighters were screened for two things: whether or not they were Qaddafi loyalists and whether or not they had fought on the front line. We also conducted psychological evaluations to ensure they were suitable”.
Once selected, the recruits undertook a three-day training programme, from 29-31 June, in Jam’iyet Da’wa on Tripoli’s Algeria Square. There was also a post-election evaluation on 15 July to assess how it all went.
Given the proximity of the elections, one of the biggest challenges turned out to be getting all the trainees accredited by the High National Election Commission (HNEC) before polling day. “It wasn’t ideal, but it worked out”, says Ben Musa. “The accreditation deadline was 30 June, and getting everyone accredited from different cities around Libya in such a short period was a little difficult”.
The training programme itself focused on education about the election law – its components and implementation – as well as finance and the logistical aspect of how to organise a training centre. This included renting a building, making sure it was well-equipped with voting booths, ink, markers, and electoral handbooks. The observers were also intructed on how to act in case of a violent outburst or emergency. They were given safety precautions and two hotlines to call for security. They were ordered to stay out of any physical conflict and instead write down whatever they observed.
For the militiamen involved, the experience has had a tranformative effect. “I chose to get involved for the betterment of my country”, says Amir Al-Furjani, a former revolutionary who fought in Bani Walid. “Everyone I know was excited about the elections, and this was a chance to make a real difference. We don’t want bloodshed anymore.”
Al-Furjani says the training helped him to identify when irregularities took place. “The election process had some flaws. I witnessed one observer in Zawiya influencing voters when they came into vote. As instructed, I noted this down and subsequently reported it.”
Saif Alkomaitry, who was monitoring the elections in Sabha, where he fought during the revolution, says that the programme has helped to turn his life around. “I was unemployed before registering to do this, and I spent most of my time sleeping. By the end of the programme, I was training the other guys in my district. I feel that this is the right thing to do.”
Another former militiamen, Mohammed Fkeni, says the training had him and his colleagues fully prepared for election day. “Everyone was ready for the elections. There was no fear of violence; it was the easiest election ever!”. Fkeni, who was based on Rijban on 7 July, said he witnessed crowds helping each other to polling stations and that the atmosphere was happy and optimistic. “I felt like I was really working for my country; this is something I would definitely like to continue”.
Fortunately for Fkeni, these elections are by no means the end of the road for the Abshar Foundation. “The next step is constitution observation training and training in business management”, says Ben Musa. “We’re only just getting started”.
Ben Musa’s next project will target new cities, selecting revolutionaries from Tobruk, Zwara, Derna, Beida, Kufra, and the Nafusa mountains. The small business management programme will be capped at 10 former fighters for the time being. The constitution training will include the same team as the election training plus another 100 from new cities, for a total of 300 former fighters.
What is most encouraging about the Abshar Foundation is not just that there are men such as Ben Musa who are willing to establish such initiatives, but that there are so many former revolutionaries willing to get involved. The lesson here is that if the opportunities are provided then revolutionaries are ready to take them.
Those in government and the private sector daunted by the scale of the challenge should take note, and take heart. [/restrict]