By Amr Ben Halim.
Tripoli, 19 July 2013:
“We feel happy from the bottom of our hearts because we participated in drafting our . . .[restrict]constitution. I hope that what we wrote and decided upon will be included in the constitution.” Zahra from Murzuk
“We want equality between citizens whether they were with or against the revolution. We want a fair and legal judicial process. We want one army to be effective and include all militias.” Fatima from Tripoli
“Oil revenues should be split so that the area were it is discovered gets priority in infrastructure spending.” Anwar from Ajdabia
Between January and April 2013, the Forum for Democratic Libya (FDL), with support from the UNDP, carried out a series of dialogues is some 15 towns across Libya. The objective was to find out what Libyans want and expect from their constitution.
This was a huge undertaking carried out by trained Libyan facilitators and international experts over a three-month period with over 1,500 Libyans participating. The title of the project, Nibi Fi Distoori, reflects the mission of this work – “What I want in my constitution”.
FDL is an independent Libyan civil society organisation registered in Benghazi in June 2011 as a direct result of the revolution devoted to advocating a culture of democracy in Libya.
It has been working in most towns, running experiential workshops on citizenship and the democratic process – and more recently dialogues on the constitution.
The need for a thorough and unrushed constitutional dialogue between Libyans is even more apparent now after the recent events in Egypt where large segments of the population felt they were being marginalised and had no voice in the political changes hastily arranged by the political leadership. Rushed elections and non-consensual constitution drafting are sure to lead to a failed democratic process with resultant civil unrest and lawlessness.
The premise of the Nibi Fi Distoori project is that the constitution is a social contract that will determine the shape of Libya’s governing institutions, the nature of citizen-state relations and indeed citizen-citizen relations.
Decision-makers need to be fully aware of citizens’ priorities, hopes and expectations. A consultative process that ensures broad participation by all sectors of society in an open and transparent way – allowing time for ideas to develop and be debated – will help give legitimacy and credibility to such a social contract.
Conversations between Libyans on topics such as forms of government, basic freedoms, women’s rights, minority rights, the distribution of natural resources, justice and reconciliation, citizenship and immigration, empowers and revives citizens’ ability to connect to one another and partake in meaningful deliberations that will define the future of the Libyan nation.
The more meaningful the dialogue and the more citizens participate, the more legitimacy and credibility the social contract has — and the more likely we, as Libyans, are to ensure a successful democratic transition.
The Nibi Fi Distoori project invited local leaders, civil society activists, youth, tribal elders (crucial in the smaller more remote towns) and other citizens to join in an open facilitated discussion. The content produced was entirely the result of participants’ views and of conversations they had with one another. The process encouraged free and open expression of hopes, fears and expectations and also allowed for debate on the thorny issues of transitional justice, general freedoms, natural resources management, citizenship and immigration.
There were some heated debates, especially in Bani Walid and Sirte – areas that have historically benefited from the previous regime – about the role of former regime supporters and sympathisers in the new Libya. Some participants vocally expressed support for the former regime and had nothing but utter disdain for the revolution and its ideals.
As Zainab from Sirte passionately argued: “How can I support the revolution when my father is in jail in Misrata, my brother killed during the war and I have no source of income?”
Questions like this are not easily answered but go to the very heart of the transitional justice and reconciliation process.
Facilitators ensured that they provided the opportunity for these supporters to express their views. Opponents listened impatiently and angrily, occasionally trying to interrupt.
Nevertheless, most participated initially rather reluctantly while others left after expressing their views.
The transformation in attitude after a few hours of open conversations around round tables with fellow citizens expressing and debating between themselves and then moving on and presenting to the entire room their conclusions was palpable and a joy to observe. Natural leaders amongst the various groups often had a dominating role especially in the smaller towns where tribal elders sitting around tables quickly led the discussions. Younger participants, shy at the start, slowly developed confidence and trust and by the end of the day were actively engaging in debate, often asking to continue the discussions later in the evening over a traditional Libyan dinner with our facilitators.
We rarely went to sleep before midnight!
Altering views was not the intention but rather that people agreed to enter into a conversation on key issues in an open and safe environment for the first time without fear of repercussions. Citizens normally excluded from decision-making felt that the results of their conversations would be heard and acted on by those in authority.
As Mohamed from Bani Walid commented at the end of one of our sessions, “we need the help of the UNDP and Libyan civil society organisations to increase our awareness. The Libyan people lack awareness. What you have done in these last two days is made us more aware”.
Participants had the opportunity to express their understanding of these freedoms and why they were important to them. Discussions often focused on specific freedoms and how these would ensure political and social stability and prevent a return to dictatorship. Often quoted was the idea that creating an awareness of the culture of democracy among the younger generation would be an obstacle to anyone thinking of taking power undemocratically.
There did not appear to be any consensus on the definition of ‘freedom’. All could agree on the basic freedoms of speech, peaceful protest, political parties, movement and the like but definitions of freedoms were circumscribed “so long as they do not contradict our traditions and culture” or “so long as they are within the tenets of our religion” or “so long as this is in line with the law”.
There was a clear propensity to hold simultaneous ideas that are not easily reconcilable. This was clear from most of our discussions.
In addition, the confusion between democracy and freedoms has yet to be addressed and debated. While many understand the need for free and fair elections, free media and freedom of expression, the needs for a pervasive culture of democracy where personal freedoms are enshrined and protected have yet to be part of the debate. For example the concept of majority-elected rulers and officials recognising and respecting the rights and freedoms of minorities or losers in elections is not clear. The role of the legal system in protecting individuals’ rights and freedoms needs further discussion and clarity.
The following observations were made by the team of facilitators:
- There is still some confusion around the issues of individual freedoms and the limits imposed by social traditions on the one hand and religion on the other. Are all freedoms compatible with sharia?
- The definition and application of freedom is still unclear between various communities.
- Also, there is a lack of clarity as to the role of women and minorities and how their rights would be protected in future public life.
So where do we go from here?
Libyans have a unique opportunity to forge a truly consensual social contract. Decision-makers should not ignore the desire and enthusiasm expressed by citizens across the country to have their voices heard. Lessons from recent event in Egypt offer a reality check as to the inherent pitfalls of a dominant political group controlling this process.
The drafting process needs to take time. Continuous conversations need to be held. Ideas and concepts should be debated openly across all media channels and public forums. Clarity in regard to some of these thorny issues will only appear after sufficient time and debate has been allowed.
No one political group or ideology can hold sway. All voices have to be part of this dialogue with equal influence.
The authorities should encourage efforts by both civil society organisations involved in matters relating to the constitution and civic education to form a coordinating group to conduct large public education campaigns. They need to advocate from a common platform.
Promoting a manifesto of citizen’s rights and legislating for inclusiveness, transparency and participation in the drafting process are sure ways to set Libya on the road to a successful and lasting constitution which citizens will look to with pride and defend with vigour.
As far as the Nibi Fi Distoori project is concerned results of this phase of the work will be presented across Libyan media channels during this month.
A second phase is being planned for later this year to cover those towns not visited to ensure the widest possible participatory process.
Eventually the results and final report will be made available to the public and the yet-to-be-formed Constitutional Commission, in addition to the GNC and the political leadership.