“We don’t need democracy. We need security!” This desperate cry now characterises the bleak sentiment shared by many Libyans six years after the overthrow of the brutal Qaddafi regime.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography The Return, Libyan novelist Hisham Matar recalls euphoric optimism across Libya in the months following Libya’s 2011 revolution: “We didn’t know it then, but this was a precious window when justice, democracy and the rule of law were in reach. Soon, in the absence of a strong army and police force, armed groups would rule the day, seeking only to advance their power” (pp. 122-123).
During that “precious window” of time, in 2012, Libya’s interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC) passed a new local administration law (Law 59) in response to the popular demand for decentralised public administration and better provision of services.
This law established approximately one hundred elected Municipal Councils (MCs). Today, with the country politically divided three ways between an expired parliament, an army general seeking military dictatorship and a hastily cobbled-together United Nations-sponsored “Unity Government”, municipal councils serving their local communities remain Libya’s only institutions with some semblance of political legitimacy.
However, many Libyans and members of the international community fear this legitimacy may be in jeopardy amidst the post-revolution instability. In August 2016, the Libyan National Army (LNA) replaced democratically-elected municipal councils with military commanders in several eastern towns and cities, most notably in Benghazi, Ajdabiya, Marj and Kufra, an unprecedented move in post-Qaddafi Libya.
Since the elected MCs have largely failed to respond to citizens’ basic needs, most residents welcomed these replacements as guarantors of a more responsive and secure system of governance. “The new mayor is doing great work so far,” says Ahmed, a citizen of Benghazi.
One such assigned mayor, Colonel Ahmed Al-Araibi, was installed on 11 August last year, when Benghazi’s elected mayor and councilors were sacked by the LNA. Al-Araibi stated that he viewed his role as a temporary stabilising one.
“My task is the rebuilding of the city, the reopening of the university, schools and public services. It will take two or three years. Afterwards I will leave.” Despite this attempt to reassure the public, his appointment amounted to a dismissal of the rule of law and stoked fears of a permanent military takeover. However, security was and continues to be the number one concern among Benghazi’s citizens.
Al-Araibi’s background as the head of the Intelligence Office in Benghazi quickly helped establish effective cooperation with security forces, earning him some popular support. In one instance, he managed to re-open streets that had been previously closed by army brigades due to security concerns.
Beyond Benghazi, tribal elders in Tobruk called upon the Libyan National Army (LNA) to appoint a military commander to their city as well. The general consensus amongst the elders suggested that while the work done by the municipal council is appreciated, the current situation requires a military commander who can ensure residents’ safety.
It is not difficult to see the popular appeal of having military commanders run municipal councils. In a region where military dictatorship has been the decades-long norm, democratic decision-making has proven to be cumbersome and, at times, wholly inefficient.
With the country torn between competing governments and roving, lawless militias, having a single person make tough calls with quick, tangible results is more practical than having seven or nine council members vote on each and every decision, as per law 59. Besides Tobruk, several other towns outside of Benghazi seemed inclined to follow suit.
Although Al-Airabi was replaced in April of 2017, the spectre of militarised municipal councils looms large for Libya’s democratic reformers. This alarming popular trend towards military rule in place of democratic representation raises significant questions about the sustainability, durability and legitimacy of the constitutionally-mandated municipal governance system. But the international community seems to be too focused on the spectre of military rule rather than the root causes of its emergence.
The fact is that municipal councils in Libya are inherently flawed. Since their inception, they have been woefully underfunded due to a nationwide systemic failure in the provision of basic services. Such challenges are exacerbated by an overall deterioration of infrastructure and national security.
While pressing, the authors do not focus on these issues in this publication. Rather, we identify two fundamental areas of weaknesses that council members could address immediately to improve their responsiveness to citizens’ needs: 1. lack of communication, and 2. the lack of collaboration with the public. These two elements comprise the foundation of effective local governance.
The most overt deficiency of municipal councils is the limited communication between councillors and the citizens they are tasked with representing. This communication gap was recently captured in the International Republican Institute’s nationwide poll on the MCs’ legitimacy and awareness of Libya’s municipal councils.
Although the survey reported “high confidence in the legitimacy of local councils”, the report found a glaring lack of outreach on behalf of the local governing bodies, with 69 percent of respondents knowing “not very much” or “nothing at all” about their councils. Only half of respondents reported hearing from their MC at least once in every six months, and only 22 percent of Libyans had heard of public meetings organised by their MCs. Of that 22 percent, only one in five had participated.
The majority of MCs rely on walk-ins and online forums as the two primary sources of communication with the public. When asked how he communicated with his constituents, one mayor answered: “Our doors are always open”.
Basically, council members wait to be informed of important issues by the responsible citizen who takes the time and trouble to seek their representatives and raise them.
This passive, reactionary approach is an unreliable barometer of the state of the municipality as not all citizens with take the initiative to express their feelings and concerns.
Municipal councils need to engage their constituents by creating clear, institutionalised channels of communication to make themselves more easily accessible to their constituents. Moreover, council members should also establish a visible presence in the community, by attending public events to listen to and speak with the people. Without a more proactive approach and more formal protocols, MCs will continue to be seen as isolated, useless government bodies that are representative in name only.
On the digital front, the internet provides a great opportunity for information gathering and constructive two-way communication. However, most municipal council websites fall short in terms of their quality and achieving their potential as viable outreach tools. Take Sabratha’s website as an example. Like most MC sites, it opens to a beautifully edited, colorful homepage with a host of broken links and virtually empty comment sections. On the comment page, Sabratha has received only two complaints since its inception over two years ago.
It seems councils lack internal IT capabilities to create and maintain a more robust, functional internet presence. Furthermore, many of the citizens they wish to reach are not even aware these websites exist. An investment in the overhaul of the MCs’ websites and comprehensive training of their IT departments would go a long way in helping them transform their websites into powerful tools to reach their constituents.
Furthermore, the local administration legislation (Law 59/2012) calls for the appointment of neighborhood coordinators, Mukhtar Mahala (MM) in Arabic. Among other tasks, the MM is to be an intermediary between constituents and their local municipal council (Article 40, Law 59). Although the advantages of such an intermediary are obvious as yet another means of effective communication with the public, to date, few municipalities have effectively used or even appointed MMs.
Considering the Municipal Councils’ inability to provide adequate services to the public on their own, a constructive collaborative relationship with community actors is necessary.
Another challenge the MCs need to address is better cooperation with local civil society organisations (CSOs).
To capitalise on the currently undervalued role that an active civic sector can play in Libya’s transition and reconstruction, MCs must develop meaningful relationships with local non-profit groups. Through their active engagement, these organisations have their finger on the pulse of the society. They can provide valuable insights into local challenges their elected officials may fail to recognise and offer viable solutions.
They can serve as an effective tool for the local leadership to improve their responsiveness to concerned citizens. In addition to cutting costs for the already under-funded councils, effective collaboration with CSOs encourages two vital outcomes. First, collaboration allows the MCs to outsource some of their tasks to specialised organisations equipped with handling them. Second, it empowers citizens and instills in them a sense of responsibility for the well-being of their communities instead of solely relying on the state. This type of active civil engagement is critical to Libya’s successful democratic transition.
To establish working relationships with CSOs, municipal councils could assign one individual, preferably an elected council member, to lead civil society outreach efforts and develop joint community initiatives. They could organise regular meetings with CSOs to jointly identify city-level issues and encourage them to develop sustainable solutions.
Such meetings would also allow MC and CSO members to share various institutional and legal burdens. For instance, if a certain MC has several public-sector schools that need to be cleaned but lacks the capacity to do so, it can request CSOs in the area to fulfill this need through their network of volunteers. CSOs may be better able to enlist volunteers and collect donations to clean the schools. Many CSOs have already implemented this strategy in cities such as Ajdabiya, Sirte and Benghazi during the revolution.
Moreover, many international aid organisations and donors who work in Libya now focus on local governance and actively fund local CSO activities. As a precondition, they often require project implementation to be done in partnership with municipal councils. MCs can take advantage of this on two fronts. First, they can capitalise on the access of CSOs to international organisations and funding sources. Second, they can encourage international NGOs to issue calls for proposals that tackle key local issues. Local CSOs can apply for these grants and implement them.
Council members’ lack of experience in working with the civic sector and organising joint initiatives will certainly pose operational challenges. It is critical for them to maintain a high level of transparency to avoid increasing tensions among different community groups. For international aid organisations working in the country, the focus should be on building the capacity of municipal councils and providing them with the necessary skills to foster collaboration with CSOs and actively respond to citizens’ needs.
The crisis that has unfolded in Libya in the post-revolution period has led to a nationwide breakdown in security and the provision of basic services to the population. The failure of stabilising Libya from the top-down has created serious challenges to the legitimacy of its governing bodies at the national level. By the same token, this has created an opportunity for local governments to step up and fill the leadership gap and prevent further destabilisation and militarisation.
MCs offer a legitimate means to confront these adverse trends and serve as vehicles of stability at a very grassroots level. However, they face their own set of challenges that must be addressed or else they also stand to become victims of the chaos and militarisation plaguing the country.
Several systemic challenges are beyond the councils’ control at present, such as infrastructure, domestic security, funding and provision of services. Nonetheless, if council members begin by opening facilitative two-way communication channels and exploring effective ways to collaborate with local actors, municipal councils could become one of the guarantors of Libya’s imperiled democratic transition.
This article is a summary of research previously presented at the 2016 Libya Policy Forum III: Challenges and Opportunities. Boston, MA.
Mohamed Elmagbri is a graduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and a coordinating member of the Libya Policy Forum. He researches Libyan Local Governance.
Josiah Cohen is a writer, researcher, and editor based in Denver, CO. He focuses on Middle East policy and history.