Women are challenging largely male political class as fears grow ‘dinosaurs’ of Libyan politics will try to cling on to power.
Libyan civil activists led by an increasingly assertive group of women are demanding their country’s largely male political class stick to their commitment to hold parliamentary and presidential elections on 24 December, the 70th anniversary of Libya’s independence.
The interim government of Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, which was made possible by a ceasefire sealed in October, was sworn in on 15 March.
The primary task of the government is, in theory, to prepare the country for the next elections, but some in the political elite seem to be stalling the process, and ministers, none of whom would be allowed to stand in December, are announcing populist policies in a sign that they are trying to embed themselves.
Zahra’ Langhi, a leading member of the 75-member Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), the UN body formed to choose the interim government, said: “There are political factions in Libya – an elite – that make money out of the status quo, staying in power and so do not want elections. It’s another Lebanon. They are the people the previous UN special envoy Stephanie Williams called ‘the political dinosaurs’. The whole idea is we must have a political reset in Libya so we have to have new elected legitimate institutions.”
Langhi, an expert on gender, conflict resolution and peace-building, is part of a women’s bloc in the LPDF, which is due to meet in Tunis this week to press home its demand for elections.
The female activists, many of whom are lawyers or civil society campaigners, are a newly empowered element challenging the previously male-dominated Libyan politics. They are determined to ensure the old political class, which has often seen public office as a means of plundering Libya’s wealth, is not able to manoeuvre to stay in power.
Only 12% of Libya’s councillors are women, and many women in the past who have put themselves forward have been abducted or assassinated.
In a sign that they are still at risk Haneen al-Abdali, the daughter of the human rights lawyer Hanan al-Barassi, who was murdered last November, was “arrested” by militia in Benghazi in March. She was seized hours after going on Facebook to name her mother’s alleged killers – identifying close associates of eastern military strongman Khalifa Haftar.
In an effort to break the cycle by which women are excluded, Williams ensured as many as 20 of the 75 places on the LPDF were reserved for women.
“It so happened the lawyers in the room were women,” Williams said. In the end 17 attended, often operating as a cohesive bloc and insisting that a minimum of 30% of the top posts in the new interim executive authority were reserved for women.
They did not achieve all that they asked, since only five of the 33-strong cabinet are women. But one is the country’s female foreign minister, Najla al-Manqoush, and another the justice minister. In one of her first steps Manqoush used a central bank audit to reduce the number of embassies abroad from 150 to 70, part of a move to cut the bloated public sector payroll.
The LPDF, and the women, are now under pressure to fade away, and have had to fight tooth and nail with the new UN special envoy, Ján Kubiš, to continue to be recognised. It was only the day after one of the LPDF members, Elham Saudi, secured enough LPDF signatories to hold a meeting without the UN’s permission that he agreed to meet them on 26 March, belatedly lavishing praise on them, and assuring them of their relevance.
Langhi said calls by some members of the interim government for a summer referendum on a new constitution are part of a delaying tactic and that the LPDF must “remain as the guarantors and monitors of the roadmap towards elections, meeting every month to ensure there is no backsliding”.
Williams has also refused to let her legacy, including the role of women, be eroded by her departure, and some have even suggested Joe Biden should appoint her the US special envoy for Libya.
Speaking to the BBC, Williams said: “Here is the message the political class needs to hear: the overwhelming desire of a large majority of the Libyan population – you see poll numbers from 75% to 87% – want national elections to take place on 24 December.”
“The existing institutions, the High State Council has been in office since 2012, the House of Representatives since 2015. Their natural expiry date has passed. They should listen to their people. They can set the framework for these elections. The clock is ticking.,” she added.
Kubiš, has only been in the job for six weeks and is feeling his way through the labyrinth of Libyan politics. Some fear his more conventional style will mean the recent momentum may dissipate.
When he met the LPDF he admitted he doubted whether the House of Representatives would meet the deadline of July to set up a constitutional framework for the elections.
Kubiš urged the LPDF’s legal committee to conclude its drafting of a constitutional base for the elections that included a clear separation of powers between the next parliament and the executive.
“This would send a strong signal to those who not only hesitate with elections but create problems and impediments to stall the process,” he said.