This paper focuses on the Libyan experience with social networking platforms in actualising democratic change in the uprising of 17 February 2011.
Manifestations of democracy in post-revolution Libya
The leadership of the Libyan revolution embodied in the National Transitional Council (NTC) committed itself through the Constitutional Declaration adapted on 3 August 2011 — two months before the official collapse of Ghaddafi regime — to building a democratic, multi-party state based on respect for fundamental human rights and freedom.
It also recognised the right to assembly and free speech as well as the importance of free media. The practical results of the Libyan revolution include:
1. For the first time in five decades, Libyans participated in free elections to elect 200 men and women for the National Conference, the body responsible for forming a government and preparing a permanent constitution for the country.
According to the High National Election Committee, 2.7 million Libyans — out of 3 million eligible Libyan voters — registered to elect 200 representatives from the 2,639 candidates.
In the first national elections held in July 2012, 1.7 million people cast a vote. Among the representatives elected were 32 women, accounting for 17% of the total seats.
2. From being a country with a state-controlled media in which government would censor what goes public, Libya is experiencing a surge in the freedom of press, only a year after the revolution started. ‘Hundreds of newspapers, countless websites, television and radio stations have sprung up from nothing.’
The BBC reported that ‘journalists are experiencing unprecedented free conditions of working, with no clear red lines for reporting.’ One of the unique phenomena brought by democratic change in Libya is that even the television station founded by the new government can criticise the performance of the government and host opposition leaders on weekly political shows.
3. Another aspect of democratic change in Libya is the mushrooming of civil society organisations. Libya used to have highly restrictive legislation for civil society. The process for registering a civil society organisation could take up to two years and there was no guarantee that registration would be granted. In less than one year after the revolution, some 861 organisations have been registered in Tripoli and Benghazi alone.
Nonetheless, the democratisation of Libya is by no means a completed task. Those who started up as ‘Facebook revolutionaries’ had to carry weapons to defend themselves at some point during the revolution.
After the Ghaddafi regime collapsed, they still carry their weapons and represent one of the most acute obstacles for the democratisation of Libya. At this point in time, they are weakening the government’s authority and degrading the achievements of the revolution as they attract the criticism of human rights organisations for human rights abuses against the supporters of the deposed regime.
However, such an obstacle is by no means insurmountable because the government has introduced programs to integrate the rebels into the Ministries of Defence and the Interior and to provide external training for them.
After the revolution, and during the process of state formation which is now taking place in Libya, social networking platforms are expected to play an essential role in the process of democratisation of the country.
The NTC and several Libyan Ministries have official pages on Facebook which they use to post decisions, declarations and responses to issues of public concern. High-ranking Libyan officials also have personal pages on Facebook and Twitter, which enable them to interact with citizens on public policy issues.
he adaptation of the social networking platforms by government ministries and agencies in Libya is expected to grow substantially. The interactive nature of these platforms will allow wider public engagement in the process of policy-making, as well as in enhancing the transparency and accountability of public sector institutions — including the government and its different branches.
The flourishing of civil society organisations that Libya is witnessing now will make such engagement even more efficient.
Ways in which social media is expected to enhance democracy in post-revolution Libya include:
• Improving government performance: Social networking platforms allow citizens to report to government which would allow these bodies to respond and adapt such programs to the reality and needs of the society in a prompt and effective manner. Additionally, the public reporting function of these platforms will enhance the accountability of the government officials as they will feel that they are closely monitored by citizens.
• Enhancing transparency in the allocation of financial resources: Government bodies, for instance, could easily pos officials to allow people to be informed, as well as to express their opinions. The possibility of creating interactive dialogue within social networking platforms, between governmental bodies and citizens, could make the allocation of the state budget more responsive to the priorities of Libyan citizens.
Despite the richness in natural resources which Libya enjoys, the country suffers from a severe lack of development. The deficiencies in public facilities in terms of roads, hospitals, schools, public parks and so on are readily apparent on the streets of the national capital, Tripoli, and even more so in other Libyan cities.
The main cause of these woes is the authoritarianism of the previous regime, in which corruption and the suppression of political rights were the dominant features that characterised its operation over a period of 41 years.
The process of development requires a creative population, the existence of which is dependent on the availability of freedom, justice and democracy. These three pillars explain, in most cases, why certain nations are more developed than others.
Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998, asserts that democracy ‘is an essential component of the process of development’ ; it gives the people the opportunity to draw attention forcefully to general needs, and demand appropriate public action.
Governmental response to acute suffering of people often depends on the pressure that is put on the government, and this is where the exercise of political rights (voting, criticising …, and protesting …) can make a real difference.
Social networking platforms provide a very effective venue for such democratic engagement to take place. Accordingly, these platforms can play a role in promoting development.
The MENA region has for decades been a hotspot characterised by war, instability and dictatorship. Modern technology embodied in social networking platforms has contributed to news of a different kind from that troubled area — news of people who share values with the rest of humanity, and aspire to build democratic and developed societies in which human rights and freedom are respected.
By 2015, the number of Internet users in the MENA region is expected to exceed 100 million. As a result, the share of social networking platforms is expected to increase.
Accordingly, even after the collapse of the dictatorships, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and other social networking platforms will continue to play an important role in exercising the political rights brought about by the recent changes in the region and in enhancing government transparency and accountability.
Ezieddin Elmahjub is a lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Tripoli University in Libya. He has worked as a legal consultant in a leading Tripoli law firm, advising multinationals on various areas of Libyan law. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Law School at Queensland University of Technology, researching the development of Libyan intellectual property system from an Islamic cultural perspective.