Regional demands are threatening the future of Libya, and elections this weekend are going forward under a cloud.
Elections boycott threatens to derail Libya's transition
Just days before Libya's general election, the headquarters of the elections commission in Benghazi was attacked by protesters. They were calling for an equal distribution of National Assembly seats between Libya's three historic provinces of Barqa, Fezzan and Tripolitania.
The elections were delayed for 18 days, until this Saturday, because of logistics. However, there are still significant factors that could affect the electoral process and the results, not to mention Libya's entire political landscape.
The self-appointed Barqa Council, which claims to represent the eastern region, continues to oppose the present system.The demonstrations, mainly in the cities and towns of eastern Libya, objected to the distribution of seats regardless of the results - an objection that has so far been sidelined by the National Transition Council and the interim government.
The current allocation of seats gives Tripolitania - where more than half of Libyans live - 109 seats in the 200-member body. Many of the demonstrators in eastern Libya have opposed the idea of federalism, but they now insist that an equal distribution of seats is the only way to safeguard the rights of all regions.
Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the chairman of the National Transitional Council, admitted recently in a television interview that the allocation of seats was unfair, but urged Libyans to accept it for the sake of unity. He has also stressed that reallocating seats for the National Assembly - which will be tasked with appointing a new government and constitutional assembly, and preparing for new elections next year - is not possible at this juncture.
In addition to the protests, the Barqa Council has positioned its independent defence force in the Red Valley area on the outskirts of Sirte, covering Barqa's western borders. The Council's forces have blocked the roads to commercial and military traffic between the east and the west, and have threatened to take more drastic measures that could affect the flow of oil out of the country.
At present, despite the Barqa Council's call to boycott the elections unless seats are reapportioned, nationwide registration stands at about 80 per cent of eligible voters. But Libyans will need to be prepared to deal with any of three scenarios after the elections:
The first scenario would be a positive outcome with high participation by registered voters, and particularly in eastern Libya. If there were a high turnout, the National Assembly would have the required legitimacy and popular support across the country to exercise its authority. That would give it the capability to rein in groups and activities that were deemed to be breaking the law.
The most crucial task for the National Assembly will be to appoint the Constitutional Drafting Commission. However, it will also be crucial for the National Assembly to build the security services and the national army to tackle the fragile situation and exert its authority on the ground.
The second scenario would see partially successful elections where the participation in both Tripolitania and Fezzan was high, but with a poorer turnout in Barqa. Such a scenario would undermine the authority of the National Assembly nationwide, and place in question its ability to govern in the eastern part of the country.
Such a scenario would result in the Barqa Council and Barqa Guard Force exercising more authority in the eastern region. That, in turn, could easily lead to a political deadlock between the government in Tripoli and the leadership based in Benghazi. Efforts to rebuild the country would be hindered, casting a pall of uncertainty over the future.
The boycott campaign in Barqa appears to be calling for just this result, urging voters to destroy their voter registration cards.
The third scenario would be a failure to conduct elections in Barqa altogether, which could happen if voting centres were effectively blocked or closed down. Threats to that effect have been made recently, while candidate and party elections posters have been torn down, burnt and otherwise destroyed. There are also reports that some candidates have withdrawn their candidacies in protest over the allocation of seats.
The second or the third scenario could result in a movement towards a form of federalism for Barqa, while Tripolitania and Fezzan would still operate under the direct control of the central government based in Tripoli.
Such a divided arrangement can be seen in Iraq, where the Kurdish Autonomous Region has its own parliament, and in terms of domestic affairs retains almost complete independence from Baghdad. While Iraq is hardly the model for a stable state in most people's minds, the Kurdish region is considerably more stable and developed than the rest of Iraq. That, for some Libyans, sends a strong message that the centralised model of government might not always be the best curb on corruption.
The clock is ticking ahead of the elections, however. Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shaqur has been sent to lead talks with the Barqa Council to defuse tensions ahead of the ballot. The test of those efforts will wait until election day.
Libyans must have a serious and transparent dialogue to avoid a resumption in hostilities based on regional tensions. National consensus is a crucial element for Libya's transition.
Mohamed Eljarh is a UK-based Libyan academic and political and development activist
On Twitter: @Eljarh