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Libya struggles with the rules of democracy

The dismissal of Libya's Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur shows that the country still needs to get used to the subtleties of democratic processes. But Libya could emerge stronger from the crisis.

The uprising in Libya has long swept away Moammar Gadhafi. But peace has not settled on the country yet. In northeastern Libya, security forces have been besieging the city of Bani Walid for more than a week in an attempt to catch pro-Gadhafi militia. In Benghazi, nervous tension prevails following the deadly attack on the US consulate in mid-September. The city is still waiting to see how Washington is going to react to the terror attack that left four Americans dead, including the US ambassador.

Violence has also erupted in the capital Tripoli. Last week, protestors from the town of Zawiya broke up a session of parliament. They did not see themselves sufficiently represented in the cabinet list put forward by Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur and demanded changes. But since Libya's lawmakers didn't approve the list either, the national congress dismissed Abushagur in a vote of no confidence on October 7.

A dearly purchased election victory

The conditions of the dismissal are evidence of the problems Libya faces on its way to stable democratic and parliamentary conditions - and just how unpracticed politicians there are in forging and balancing coalitions. Abushagur's dismissal springs from his problematic alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, said Libyan political scientist Ali Algibbeshi, who is currently getting his PhD in Germany.

Election day in Tripoli Photo: Essam Zuber, DW correspondent in Libya. Zugestellt von Moncef Slimi

Free elections were held in July

In July's parliamentary elections, Abushagur's rival, former transition leader Mahmoud Jibril actually won the most votes with his National Forces Alliance. But the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to prevent Jibril - who was head of the National Planning Council of Libya under Gadhafi and an ardent supporter of liberalization - from becoming Prime Minister.

So they heaved Abushagur into office, whose National Front Party was the third-strongest force in the elections. The triumph was dearly purchased, though. The prime minister saw himself forced to have his cabinet list rubber-stamped by the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Abushagur did not agree with these conditions throughout," Algibbeshi told DW. "This led to a situation in which this coalition in the end couldn't work together any longer."

A loose understanding of the state

Abushagur's dismissal, however, is not only the result of unfortunate coalition tactics. He also has to fight against the population's traditionally loose understanding of the role of the state.

People in the more remote areas in south-eastern Libya, in particular, consider themselves more members of a tribe than citizens of a comprehensive national structure governed from Tripoli. They want to see their tribal or regionally defined identity reflected not only in the parliament, but also in the government. They therefore emphasize that they want to see politicians in the cabinet who represent their interests.

Thousands of Libyans with Libya flags and anti-federalization signs and banners gather during a protest against transforming Libya into a federal state, in Tripoli, Libya, 09 March 2012. Tribal leaders in eastern Libya on 06 March declared the Cyrenaica region to be semi-autonomous, in a move that could revive old tensions in Libya. Thousands of major tribal leaders and militiamen attended the ceremony in the city of Benghazi, the birthplace of last year's uprising against former leader Muammar Gaddafi. EPA/SABRI ELMHEDWI

Thousands of Libyans protested earlier this year against transforming Libya into a federal state

But this poses significant problems for any Libyan government - not only that of dismissed Abushagur, said Imad El-anis, senior lecturer in international relations and North Africa expert at Britain's Nottingham Trent University.

"It's very difficult to find politicians who can represent the tribes and the groups and the social interests in the south of the country, but who are also quite capable technocrats and bureaucrats," El-anis told DW. "So that's actually a very fine balance that Libya has had to deal with in the past year or so."

Call for compromise

According to Algibbeshi, political actors in Tripoli also face great challenges. He considers one of their most significant tasks is to politically overcome the local and tribally oriented sense of identity - or at least not allow this factor to carry too much weight in the forming of a government. Particularly in view of the weak security situation and repeated eruption of conflict between armed groups, the country needs a functioning and competent government.

"This requires the individual actors to demonstrate the ability to compromise," Algibbeshi said. Only then could the government get to work on dealing with the current challenges. "This is not about personal careers, it's about the country. Unfortunately, though, certain people are not mature enough to be able to make the necessary political decisions."

Perfected system of checks and balances

Participants stand during the handover ceremony of power from of the National Transitional Council (NTC) to members of the national congress in Tripoli, August 8, 2012. Libya's ruling council handed over power to a newly elected national assembly on Wednesday in the North African country's first peaceful transition of power in its modern history but which comes amid heightened violence. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

Politicians in Libya have to learn how to compromise

One advantage could be that the newly-formed government would only remain in power for one year, El-anis said. Once a constitution and new electoral law is drafted and approved, new elections will be held.

"At that point, there will be more balance within the structures written into parliament and more balance between the various parties," he said. It would then result in an advanced system of mutual control, a well-balanced form of checks and balances.

Though El-anis said he viewed Abushagur's dismissal as a crisis, he is also convinced that things could take a turn for the better as a result. Abushagur's failure was above all an indication of the strength of Libya's democracy.

"It's a sign that there hasn't just been a seizure of power by one smaller or powerful group of players in Libya," he said. "I actually think this isn't a bad sign at all. This is a sign that when a group of people are not approved by the congress or by the country as a whole, they can't take power. It's got to be built on consensus and election within congress."

According to El-anis, this development is not unusual in a democracy. In this respect, Abushagur's dismissal could serve as a lesson for many politicians in Libya. It shows them something which Western coalition governments have long internalized: anyone ruling on the basis of a minority government is living a politically dangerous life.

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