The Libyan Constitution: A Futile Effort or the Key to Saving Libya?

Disclaimer: If you clicked this expecting a highly technical article on the constitution drafting process, you shall not find it below. I’m no constitutional expert and I detest legal mumbo jumbo almost as much as I loathe militias. I wrote this in a sleep deprived frenzy after writing a catchy title. 


Both the English and Arabic version of the 1951 Libyan constitution can fit into this small booklet, but it seems that the new Constitution Assembly will be forgoing this brevity.

Both the English and Arabic versions of the 1951 Libyan constitution can fit into this small booklet, but it seems that the new Constitution Assembly will be forgoing this brevity.

In Libya these days, the discussion for every topic seems to be made up of polar extremes. The political situation has people divided into factions that are themselves further subdividing, and the war between the two most prominent groups (they both start with the letter D and make regular arch-enemies look like buddies) has severely frayed the collective nerves of this abandoned country. The Constitution Drafting Assembly, the council that was voted in by the people to create a new constitution for the new nation, has, well, failed to produce anything apart from a highly questionable draft of suggestions that only succeeded in casting doubt on the assembly’s capabilities. Legally mandated to produce this essential document in 120 days, the assembly overstepped their timeframe. Perhaps overstepped is a bit of an understatement, seeing as they celebrated their one-year anniversary just a few days ago. This prolonged delay has had much of the nation asking this burning question; what the hell is taking so long? Of course, this answer will vary depending on who you ask, but the standard answer seems to be, ‘Well, how can we draft a constitution when you people keep blowing stuff up?” It’s a reasonable answer, and the turmoil that has become the new norm in Libya has limited and, in some cases, halted, many essential services and processes. However, many believe that it’s this precarious edge that Libya teeters on that makes the production of the constitution so vital, nation-saving even. And here we reach the crux, the polar extremes. Libyans are now roughly divided into two camps; those who believe that the constitution must, absolutely must, be written with the greatest haste and urgency possible, and those who think that the constitution will change nothing for Libya without political stability/military conquest/ whatever other numerous alternate solutions are being proposed.

A comic pamphlet to raise awareness on the rights of Libyan women in the constitution, produced by the 'Lematha Ana' charity for women's rights. Several efforts have been made to create awareness in the general public on the importance of the constitution

A comic pamphlet to raise awareness on the rights of Libyan women in the constitution, produced by the ‘Lematha Ana’ charity for women’s rights. Several efforts have been made to create awareness in the general public on the importance of the constitution

Why should the constitution be written ASAP? For one thing, a document that lays out the foundation of the Libyan law and order system would help revive the law and order that went out the window on that fateful day four years ago. It would also define the form the nation should take and provide a clear political roadmap. And since the constitution would be voted on through a national referendum, it just might be the first document that all members of the warring factions can agree upon. This would be a minor miracle in itself, as finding things that all sides agree on is about as easy as looking for Waldo in a striped t-shirt convention. The constitution has the potential to become the focal point where the peacebuilding process can begin for Libya and the foundation on which a stable nation can be formed. But, while having a constitution is nice in theory, will it actually make a difference on the ground? And to assume that the constitution would save the country means that you have to have an actual constitution ready to do the saving, which, as I mentioned earlier, has not yet happened. As the CDA continues to draft at their leisure, millions of the nation’s dinars has gone into paying the bills for the 56 members and their entourages. In case you aren’t aware, the country is quickly going broke thanks to the war, and soon we might be faced with the problem of whether Libya can even afford a constitution. There’s also the issue of the referendum, and the difficulty (in some cases, impossibility) of holding nation-wide voting. Both sides raise very valid points. It is this humble citizen’s opinion that both are right (a sentence people don’t like hearing, I know). We do need a constitution, but we also can’t expect it to magically repair the country. We have to work on both fronts in parallel, finding the appropriate solution for the Libyan conflict while working on a constitution that provides a long-term vision that will contribute towards the country’s healing process. I think that many Libyans cling to the CDA because they see it as the only government institution left that isn’t involved in the war. During the craziness last year before the HOR elections, the CDA was asked to take power and govern the nation, which they rightly refused because they wanted no part in the conflict. This was a wise move and has earned them the respect of the warring factions and general public. But there’s a critical component to the constitution drafting process that needs attention, and that is the assembly itself. Are the 56 people that make up the assembly responsible enough to draft this crucial document? Sure, we voted them in, but we don’t exactly have much democratic experience, as evidenced by the condition we’re in today.

Dr.  Ibtisam Ibhaih (left) hositng a meeting of civil society organizations in Benghazi

Dr. Ibtisam Ibhaih (left) hosting a meeting of civil society organizations in Benghazi

Benghazi’s CDA representative, Ibtisam Ibhaih, recently visited the city to hold a meeting of civil society organizations and discuss the constitution drafting process, along with the obstacles encountered. It should be noted that Ms. Ibhaih has made several such efforts before to reach out to her constituents, and visiting Benghazi while the war is still ongoing is a commendable effort on her part. During this meeting, Ms. Ibhaih spoke of the state of the assembly and some of the reasons behind the delay on producing the constitution. Among what she listed were the numerous long vacations that the CDA has been taking (at one point there was a 3-month long vacation), the lack of attendance by many of the members and the corruption in the administration. There is also a coordinated effort to try and move the CDA out of Libya, for reasons that are not entirely clear, and it’s obvious that there are sensitivities between members in the assembly. These revelations are hardly earth-shattering, but they do not bode well for the future, particularly for those who have hung what’s left of their hopes on the CDA. But Ms. Ibhaih emphasized that she would do all she can, and that the work is still ongoing. In her own words, “My biggest concern is saving this country.” Pretty words, but words alone just don’t cut it. Libya’s situation is worrying in the extreme. We are rapidly reaching a breaking point, and the chance of finding a holistic, effective solution is getting slimmer by the day. All sectors in society need to do more to both support the CDA and pressure them into doing a better job. Civil society must act as a link that connects the CDA to the rest of the nation, and we must ensure that the constitution is drafted in an inclusive and transparent manner. In short, we have to be better people. I know it’s difficult, and I know the situation doesn’t exactly encourage forward thinking, but we have to try. If we were as good at constitution-making as we are at negativity and creating problems out of nothing, we would have had a constitution a long time ago.

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