Libya holds its first free elections in about 60 years on Saturday against a backdrop of armed groups rallying for support, separatism and a mishmash of politicians and civilians standing for election to parliament.
The country’s current fledgling state institutions are fragile and largely powerless. The Libyan roadmap aims to elect a general national congress, a 200-member transitional parliament, where 80 seats are allocated to representatives of political entities, and 120 seats to individuals.
Once this transitional parliament has been elected, the remit of the interim governing National Transitional Council will come to an end. The national congress will elect a 60-member committee to draft a constitution to be put to a public referendum later.
Representatives of the Swiss embassy in Tripoli will act as diplomatic observers of the election. Switzerland has also backed efforts by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to ensure votes conform to international standards.
To support Libya’s transition to democracy, Switzerland has helped offer training in human rights and the democratic process.
But in the wake of the country’s bloody civil war to overthrow former leader Moammar Gaddafi the political scene is complicated.
On the one hand, Libyan revolutionaries have used violence and displays of strength to influence the course of the election, trying – and failing - to exclude all politicians who worked with the former regime from taking part. Elsewhere, Libyan civil society wanted to ensure women had a significant share of seats in the new national congress, but conservatives forced this move to be scrapped.
The same tug of war took place when determining the percentage of seats allocated to parties, which gave preference to party candidates, before reversing the situation to tip the balance in favour of independents.
Unique Libyan transition
Seen from this angle, the election of the national congress represents the biggest challenge to the transitional experiment in Libya. This is because the situation is different to that of Tunisia, for example, which last October formed a constituent assembly based on agreement between key ideological factions. In Libya, participation in the elections is not done through parties, rather through what are now known as “political entities” and independents.
In a statement to swissinfo.ch, Muhammad Al-Alaqi, the head of the National Council for Human Rights, criticised what he considered to be “an unjustified mix-up between parties and civil society organisations, which are not supposed to be linked with political parties, as we now see alliances between parties and civil society organisations, a phenomenon never seen either in the law or in politics”.
The former interim prime minister, Mahmoud Jebril, who leads the National Forces Alliance, a front that involves more than 60 parties, told swissinfo.ch that the election represented a “national” rather than a political event. This explains why several - sometimes rival - forces rally around a central goal to ensure their presence in the national congress, even if it is only symbolic, he said.
Jebril pointed out that transparency in campaign funding was essential. He will push the Higher National Election Commission to request all political entities reveal their funding sources. He added that he had received offers from countries to financially support the alliance he leads, but that he had turned these offers down.
Political desertification and spectre of division
One major dilemma facing Libyans in the national congress election is the absence of electoral practices under Gaddafi. Previous election experience was short-lived under the monarchy from 1952-1964 and failed to leave its mark on the people.
The second dilemma is the greater spectre of division, fed by continuous calls for the establishment of a federal system that would take Libya back to what it was during the "United Kingdom of Libya", when it was essentially composed of three regions, namely Barca, Fezzan, and Tripolitania.
The danger of this separatist trend escalated when hard-line fundamentalist groups started staging rallies in eastern cities. In one recent case, gunmen dressed in Afghan mujahideen clothing, riding in military vehicles such as tanks and carrying mortars went out to the city of Benghazi demanding the application of Islamic Shariah law. But when residents chanted "Leave, Libya is not Afghanistan", the gunmen withdrew.
During this show of military arsenal, the regular Libyan army, police and revolutionary brigades affiliated to defence ministries were nowhere to be seen, noted analyst Ali Al-Fituri. This was indicative of the inability of policing groups affiliated with the transitional government to bring the situation under control.
Help on the ground
The Swiss-funded Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue has been on the ground for the past year. It has worked with the interim authorities to tackle some of the divisive issues, organising regional debates on the new election law and transitional justice.
The centre’s Kenny Gluck told swissinfo.ch such dialogues allowed “open discussion between different points of view on these key aspects of the transition” and helped Libyan civil society leaders develop their ideas in consultation with international experts. It is now advising the transitional government on “mechanisms” for peacefully resolving the “conflicts which have marred the transitional period”.
The UNDP, backed by Switzerland, has also offered concrete training in the form of workshops designed to educate society with regard to elections.
A separate workshop organised in May by the Geneva Institute for Human Rights informed civilians as well as government representatives on the basics of election monitoring. And in April Switzerland supported a coalition of organisations in a workshop instructing trainers in voter education. They in turn trained up 3,500 Girl Guides and Boy Scouts to carry out an awareness-raising campaign that was expected to reach two million Libyans.
Ultimately, however, Libya is experiencing a painful shift toward democracy. Whether it succeeds will depend on its ability to master the trend of violent separatism.