Libya's politicians get a wake-up call

A prominent member of Libya's General National Congress (GNC) resigned Wednesday night. Hassan al-Amin, the chairman of the Human Rights and Civil Society Committee, announced his resignation on Libyan TV, citing numerous credible death threats against him and his family. He's since left the country and is reported to have relocated safely to London.

Amin was a representative for the city of Misrata in the GNC (Libya's transitional legislature). One of Qaddafi's fiercest opponents for more than 28 years, he is also the owner and editor-in-chief of the Libya al-Mostakbal newspaper, which was one of the main opposition platforms against the former dictator.

There have been numerous open threats made against Amin in the city he represents. On January 26, for example, someone wrote a message to him on the courthouse building in Misrata: "Hassan Al-Amin, watch out." In itself such language might not seem especially ominous to readers who are accustomed to living under secure conditions of the rule of law, but it's a rather different matter in a country where militias still control the streets. These militias could take matters into their own hands at any point. Some of them are loyal to certain politicians and political groups, and can be mobilized on their orders.

The increasing threats -- against Amin and others -- come as Libya embarks on a very difficult year on all fronts (in terms of security as well as politically and economically). Political tensions have been on the rise since the beginning of the year, and the situation was made worse with the introduction of the divisive and controversial political isolation law designed to ban former Qaddafi officials from holding office.

Recently, on March 5, armed protestors besieged GNC members as they debated the law. The protesters were attempting to pressure GNC members into passing the bill. Fortunately, GNC members refused to bow to intimidation and refused to debate the law under threat of violence. The standoff continued for about 12 hours.

The GNC session was taking place on the outskirts of Tripoli at a location that was supposed to be secret. However, some GNC members who support the bill's passage told the protestors where the meeting was taking place. On the same day, at least two members of the assembly, including Amin, appeared on TV and publicly accused a controversial member from Misrata, Abdurrahman Swheli (a strong supporter of the isolation law), of informing the protesters of the location. They also blamed him for mobilizing the protesters to ratchet up tensions.

Politicians aren't the only ones being targeted. On March 7, gunmen stormed the headquarters of the privately-owned Alassema television station (see photo above) in retaliation for its coverage of the isolation law debate. The channel is linked to the leader of the National Forces Alliance, Mahmoud Jibril, whose bloc strongly opposes the political isolation law in its current form. (Jibril and his supporters contend that it's too radical and will create a political and institutional vacuum.)

Days before his resignation, Amin launched a fierce verbal assault on the armed militias, and particularly on those in his hometown of Misrata. He also criticized the human rights abuses taking place in Libyan prisons, and accused the militias of following Qaddafi-era practices.

Amin's resignation also highlighted frustration within GNC at the increasingly influential role being played by the Grand Mufti (the highest official of religious law in Libya), who has repeatedly used his position to influence the political agenda. In his latest intervention in politics, the Grand Mufti condemned a recent United Nations report on violence against women. Amin urged the Grand Mufti to maintain neutrality, and suggested that he should take part in the democratic process if he wants to be involved in politics. Many Libyans share this sentiment, and used social media to praise his courage. Many also echoed his concerns about the growing political influence of the Grand Mufti.

The fact that the elected politician Amin felt the need to resign and leave the country after attempting to express his opinion freely is very alarming. This incident could be the beginning of a dangerous wave of political violence in Libya, a situation in which politicians or activists could be threatened, kidnapped, or even killed for their views. This could deepen division, unleash chaos and lawlessness, and hinder the democratic transition -- or perhaps even derail it completely.

Political violence in neighboring Tunisia claimed the life of Chokri Belaid, leader of the Unified Democratic Nationalist party. While Libya remains awash with weapons, an uptick political violence can all too easily lead to armed struggle between different factions.

With that in mind, leaders of the main political blocs within the GNC have agreed to hold a national dialogue to calm the rising political tensions in the country. The leader of the Justice and Construction party (the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood),and the leader of the National Forces Alliance (the liberal bloc) have agreed in principle to initiate a national discussion about a political roadmap to address many of the controversial issues, including the political isolation law.

This year Libya will embark on the process of writing a permanent constitution. These latest incidents should serve as a wake-up call to the country's politicians. It's time to come together and agree on a new path forward.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.



Capriles' kamikaze candidacy

Hugo Chávez's followers like to say the late president, by trying to beat terminal cancer and remain in power, was "laying down his life for his people." But he's not the only martyr around. One could be forgiven for thinking that Henrique Capriles also has a death wish after launching his presidential campaign under seemingly impossible circumstances.

It's been finally announced that the election to replace Chávez will take place on April 14. Before his death, Chávez appointed Vice-President Nicolás Maduro as his heir, and Maduro now reigns as the government's uncontested leader. Last Sunday, Capriles decided to take Maduro on, but not before seriously considering withdrawing altogether.

The reasons for not participating are many. After last October's defeat in the presidential poll, shortly followed by a similar thumping in the gubernatorial elections, the opposition is in no mood to "compete." All of the state's resources -- cash for volunteers, handouts in the form of electrical appliances, and an overwhelming amount of free media -- are used against the opposition. The result is typically the same: A valiant effort on the part of the opposition is met with a myriad of abuses, which in turn leads to a mauling. The opposition is not interested in yet another defeat, especially after thousands of grieving Venezuelans flocked to see the president's earthly remains.

But this alone would not justify withdrawing. The reason the opposition's chances are practically non-existent lies with other factors. Compared to the approaching one, last October's election was downright Jeffersonian in its democratic character.

Last Wednesday, as Hugo Chávez's coffin -- sans body, according to Spain's ABC newspaper -- was paraded through the streets of Caracas, the defense minister, an active navy man, told the media that the best way to honor Chávez was "for the armed forces to ensure Maduro is elected." He warned the opposition that the military would be used against what he called "fascists," and that they would "strike their mothers," a colloquial Venezuelan expression that roughly translates into striking a deadly or fatal blow.

This came after the head of Venezuela's Electoral Body, Tibisay Lucena, appeared at a memorial for Chávez wearing an armband that identified her membership in the chavista movement. Lucena, who has long been accused of being partial to the government, has told the opposition they only have ten days to campaign, and will be permitted four minutes of airtime a day total. That is less than a single hour of television time for the entire campaign. The government, however, will be allowed to air unlimited "informative" broadcasts, which are typically electoral in nature.

The most severe blow, however, came as 33 heads of state were attending Chávez's funeral. With the president of Venezuela's Supreme Tribunal of Justice sitting in the crowd, the court announced that Maduro could be sworn in as "president in charge" -- a term that does not exist in the constitution -- and that he will not have to resign in order to contest in the election, contrary to prior court rulings and what is mandated by law. This appalled many in the opposition, who rightly viewed it as a carte blanche for Maduro to use all the powers of the state, including the limitless funds of the state oil company, PDVSA, to ensure his victory. Coincidentally, shortly after Chávez's death, Maduro named Rafael Ramírez, PDVSA's CEO, to head his own campaign's get-out-the-vote effort.

An intense debate sprang up in the opposition. Many -- myself included -- viewed the election as a lost cause, pointing out that the powers of the state have never been so clearly aligned in favor of the government's candidate. Capriles did not immediately accept the opposition's offer to be its candidate, and seriously considered not running.

In spite of the obstacles, Capriles ultimately decided to run. In a moving speech, perhaps the best of his career, he vowed to fight, doing it for "the mother whose son was killed by gunfire, the worker without a job, the young student whose prospects are dim." He acknowledged that some people thought he was "headed to the slaughterhouse," but he said he would use the candidacy as a platform to warn Venezuelans of the dangers of Chávez's successors. His coalition was impressed, and the unity of the opposition -- which appeared to be cracking -- immediately solidified.

According to the conventional wisdom, Maduro has a lock on this election, despite his poor speaking skills and his ill-preparedness for the job. But in valiantly taking on a seemingly insurmountable challenge, Capriles appears to have ensured he will remain the leader of the opposition -- even if it's something of a death wish.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and the co-author of "Blogging the Revolution." Read the rest of his posts here.    

Photo by LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images