When the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) drafted a constitutional declaration during the 2011 uprising against Gadhafi, it stipulated the establishment of a democratic system based on “political and party plurality” and guaranteed the freedom to form political parties. The NTC declaration was only ever meant to be temporary, but in the absence of a proper constitution, it remains the legal underpinning of Libya’s troubled transition.
Libya’s first experience of political parties came with the vote for the General National Congress (GNC) in 2012. During the drafting of the electoral law that year, some argued that an individual-based system would exacerbate tribalism and regionalism while others claimed that a party-based system would favor already established groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The GNC was eventually elected under a hybrid system that included both individual and party lists, with non-Islamist parties ultimately faring better in the party list.
Two years later, the House of Representatives (HoR) was elected to replace the GNC. That ballot had one key difference: All candidates were required to run as independents. This was partly due to growing animosity toward political parties. Popular frustration with the GNC meant political parties were often blamed for its shortcomings. Party headquarters were frequently attacked during the GNC’s lifetime. Almost a decade on, however, many critics of the HoR — which remains in place as no elections have been held since 2014 — insist much of its dysfunction stems from the absence of political parties.
Over the past nine years, Libya’s parties have operated as shadow players in the country’s fractious politics. During the 2014-20 civil conflict, there were frequent calls to ban political parties outright as polarization deepened and people sought scapegoats for the country’s derailed transition.
Libya’s political landscape now looks very different. Several of the main formations that emerged in 2012 have since either been riven by infighting or have faded away. Most notably, the two dominant groups in that year’s election — the Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party (JCP) and its main rival, the National Forces Alliance (NFA) — have experienced splits. Those new to the scene include parties associated with the so-called “Greens,” or former regime figures and sympathizers, plus more tribal or regionally oriented parties.
As part of efforts to get Libya’s democratic transition back on track, a more stringent political party registration system was introduced in early 2021, ahead of elections that were due to take place that December but were postponed. Robust vetting is considered crucial to prevent electoral fraud. More than 70 parties have since been approved for licenses, according to the body overseeing the process. The number of parties not yet registered is estimated at over 100. Some parties, particularly those that trace their roots to the 2012 elections, such as the JCP plus NFA offshoots, have started to organize together and form networks and umbrella groups over the past two years. This may result in parties merging ahead of a future national ballot.
Three main currents are emerging: the Greens, the Islamists, and the nationalists. Libya does not have a defined secular/Islamist political cleavage, so anti/non-Islamist groupings are often described or self-describe as nationalist, a catch-all term that can include more liberal-leaning elements as well as social conservatives who do not identify as Islamist. In the 2012 election, there was little difference between nationalist party platforms and those of mainstream Islamist parties. All the leading parties supported the idea of sharia law being a basis for legislation. This is unlikely to change as parties prepare for future parliamentary elections. Detailed party manifestos were rare in 2012 and few have issued any since.
The Green current is believed to already comprise more than a dozen parties, with the most prominent being the National Movement party, led by former Gadhafi government minister Mustafa al-Zaidi. “That’s ironic when you consider the Gadhafi regime’s ideological opposition to the very idea of political parties,” says one party leader from the nationalist camp. Some observers believe the nationalist current stands to lose most if Green political parties gain momentum.
Since 2020, the development of youth-driven protest movements against the status quo raises the question of whether new political parties might yet emerge from a younger generation shaped by very different experiences in post-Gadhafi Libya. While these youth movements have yet to coalesce into a unified force, what they share is a frustration with an older political elite considered corrupt and out of touch. In recent years, the more established parties have sought to engage more with youth and women. Given the broad social conservatism of Libyan society, few believe the country’s political scene might include an openly secular or avowedly liberal party anytime soon.
Party leaders from across Libya’s political spectrum lament that they have too often been overlooked in diplomatic efforts to resolve the current impasse and nudge the country toward fresh elections. Indeed, some diplomats have considered them largely irrelevant to the power struggles that drove the 2014-20 civil conflict and still linger today. In early March, 52 political parties signed a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres complaining that U.N. Envoy Abdoulaye Bathily’s new roadmap did not include them. “By virtue of the constitutional and legal framework, [parties] are a cornerstone and have a vital role in the political process,” the letter stated. “Democratic systems are based on political and party plurality.” Later that month, Bathily met with representatives from 21 political parties and his team has continued to engage since. Unsurprisingly, political parties are pushing for future electoral laws to include a large party list. “Without parties, it’s like trying to have a Champions League without any [soccer] clubs,” one party leader told me. “You cannot stabilize Libya’s politics without parties.”
The 6+6 Joint Committee, comprised of six representatives from the HoR and six from the High State Council (which is itself composed of former GNC members), has been tasked with drafting laws to organize elections Bathily wants to see happen later this year. They have decided to allocate just over 50% of seats in the next parliament to a party list. Libyans who believe parties are key to embedding a less dysfunctional and more sustainable political culture say internationals should do more to support the idea of party lists. But Libya’s political parties themselves need to mature and reflect on whether they represent the longer-term interests of broad swathes of the population or narrower interests. “There’s not much vision beyond the here and now,” says one international.
Despite Bathily’s entreaties, few Libyans believe elections will take place this year, or even next year. In the meantime, Libya’s political parties will continue to press their case. There are indications, including observations from party activists as well as public polling, that attitudes toward parties are shifting and that most Libyans accept they have a role to play in the country’s political life. Which parties might be up to the challenge is another question. Libya’s still-young experiment with democracy remains fragile and its political parties have a long way to go.
Mary Fitzgerald is a researcher and consultant specializing in the Euro-Mediterranean region with a particular focus on Libya. She is a non-resident scholar with MEI’s North Africa and the Sahel Program.
Photo by Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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