The head of the commission drawing up the Libyan constitution says he has been pressured to create separate categories of citizenship for those who supported and opposed the 2011 armed Nato-backed uprising that toppled the regime of Muammer Gaddafi.
But Ali Tarhouni, the US-educated economist who was elected last year as head of one of the only Libyan institutions recognised by both sides in the country’s civil war, says he has managed to brush aside the pressure from self-described revolutionary militias to institutionalise second-class status for so-called azlam or algae, the derogatory term used for supporters of the Gaddafi regime.
“People say punish the azlam, or give some privileges to the revolutionaries,” says Mr Tarhouni, 64, in a rare, wide-ranging interview on Libya at his office in the headquarters of the constitutional assembly in the eastern city of Baida. “The most challenging aspect is that we have to represent all of Libya. I do not really pay attention to the political pressure, I don’t pay attention to any of that nor do the Constitutional Drafting Assembly members. The pressure is, or who I need to answer to is, the Libyan people who think that the constitution is their salvation.”
Rival Libyan armed forces loyal to political authorities in the eastern city of Tubruq and the capital, Tripoli, have been at war for a year, with battles expanding in the east, south and west of the country. Amid the chaos, groups swearing fealty to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as Isis, have carved out a presence in at least two cities, and begun menacing both sides. A car-bomb attack targeted the ornate headquarters of the constitutional assembly last June.
All the while, Mr Tarhouni says the work of the constitutional assembly, elected in February 2014 and seated two months later, has continued. “Writing a constitution in the best of circumstances is the most difficult enterprise,” he says. “Writing a constitution for a country in the middle of a real war, that cannot agree on anything, is nearly impossible.”
Under the rules spelt out in the country’s constitutional declaration, Mr Tarhouni and about 50 or so other members of the assembly must come up with a draft that satisfies two-thirds of the voters in a referendum. Adding to the complications, the country’s Amazigh or Berber population largely boycotted the assembly, and some provision must be made to secure their buy-in to the document.
“The pressure is how to write a document, fast enough that gets you some consensus,” he says. “This is a nightmare in the circumstances we have. The pressure is to write a document to solve today’s problems. A lot of people want you to do that, and it is a historic mistake, because you need to write a constitution for the future, the people and the kids who have nothing to do with the mess that is happening now.”
Libya’s self-proclaimed Islamist-leaning authority, which controls most of the country’s west, has put the most pressure on Mr Tarhouni. The head of the defunct parliament, Nouri Abusahmahn, has repeatedly demanded that Mr Tarhouni report to him. He has ignored his entreaties.
Despite Mr Tarhouni’s personal views about the former regime, which stripped him of his citizenship and sentenced him to death, he has expunged the words azlam and revolutionary from his own vocabulary. “Everybody wants you to be neutral, but to be neutral on their side,” he says. “Neutrality sounds nice but the reality is different. Everybody walks in with their own desires.”
Mr Tarhouni served as a minister of finance in Libya’s transitional authority during the uprising against Gaddafi but was hounded from public life by armed Islamists who control the capital and consider those opposed to their agenda to be counter-revolutionaries.
Still he has attempted to maintain his neutrality in the civil war, refusing to visit the Tubruq parliament or the defunct remnants of the Islamist-leaning parliament running Tripoli. But he suggested that three rounds of national votes from 2012 to 2014, as well as municipal elections, have yielded results showing what kind of government framework Libyans want.
“They want a moderate, not radical form of government,” he says. “They want better schools [and to] enjoy their lives. They know that this country is very wealthy. They want to be like Dubai or Abu Dhabi. They want better education and good homes.”
Get alerts on Libya when a new story is published