Libya's new electoral laws and their implementation have faced hurdles before, with a month-long postponement occurring in January to liberalize restrictions on voters with dual nationality. The later troubles with the election's planning were enough to prompt the resignation of the country's deputy election commissioner - Sghair Majeri quit his post in March, fearing the country would not yet be ready for the vote.
However, the January delay reportedly gave a national women's group enough time to advocate for an effective floor on their representation levels, while the age restriction on standing for office was lowered to 21. Unless fewer than ten percent of total candidates are women, at least ten percent of representatives were to be female - but while groups protested the ten percent quota as too low, changes to the law ended up dropping the quota altogether. Though members of the U.S. House of Representatives must be at least 25, Libya's age of candidacy is still higher than many Western democracies, especially for parliamentary lower houses.
As well, perhaps to reduce the potential influence of Islamists, the legislature will have significantly more constituency seats than list seats. That is, more seats will be determined by winner-take-all elections in individuals districts. The changes faced criticism from the Muslim Brotherhood and others who fear that independent candidates in winner-take-all districts would be too vulnerable to local tribal politics. The body formed by the elections will be set with the task of drafting Libya's new constitution, replacing the NTC's interim Constitutional Declaration from August 2011.
Meanwhile, despite assurances by Libya's culture and civil society ministry that persons from the former settlement of Tawergha will be allowed to vote, subsequent reports cited refugees who said they were unable to register. Tawergha was the cite of a military engagement during last year's civil war that saw forced displacement of the town's residents by anti-Gaddafi forces from Misrata, as well as reports that Gaddafi's own forces effectively used residents as a human shield during the conflict. Importantly, the town's population is predominantly black, and African Libyans elsewhere faced concurrent discrimination, violence and detention for fighting in Gaddafi's forces - though the bulk of those detained, such as the 200 kept in Tripoli's Gate of the Sea sports club, may have been innocent migrant workers.
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch voiced grave concerns over the treatment of the displaced Tawerghans, apparently victimized in part for living in a loyalist stronghold during the last days of the civil war. Anti-Gaddafi militias from Misrata reportedly burned and ransacked much of the town and later terrorized refugees, some of whom they accuse of committing sexual assault and other crimes alongside Gaddaffi's forces there. Accounts partly come from Human Rights Watch's interviews with 26 individuals detained in Misrata and with another 35 displaced persons residing in Tripoli and elsewhere, reporting shooting of unarmed residents, arbitrary arrests, and beatings of detainees in Tawergha. Human Rights Watch has also emphasized that the NTC government has failed to improve security at refugee camps or investigate killings at a camp in Janzour.
The exodus of persons from the community has left behind a virtual ghost town, its transformation documented by Al Jazeera's Anita McNought, who also interviewed persons attacked by Tawerghans militias, as well as expelled Tawerghan civilians. "We are ordinary civilians. Gaddafi's army occupied our farms", said a Tawerghan imam interviewed by McNought after he and others said they knew one Gaddafi solider's family but not his whereabouts. "Then the Misrata [anti-Gaddafi] brigades went after us. We got hurt by both sides", he said.
Less than two weeks ago, Tawerghans expressed concerns that they would be unable to vote safely due to continuing ethnic violence; that they may not be able to vote at all due to registration problems; and that the elections held little meaning for their population while they still lived in refugee camps on the edge of Benghazi and other cities. Camp elder Idriss al-Taha was quoted as saying that the atrocities against the town were "ethnic cleaning without a doubt" while one former councillor of Tawergha told Al-Jazeera's Omar al-Saleh that thousands could not register to vote due to their displacement. "As refugees, we are not comfortable with these elections. What should we vote for?", al-Taha said.
Race relations between African and Arab Libyans have a complex and significant history that goes beyond the scope of this issue, but if the recent experiences of Tawergha refugees are any indication then Libya's new government has significant work to do in combating racism. To begin to do would at least go farther than its previous record of denial under Gaddafi. Months before the civil war, American Jewish Committe-affiliated NGO UN Watch charged Gaddafi's government with outright denial of racism within Libya, apparently in response to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) request to simply track and study racial discrimination. But Libya's new regime - both the interim NTC crowd and that formed by the delayed elections - will have both race relations and fair treatment of Tawerghan refugees as significant tests of competency in the judgments and months ahead, while displaced Tawerghans themselves may rightly wonder whether they have much stake in helping form a government that may due no more to protect them than the one currently in power.By Cory Collins, Aslan Media Columnist