A new dispute is brewing in unrest-riddled Libya over a decision by its highest, but transitional, political authority to extend its mandate beyond February 7, with demonstrations called for this week.
Leading a transition that has proved chaotic since the 2011 toppling of the country’s longtime leader Moamer Kadhafi, the General National Congress was elected in July 2012 for a term of 18 months.
Its mission was to prepare for polling to form a commission tasked with drawing up a new constitution and to organise a general election.
But the GNC on Monday ratified a decision to extend its mandate to December 2014, despite the opposition of a large segment of the population critical of its inability to halt Libya’s slide into lawlessness and chaos.
The congress has adopted a new roadmap and timetable, which allow for two scenarios.
A general election is to be held at the end of the year if the constitutional body adopts a new charter within four months of its own election set for February 20.
But if the commission deems itself with 60 days incapable of completing the job, a Plan B allows for it to call for immediate presidential and legislative polls for a fresh period of 18 months.
The extension of the GNC mandate has raised the hackles of civil society organisations and political groups, and protests have already been held in several towns to demand the congress be dissolved.
A “No Extension” campaign has been launched in the troubled eastern city of Benghazi, and more demonstrations are called for Friday, on the date the GNC’s mandate was to have expired.
Fears have risen of clashes between rival armed groups.
The Operations Cell of Revolutionaries, an Islamist militia of ex-rebels said to be close to the army, has lined up behind the GNC, and the powerful armed groups of Misrata have warned that the “Congress is a red line.”
But rival former rebel fighters in Zintan, an influential force in post-Kadhafi Libya, have vowed to protect any popular movement against the GNC.
The political class is also divided, between Islamist supporters of the Congress and the liberal National Forces Alliance, which has slammed the extension as undemocratic even though its deputies voted in favour.
GNC spokesman Omar Hmeidan said the population had the right to express its opposition but stressed that the country would have been left in a “security vacuum” if the Congress were scrapped without an alternative body taking its place.
The political bickering comes at a time of uncertainty over the fate of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, although he defeated a confidence vote against his government.
“The GNC’s decision is a farce intended to indirectly prolong its mandate,” said political activist Abu Bakar al-Badri. “About 40 initiatives were presented to the Congress these past few days to find a way out of the crisis, and it paid no attention.”
In July 2012, after more than 40 years under the rule of dictator Kadhafi, Libya chose the GNC in its first-ever elections.