A Man on a Mission

Secretary General of the NTC, Othman Bin Sassi, stands in what will be the new and temporary location of Libya's General National Congress. (© Jacqueline Shoen for The Majalla)

Days after it was formed on 27 February 2011 in Benghazi, the National Transitional Council declared itself to be the sole political body representing Libya and the Libyan people. Less than a month later, the NTC took its seat at the United Nations.

As a de facto parliament formed by opposition forces advancing an armed revolution against Libya’s long-time ruler, Muammar Al-Qadhafi, the NTC never enjoyed the legitimacy of an elected body and was often criticized for being non-transparent and ineffective.

In August 2011, the month that Tripoli fell to the opposition, the NTC issued a Constitutional Declaration that set the terms for a transitional process that would eventually lead to an elected parliament and government. The key step in that process was the establishment of an independent electoral body that would supervise a free and fair election for a General National Congress.

On the 7 July 2012, the NTC fulfilled that mandate as 1.6 million Libyans cast their ballots in the first democratic election in the country for more than 40 years.

With the 200-member Libyan congress now elected, all that remains for the NTC is to organize the hand over of power from the NTC to the congress and to lay the foundation for the adequate functioning of the congress.

In this interview with The Majalla, Secretary-General of the NTC, Othman Bin Sassi, outlines his current role in managing the transition from the NTC to the National Congress and touches upon some of the critical issues that Libya faces today.

A Berber from Ein Zwara, Bin Sassi was politically active at a young age in an effort to assert his ethnic Berber identity, which had for decades been marginalized and oppressed by the Qadhafi regime. In the 1970s, he sought political asylum in France after having had escaped from prison for organizing cultural activities prohibited by the government. Thirty-two years later, Bin Sassi returned to Libya with the NTC, with whom he worked as a member of the political committee, followed by his current post as secretary general.

The Majalla: Libyans are now entering a new stage in their revolution. What are the primary challenges for your country as it moves forward?

The immediate challenge is to choose a good government. This is very urgent, because the population cannot wait any longer. We have a big problem with the [transitional] government. They had a 68 billion dollar budget, but did nothing. People are still going outside of Libya for medical care. There is no security. The entire economy is on standby. Foreign companies have left the country, so their employees are living without a salary.

The people that made this revolution did it because they had nothing left to hope for. If you don’t give them something to hold on to, especially now that the elections have passed, they might have another revolution.

Q: Security, or lack thereof, has been a common theme of international media and humanitarian reports on Libya, which highlight, among other things, heavily armed militias often operating above the law. What should be done?

No one has a monopoly on power here, so who can maintain security in the country? If you take their arms, it would be dangerous for the larger population. They should keep their arms until we are ready to govern responsibly, until the state is capable of providing real security. Only then will these fighters feel comfortable enough to relinquish their weapons.

Now that we have a legitimate government, I think things will start to change.

Q: After having been driven from their homes by rebel forces as punishment for fighting on the side of Qadhafi, some 40,000 Twerghans are now living in temporary housing throughout Libya. Is anything being done to facilitate their return?

This is a disaster. It’s a big problem, especially for the families, for the children. They are Libyans as we all are. We need a minister to focus specifically on the issue of Libyan refugees and internally displaced persons. Many Libyans remain outside of Libya too, without any help. It is very urgent that the next government do something about this.

We are not a poor country. We can build a new city for them. It’s not necessary for them to go back to Twergha. If the new place is better than Twergha, perhaps they will accept it.

I have experience from the conflict between the Zwara and Jumeil [tribes] (22:50). If we continue like this any longer, the conflict will entrench itself. If we do something now, it can be resolved in a few months. But to change things, you need power; you need money; you need to help people. Because if you give people work, services, a home somewhere, then they will forget about each other and start to move on.

Q: You are managing the transition of power from the NTC to an elected parliament. What will this entail?

The NTC’s mandate will expire at the end of the month and it will be replaced by the newly elected congress. We have been working for the last few weeks to prepare for this transition, and my experience with the NTC has guided me in this process.

We are now building a temporary parliament on the second floor of the Tripoli International Convention Center. With the assistance of international consultants, we are designing administration facilities like you would see anywhere in Europe, including a library for documentation and research. International experts with experience in building a government system from the bottom up are here advising us as we develop practices and procedures specific to Libya.

For example, with the support of the UN, we just finished writing three, let’s say, instruction booklets, for our MPs outlining their role in parliament, how to work inside parliament, how to organize the parliament, and even how to vote for a president or prime minister.

Q: You mentioned earlier that your experience with the NTC has been valuable as you prepare to hand over power to a new authority. Can you elaborate on this?

The NTC was meant to be a legislative body, but it didn’t have the expertise to fulfill that role. We had only one or two people with a background in law. So, anytime we wanted to draft a new law, it would take much longer than it should have.

Now, of course, we are doing something different. We invited about 70 Libyan jurists to participate in a course to learn about parliamentary legislation. From them we will select a panel of 15 to work directly with the new parliament.

Q: Why did the NTC pass a law two days before Election Day stipulating that the 60-member constituent assembly was to be directly elected by the people instead of being appointed by the elected members of the new parliament as had been originally panned? Was it related to the demand in the east for more representation in parliament?

Our intention was to reach out to these people [the federalists]. We were concerned that they would create problems on Election Day, so the NTC decided to make a compromise. I’m not sure that this made any difference though, because this group is very small and they are not the kind of people to accept such a gesture by the NTC.

In any case, the law that was passed was not legal. Ultimately, the way in which the constituent assembly is formed will be up to the elected parliament, which could decided to revoke it and appoint the constituent assembly themselves.

Q: Many in the international media continue to emphasize Libya’s tribal structures as a predicament to progress. Do you agree?

I really don’t think that tribes are as important as they are made out to be.

They comprise a small percentage of our population. We are no more tribal than Tunisia or Egypt. In Tripoli, for example, there are hardly any tribal structures at all. In Benghazi, it’s the same thing. Those who live outside the main cities, mostly identify with their families and not their tribe.

And what about the militias? I understand that they were organized along tribal lines.

Some of the militias are organized along tribal lines, but definitely not all of them. Some of them are mixed and most are organized based on their geographical origins.

Q: What advice can you offer people wishing to make a change in their own country?

The most important lesson is that it is better if they don’t use arms. Even if it takes more time, because once civilians arm themselves and start killing each other, it takes much longer for the country to heal, for people to move on.

Many of the problems we face today are a direct result of our decision to take up arms. Women and children have watched other Libyans die. Many of the men who fought are suffering from psychological illnesses. To do something now in Libya, we need the help of those people. So it’s a big problem for the population and for the future of the country.

I firmly believe that it’s better to change things through diplomacy.

Interview conducted by Jacqueline Shoen in Tripoli.

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