Mr. Ameen Belhadj, the deputy chairman of the Libya's election committee
After toppling Gaddafi the next phase of the revolution has started and it is twice as tough as the first one. It consists of a few but very important steps that include but not limited, to the creation of an interim government and the elections committee which will draft the first electoral law. This electoral law is the same law that will take Libya into a completely new era, that of Freedom, Education, Unity, Independence and Justice.
To draft this law, the NTC created a committee of eight members tasked with the drafting of the electoral law and the establishment of constituencies.
Mr. Ameen Belhadj, who was in the Libyan opposition for well over 30 years, is a central figure in that committee. Umar Khan, Asst. Managing Editor, of The Tripoli Post interviewed him recently. What follows is the opinion of Mr. Ameen Belhadj on the draft election law, the feedback and the criticism they received, inside information on the drafting process of the first electoral law and a little about his personal life.TP: Our first question is regarding the draft that was released to the public. An Electoral High Commission was stated, is it the same commission you are working in?
Mr. Ameen: No! According to the declaration of constitution three things were to be done before 90 days, a law for the election, an electoral commission (with the law and the names of the members) and the establishment of the constituencies. That electoral commission will start on January 22 after the law is passed and the names are established. The job of this commission is to take the law and translate it to the national congress.
So to prepare for these three tasks, NTC made this temporary committee. This committee has eight members. We all are members of the NTC. Electoral High Commission is totally independent; it has nothing to do with the NTC or the government. No member of the E.C.H is from NTC or the government.
TP: How did you choose the members of the Electoral High Commission?
Mr. Ameen: We made criteria on how to choose the members of the E.H.C. To give equal representation to all the members of the society we decided that judges should be there, lawyers, youth, women and Human rights activists.
TP: So, you will still be a member of the NTC after 21stJan?
Mr.Ameen: Yes, this was just a task.
TP: What about the constituencies?
Mr. Ameen: This is a very sensitive issue because of many things. 1stthing is that we donít have actual figures on the census of Libya. 2nd is that there were no local councils prior to 17th Feb revolution. The third thing is that we are still in the transitional period and frankly speaking we have some conflicts in some areas and all these things are not so easy to handle. So what could be the parameters that could be used to define the constituencies of the country?
Usually the population is only taken into account but if you take that in Libya, we will have 1 member for every 30,000 Libyans. We found it to be very difficult to be divided justly on the basis of population. We then have to take the geographic area and as you know that Libya is a very big country and some areas have dense population and some have very light. So we also have to take area into consideration.
These are the main two points. If we take the population only than each member represents 30,000 Libyans and if we take the geographic area, this 30,000 may become 38,000 for Tripoli while for areas like Tazulghu, Kufra, it becomes 18,000 or 10,000 for one member. After we divide by the geographic area and the population we added both 18,000 and 10,000 but 28,000 looks acceptable only as a number but itís not practical because of the conflicts or race or ethnicity.
So we have to do something to split these two and leaving the 18,000, we added something else to these 10,000 or the 18,000 to make some adjustments because of the 3rdparamenter, the socio-political situation.
We had to minimise the conflicts so we came up with these sheets for all the areas of Libya. Of course we had a very hard time to allocate the exact numbers for each area as we are using the 2006 census. And this census had certain names that have have changed and some mohallahs have merged together. So it is very difficult to know which of the new mohallahs were there in 2006.
Last night I worked till 1am and I exclaimed in excitement when I added all the mohallahs, and the total number was the same as of 2006. Not everyone will be happy but this is the best we could do at this time to make it as acceptable as possible.
TP: You must be aware of the criticism this draft is facing because of the independent candidates ruling, what do you say to that?
Mr. Ameen: You know Iím from the Muslim Brotherhood and I believe in partiesí system. Iím with the list proposal but leave it there as now I am talking about the situation of Libya. I had the opportunity to discuss this with many people on national TV or in seminars and in round table talks. I am very happy with the feedback we received.
We received 14000 emails and more than 200 documents where many people revised the whole draft law. We appreciate it and are very happy as this is the reason we released the draft. The only thing that makes me sad is that some people who criticize it and donít know a thing about it. They say elections based on individual candidates are hell while the ďlistsĒ system is heaven. Itís not like that.
The truth is that both systems are being used in the whole world. U.K is using the individual candidates based system. You select an individual when you go to vote and not the party. That name related to any party doesnít matter. It is also used in U.S and also in many underdeveloped countries. Then there are ďlistsĒ elections where each party presents a list of the candidates, and the voter will choose the list, e.g. green list which is for XY party or a TREE which is for WZ. Nobody can convince the other that one is hell and the other is heaven or vice versa.
I wish somebody had stepped forward to discuss both the advantages and disadvantages of both the systems and that this specific system will go with Libya because of XY reasons. This would have been a good discussion but this never happened. Whenever I get into discussion with anybody I realise that they are unaware of the hidden technicalities of it. I will tell you for example, we in MB want 10 candidates for Tripoli. Overall there are six parties which will all submit a list for 10 candidates for Tripoli
Now these 10 candidates on each of these six lists will be divided according to the number of votes they get individually. If MB gets 40% their four members will be elected and similarly a party with 20% votes will have two of its candidates elected. Now here is the dilemma: every party has entered with 10 members. They knew from the beginning they that they will not get 100% votes.
One may get 50% e.g. he will write 10 names but only five will succeed. You know from the beginning that only five will succeed, the other five will not. Who are these five candidates? Usually they take the first five names submitted by the party itself. Here is the kick, if Iím a well known man in Tripoli and somebody comes to me and asks me to run for his party, the first thing I will ask would be where wouldl be on that list.
If he says seventh, then I will not join him but will ask him to put me as second. Because I know that being seventh will not get me elected. Now when I want to change the number on the list, influcence comes in. Tribal, financial, and status influence comes in. I know people who change parties because they want to get higher up in the list.
There are parties that have rules and regulations to cope with this but there is something wrong in it. It is not all roses. Many people are unaware of this. That doesnít mean that the list is not good at all, it just has its flaws. You need a developed political party system to make it work, something that we lack at the moment. I wish that somebody would discuss it with facts with us and tell us the differences and why this system will work in Libya at this stage.
I was in a seminar where somebody stood up and said that this (draft law) is the ďmother of all sins haadashoumokulloĒ it is not the way; you have to have a reason and then speak in the proper way. There are arguable topics in the draft but you canít convince all the people.
TP: Exactly, like the issue of dual citizenship. What is your opinion on that?
Mr. Ameen: Some people think that it is not a problem, they are Libyans and it is a transitional phase so they should be able to run for office. Other people donít agree and say everyone in the congress should have one nationality. This is a problem where people donít agree with the others' viewpoint. Even in the NTC we donít all agree on the same point. We just go with the majority.
TP: What was the situation when you were preparing this article of the law?
Mr. Ameen: We didnít prepare the law. We made two committees, one in Benghazi and one in Tripoli who drafted the law. In the NTC we only discussed this issue while creating the interim government and agreed to allow the dual-citizens for the transitional period. Dr. Keeb, the interim PM, has two nationalities; many people on the NTC and government have two nationalities. I am one of them. We agreed to let them run and then the elected government can take a decision on it. At least until we get the Libyan constitution. But of course this law is not drafted by the NTC but the independent committees.
TP: You had no say in the draft? Who are the members of these two committees?
Mr. Ameen: Absolutely! I just saw the draft like any other Libyan. But just to be clear, one of our members (head of Committee, is Mr. Usman, a lawyer) just participated in the last few meetings when they wanted to merge the both drafts for the final publication to the public. No other member ever participated in any meetings on drafting the law other than that.
The committee is based on lawyers, judges, youth, women and human rights activists. We asked for names from the relevant authorities and we asked for four-five more names than actually required to debate on the names and agree on the best candidates. Just to make it more transparent.
TP: Why is this not clear to the public?
Mr. Ameen: I said it many times. I tried to explain it on national television, on seminars, that we have not drafted this law but the two committees, one in Benghazi and one in Tripoli have. They were made up of specialists on law, politicians and other members of the civil society. It has been said many many times but I can say that nobody wants to hear it.
TP: Just to be clear, NTC allowed the dual citizens for the transitional phase but the two committees formed of lawyers, judges, youth, politicians, women agreed otherwise.
Mr. Ameen: Yes!
TP: Then what is your opinion on this?
Mr. Ameen: I am a dual citizen. I am on the NTC so I cannot run in the elections anyway. Still my opinion on the issue is that it is better to allow them to run until the constitution is drafted. Because most of the expatriate Libyans were against Gaddafi, I am proud to say that Iím one of them. I have allowed myself to take a British passport because I had no choice because the Libyan embassy refused to give us passports. What could I do?
I lived illegally with my family in Turkey for two years. My children wanted to study. I had to get asylum in the UK. Many of the Libyans who were outside Libya were forced out because of the G-Regime. I say let them run in the elections now, till the final constitution is passed in two or 2two-and-a-half years and let the Libyans decide what they want.
TP: When you drafted this law, did you have any reference system in mind? Which country was used as a reference?
Mr. Ameen: You mean the committee which drafted it? Of course, not me. I asked them this question that we should benefit from the experience of other countries. We should not start from scratch. The committees said that the electoral laws of other countries are being used as reference, especially of Arab countries.
TP: The punishment for somebody who exceeds the promotional campaign limit is not very strict and if he is a man of means he will not really care since it is very small.
Mr. Ameen: Yes, Yes! I have heard a lot about it from the people. Most probably this article will change. In any case, people are not really aware about the elections process because of the 42 dark years of Gaddafi. So they will not be deceived by money and also the influence of the media will be very important to tackle this issue.
TP: Is the final draft of the law ready?
Mr. Ameen: It will be published on Sunday. We have a meeting on Saturday in Benghazi. After final touches it will be published to the public.
TP: How is the electoral high commission that will be put in place going to ensure that the elections are transparent?
Mr. Ameen: There are three things; the elections will be under the supervision of independent judges (Shurfaa el Qadaa). Secondly, each candidate will have his own people monitoring the elections. By law he has the right of having his representative watching over the proceedings in the centre. He has the right to stop the voting if there is anything wrong. The third way is to have independent observers from the civil society and international organisations.
TP: How can you discourage tribalism from the elections?
Mr. Ameen: You cannot discourage tribalism by any law or by force but only with awareness. Thatís why I think after we finish this job on 21stJan, our next job will be to participate and make Libyan people aware to benefit the country and to try and get rid of the background of tribalism. This is also the job of media.
Whenever I meet with civil society, I tell them that this is your job too. You donít only have to go out on streets but try to plan on informing the people who have no experience and awareness regarding the elections. To think on how to simplify it so everybody can understand it.
I was very happy when a young man came to me and said that I want to simplify the elections. He was very good in computer applications; he made an animation explaining the process of elections, anyone can understand it. This is what we need. If you can help with anything come forward and do your part. Easily accessible information is necessary to increase the level of awareness.
TP:Will the E.H.C run any media campaign to educate people on the whole elections process?
Mr. Ameen: Yes! E.H.C has 16 offices like, security, management, financial. One of them, as I know is the media office. This will take care of the awareness campaigns like the advertisements, commercials, and speeches. E.H.C will have a regularly updated website with comments from the Chairman of the commission on how the process is going.
But it is not the job of the E.H.C alone but of everyone, they should spread the accurate information so it simplifies the electoral process for the common man. The schools, universities, TV channels, radio stations they should all contribute to the educating campaign.
TP: There is an article in the electoral law which specifies a time frame for the registration of voters; do you think it will be possible to register all the voters in time?
Mr. Ameen: I think from the law it is clear that the conditions for the voters are very easy but the conditions for candidates are very tough. Now the list of people who can vote in a particular constituency, we have a problem there. The Libyans have 7 IDís (passport, national id, driving license, green family book, yellow family book, national number, warqadiya) and from all these IDís, as we have been told by the relevant authorities, 20% are fake.
So you cannot depend on these IDís entirely. This puts us in a difficult situation. We cannot say he is a Libyan and he can vote or he is not a Libyan and cannot vote. To address this we are working closely with the Civil Registration Authority, National ID Authority and Immigration and Citizenship Authority.We are gathering all this information; it is not easy as some of the records were burnt but INSHALLAH we will come up with the list in time. I want to tell you that we at NTC have not even considered postponing the elections. So 23rd June 2012 is the last date to have elections.
TP: According to the draft law if some organisation wants to monitor the voting centers they have to fill and submit forms 3 months prior to the elections. If the elections are to be held on June 23rd then the deadline is fast approaching. How do you see that happening?
Mr. Ameen: I think by the end of February or mid-February situation will become much clearer and you can see the schedule line ahead. They have already worked on many issues and several things will go in parallel. Regarding the monitoring teams, theyíll be in thousands and you have to inform the authorities in advance because this information will be passed onto the local authorities.
I have said this many times that the Libyans have surprised the whole world with their revolution and I hope in fact Iím sure they will surprise the world again with the results of their first elections in over 4 decades. In fact this will be the first elections Libyans will go to with 100% transparency.
TP: Our next question is regarding the degree requirement. Why one should have a professional degree to run for the elections?
Mr. Ameen: We received many comments on the same questions. It is not clear but the NTC will clearly define it in the final draft. Most probably it will be a high school degree.
TP: Gaddafi naturalized many Africans so how are you going to deal with the issue?
Mr. Ameen: (Starts with LaanaUllah) Yes he did! We have a lot of them. For voting we will allow them, they are just voting. But to be a candidate it will be really very tight because of the explicit requirements regarding the citizenship. We have tried to make sure that the candidate is Libyan. If they want to vote they can but if they want one of them to be a candidate; I think it is not possible.
TP: You said you received a massive feedback; did you modify the draft based on the input from the people?
Mr. Ameen: Of course! We received 14000 Emails and 200 Documents and we had to respect the feedback and the expectations of the people. We assigned 4 people to manage all the feedback and to arrange it based on the articles they were pertaining to. Of course there were repetitions of the same question but we considered all the comments. They made a list of all the comments regarding each article and then they revised the whole ďdraft lawĒ to make the final version.
TP: Exactly, I was about to ask this question as just before the interview we were told that the NTC has made a statement that the draft law has been passed. Which gives an impression that no changes were made and you said that the committee revised the whole draft based on the feedback?
Mr. Ameen: The final draft has been tabled today (Wednesday) and it was revised according to the feedback we received. Usually we donít meet on Wednesdays but this issue is sensitive in nature so we had to meet.
TP: So, you are saying that the final draft of the electoral law of Free Libya which will lead the people to the elections has been tabled and will be discussed and passed on Saturday and released on Sunday?
Mr. Ameen: Inshallah! We just have a little thing on constituencies but it will be discussed and finalized on Saturday inshallah!
TP: Okay. Can you give us some information on the number of seats from Tripoli at least?
Mr. Ameen: I can give you the formula and you can work the details out for yourself. Itís just two days and everything will be published.
TP: Please tell us a little about you?
Mr. Ameen: I am a very simple, humble Libyan man. My father was a farmer. As a young boy I used to sell vegetables at the Friday Market (Souq El Jumma). I studied Electrical Engineering from the Tripoli University. I got my Bachelorís degree in 1978 and was employed as an asst. lecturer because I was a good student (laughs).
After that, in 1982 I went to the United States to obtain a Masterís degree. I returned and lived in Libya until 1994 teaching in the Tripoli University. I was a lecturer of Electrical engineering. Then in 1994 I went to Hungary to continue my Ph.D. In 1995 one of my colleagues of the MB in Tripoli was captured and the security officials then came after me.
In fact one of the staff members in the Tripoli University had the same surname and they mistakenly caught him instead. So after 1995 I couldnít come back. They stopped my scholarship. I had my family with me. Of course my colleague was sentenced to death but Alhumdulillah he survived. But because of it, from 1995 till March 2011, I had to stay out of Libya. I returned to the Free Libya, of course the eastern area at the time, and on May 13 I joined the NTC representing Tripoli. I have the loveliest women as my wife and we live happily with our nine children and 10 grandchildren.
TP: Do you think you have done justice to the duty you were entrusted with by the NTC? I am talking specifically about the elections committee.
Mr. Ameen: I think so! But the time was very tight. If we had a little more time it would have been a lot better. We could have carried out more discussions but we have done all we could. We were always under pressure and motivating each other to finish the job in time. I have been in the opposition for over 30 years and this is the time to work. I cannot make any excuses now. I am doing what I can for my country.
TP: Your message to the people?
Mr. Ameen: My message to the Libyans is that just be optimistic. Iím sure that we will succeed. Allah is with us. I usually say three words, Be Aware, Be Wise and Be Serious. Why aware, because we are in a situation where we have many enemies. Why wise, because we are in a conflict and you cannot always rely on reaction but you have to act wisely. Why serious, because we have wasted a lot of time doing very little for our country and now if we want to build our country, and we have to act fast.
Being just lazy, working the usual 8 to 2wonít allow us to build our country quickly. We need people to be serious, determined and hard working. By hard work, inshallah, we will be able to build our country in no time.
TP: Thank you. It was wonderful to talk to you!
Photograph by Ahmed Madi
You can follow Umar at twitter.com/umarnkhan