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In Libya, ethnic and tribal tension threatens democracy

Libya's national assembly election gives cause for hope. But militias hold sway in many towns, the east talks of secession and Islamists and tribes want a voice.

July 07, 2012|By Glen Johnson, Los Angeles Times

As it has done in neighboring Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood seems likely to secure a sizable share of the vote. All eyes will be on the performance of hard-line Islamist elements, particularly Abdelhakim Belhaj's Watan party.

Islamist brigades have become increasingly visible, particularly in the east. According to news reports, a group called Partisans of Islamic Law — the same name used by a Yemeni Salafi militant organization — has condemned the elections as illegitimate and un-Islamic.

Behind all the political wrangling, major problems loom. Despite international endorsement of the rebels as liberal forward-thinkers, the real issues affecting Libya remain social.

Some people doubt that the country can make the transition to democracy, arguing that regressive strictures — a toxic mix of patriarchy, religious conservatism and tribalism — render any progressive political process meaningless.

The national assembly itself will face daunting challenges, said Salah, of Human Rights Watch, such as dealing with potential mass displacements, reconciling rival factions and forming a panel of experts.

"The Libyan people have to be reassured that justice will be served to all and that there will be no immunity from prosecution for serious crimes, whoever the perpetrator," said Salah. "Failing to do so will only foster a culture of impunity which may encourage perpetrators to continue with violations."

Johnson is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.

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