Tripoli - Libyans paid with their lives to end the 42-year dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi, but nearly 15 months after he was killed they remain at odds over a democratic constitution to replace it.
There is not even consensus on who should draw up the charter. Some want the 200-member General National Congress elected in July to appoint a panel to carry out the task. Others want fresh elections to a constitutional convention.
The latest political malaise emerged Monday with members of a liberal coalition, the National Forces Alliance (NFA), announcing their withdrawal from the assembly in protest over delays forming a committee to draft the charter.
The coalition holds 39 out of 80 seats open to parties.
The GNC came to power with a mandate to appoint a government and oversee the drawing up of a new constitution, but the mechanics of that process remain the subject of intense debate.
GNC chief Mohammed Megaryef told civil society groups in December that the assembly would make its decision after broad consultations with the public, without setting a time frame for the process.
The provisional constitution, which was amended right before July elections in a bid to head off a federalist boycott, stipulates that the charter should be drawn up by an elected convention with historic regions equally represented.
Abu Baker Bueira, a leading pro-federalism personality in the east, said his camp wanted a qualified committee to be elected directly by the people in free and fair elections.
“We don't know how far we'll go but we are against the notion of selecting those people by appointment,” he told AFP.
There are no members of the federalist movement in the congress because they boycotted the election for a national assembly, but many Libyans support the idea of a decentralised system of government.
“Before deciding one way or the other, the assembly determined that there should be a national dialogue... and whatever the decision, we hope to do this transparently, taking into consideration the citizens' opinion” Megaryef said.
The International Crisis Group's senior analyst for Libya, Claudia Gazzini, said there was wisdom in that approach.
“It is better to take things calmly and consult people rather than rushing the process and alienating public opinion,” she said.
But others say it would be folly for Libya to prolong the political and legal uncertainty while it is still struggling to rein in the former rebel militias that are the legacy of the armed uprising that ousted Gaddafi in October 2011.
“I think they are leaning towards an elected committee because they don't want to take responsibility for the results,” an international electoral observer based in Tripoli told AFP.
“An elected committee is the least logical -- it makes no economic or political sense -- but it seems the most likely,” added the observer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“By delaying the constitution, you prolong legislative uncertainty because laws are not based on the constitution. Instead you have interim laws and that affects everything, the economy, investment.”
Hassan Lamin, an independent GNC member from the city of Misrata, insisted that the assembly should bite the bullet and draw up a new constitution itself as quickly as possible.
“The national assembly is passing laws... and it is neglecting its priority. There is no excuse for this delay,” said Lamin, adding that he was considering freezing his membership of the assembly in protest.
Whoever draws up the constitution will have to decide a host of key issues, including not only the system of government but also the country's official language or languages, which could include Berber as well as Arabic, and the status of women and ethnic minorities.
In a country where conservative Muslim values run deep, there is little doubt that Islam will be a major plank of any new charter, but its drafters will have to decide just how big.
“There is broad consensus that the new constitution should draw heavily from Islamic sharia law, but also consensus on the need to avoid extremism,” said the Washington-based National Democratic Institute. - AFP