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Why does Libya’s incoming government have only two female ministers?

On 1 March, Libya’s Tobruk-based Parliament voted in a new cabinet led by former Interior Minister, Fathi Bashaga, and its 29 ministers, six State Ministers and three Deputy Prime Ministers have all taken their constitutional oath. However it is unclear if, and when, the new government will take office in Tripoli as the outgoing Prime Minister, Abdulhamid Dabaiba has, repeatedly, said that he will only hand over power to an elected government. He accuses the Parliament that voted him in earlier this year, of being illegitimate.

Notably the new government has only one female Minister, Salha Al-Drouqi, who is to take over the Ministry of Culture, and another State Minister for woman affairs. Compared to the outgoing cabinet, which had five women ministers, this is far from women empowerment and gender equality in the country’s difficult transitional period.

Libya’s Parliament and the United Nations sponsored roadmap called for at least 30 per cent of ministerial posts to be filled by women. The outgoing government failed to meet that target, while the incoming one has done even worse.

MEMO asked three Libyan women how to explain this low female representation in a country that has no shortages of qualified women.

Ayat Mneina, who describes herself as a freelance consultant and researcher, said that it is clear that “women are not a priority” in Bashaga’s cabinet. She explains by saying that even the two women appointed were not given “key positions”. Mneina concluded by saying that “there is not much hope for women until we have elections.”

Nearly three million Libyans were ready to vote on 24 December, 2021, when elections were, indefinitely, suspended and a new date has not been announced yet. Political quarrelling among different political factions about election law and other technical issues forced the elections commission to suspend the process. The parliament has, last January, put forward another plan that mandates elections to take place after 18 months’ interim period. However, Libyans are suspicious if they will be able to vote in two years’ time.

Ms. Mnenie thinks that, without general elections, Libya will continue to have “transitional governments” that will always fall short of any “expectation with respect to women.” Such governments, she believes, are responsive only to competing interests amongst different political factions, whether in the parliament in Tobruk or the High Council of State in Tripoli—a consultative body.

Many Libyan commentators have defended Bashaga’s decision to include only two women in his cabinet. They claim that not so many Libyan women are qualified to serve in high posts and, those who were given the opportunity before, have failed.

Reem El-Breki, a Benghazi-based parliamentary nominee and social activist, notes that the women ministers in the previous government are “not representatives of Libyan women” and their failure does not mean Libyan women are “unqualified” and anyone believing this is an “enemy of women.” She goes on to say that Dbeibeh’s government, collectively, failed not because of individual ministers. Yet, she singles out Najala Al-Mangoush, the outgoing Foreign Minister, as an example of failure because Al-Mangoush “helped delay the elections”, just like other ministers. El-Breki, also, points out to the Minister of Justice, Halima Abdel Rahman, accusing her of failing in managing the “national reconciliation file”. The reconciliation process is, in fact, the responsibility of the three member strong Presidential Council, which has failed, so far, to make progress on the issue. To Ms. El-Breki this is another example of collective rather than individual failure.

Ms. El-Breki, an outspoken person on social media and in the real world, does not believe the quota system in allocating high government jobs to women is “helpful to women.” Instead she demands that such high profile positions should be decided on merits not “gender” because the country is more important than any other issue. Like many other Libyans, El-Breki thinks that any political manoeuvre that delays elections is worthless and should be rejected.

Aya Burweila, based in Athens, Greece, and Director of Code on the Road, a civil society organisation active in business training for women, said she does not care if the minister is “a woman or a man”, as long as qualification and performance are the real benchmarks, not necessarily gender. Again, she calls for elections as soon as possible.

Hanan Issa, a Tripoli based law student, disagrees. She thinks women should be “widely represented” if they are to be empowered and helped gain their rights in a “male dominate society like Libya” she said.

Mr. Bashaga’s cabinet is already facing multiple problems and accusations of corruption, even before it takes office. The outgoing Prime Minister, Dbeibeh, is still refusing to hand over power. Armed militia, loyal to him, kidnapped three of Bashaga’s nominated ministers while they were on their way to Tobruk to take the oath of office. The three were later freed and reached the parliament, days later, while their colleague, Minister of Economy and Trade, Gamal Salem Shabbat, withdraw his nominations citing what he called “fraudulent” vote of confidence in the parliament. In a video posted on social media, Mr. Shabbat said the incoming government will lead to conflict.

According to many observers, the vote of confidence session lacked transparency and legitimacy, even prompting the UN to comment on the matter.

Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres’s spokesperson, on 3 March statement, expressed the world body’s concern about what he called reports that the parliamentary session in Tobruk, the day before, “fell short of the expected standards”. The controversy rose in the way the vote count was conducted, as some MPS voted by WhatsApp application. The Libyan Parliament does not have clear legal or procedural standards as to how distance voting should be handled. Yet, the Parliament Speaker, Aguila Saleh, passed the vote by announcing that 92 MPs from 101 present voted in favour of the new government.

Even if the vote was transparent and legal, it would have no impact on the fact that women remain disadvantaged and under-represented in Libya, where men are still the dominant force.

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