Libya’s Problems will be Solved by more Democracy, not Less (Hilsum)

Lindsey Hilsum writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

Attacks on both the US and UK delegations in Benghazi, fighting in Kufra, the detention of four officials from the International Criminal Court – more evidence that Libya’s weak transitional authorities are unable to impose law and order. The young men who took up arms against Gaddafi refuse to submit to the old men who now make up the National Transitional Council and the interim government.

It is tempting to blame the revolution, or at least the revolutionaries, echoing the young woman who worked for The Guide (as she always called him) who told me: “I have to tell you democracy will not work here. It’s not possible with Arabs.”

In fact, the problem is lack of democracy. Until there is an elected government, these problems are likely to multiply. The elections for an assembly to replace the National Transitional Council have been delayed from June 19th to July 7th, but they still provide the best hope that a new government, appointed by the assembly, will be able to assert itself. “If we can get the elections done well then we’ll have a government with a better basis of legitimacy which can act on these issues,” said Ian Martin, the UN Special Envoy to Tripoli.

Libya’s was the only true revolution of the “Arab Spring”, in which the entire apparatus of state was overturned. Not that there was much in the way of a state – Gaddafi invented parallel institutions so that he could use one to counter decisions made by another, to the point where no-one but him made decisions at all. Unlike in Egypt, where they are struggling to chip away at the seemingly immoveable pillars of the old regime, in Libya the whole edifice crumbled. It’s Year Zero in Tripoli.

The incidents of the last two weeks are a symptom of the resulting power-vacuum, but not necessarily connected. The problem is that everyone with a grievance is turning to violence or protest, not that Libyans share the same grievance against the new authorities.

The Zintan Brigade detained Seif al-Gaddafi’s lawyers because one allegedly had undeclared documents and a secret recording device. The issue is not the facts of the matter, but the Zintanis’ failure to understand that by holding the foreigners they are damaging the country’s chances of putting Seif on trial in Libya. Only after the ICC officials are released can the facts be established.

Similarly, the brigade from Tarhouna which briefly occupied the airport last week do not understand – or do not care – that their actions jeopardise the whole country. The interim President Abdel Jalil has failed to convince Libyans that the interests of the nation must trump the perceived interest of any individual militia or region. Initially, his weakness was his strength – with his small stature and diffident manner, he was as great a contrast to Gaddafi as you could imagine. Now, however, the situation demands stronger leadership, which all Libyans regard as legitimate.

The attacks in the east are of a different nature. Jihadi groups, probably angered by the drone killing in Pakistan of Abu Yahyia al-Libi, Al Qaeda’s Number 2, are flexing their muscles. This is a much more serious problem, not least because it’s reported that US drones are surveying suspected jihadi camps near Derna.
Any attack on Libyan territory would most likely unite Libyans against the US
, which would switch from ally into enemy in a single day. The current divisions are healthy. When 300 armed men flying black banners drove their armoured vehicles into the main square in Benghazi last Thursday, counter-demonstrators, including women, carrying the tri-colour Libyan flag pushed them out without incident.

Anyone who thought that Libya would go from dictatorship to democracy overnight was dreaming. Elections in July will not solve all the problems nor quell all the violence. But after successful local elections in Misrata and Benghazi, and enthusiastic voter registration even in the fractious south, there is still a reasonable chance that Libyans can start to build a new state in the place of the ruins Muammar Gaddafi left behind.

Lindsey Hilsum is the author of Sandstorm; Libya in the Time of Revolution
, published by The Penguin Press. She is International Editor for Britain’s Channel 4 News.

Posted in Libya | 11 Responses | Print |

11 Responses

  1. Even the Tuareg have access to the technology needed to shoot down CIA drones.

    I’m sure it happens weekly, considering that the US military & CIA have maybe 1,000 aloft at any given time, worldwide.

    If these folks want their sovereignty respected, they need to step up and buy a Cessna. Don’t count on the US Government respecting it otherwise.

    By the way, I believe there is currently a moratorium against drone surveillance across most of Western Europe, Japan and New Zealand.

    • Events really do support the idea that the key to practical respect from the US is a nuclear break-out capacity, at least. Developing a more subtle practical influence along the lines of the UK and Israel is along ways down the road for most other countries. To the extent countries like Germany have respect, it is for their ability to drag their feet before eventually doing what they must…

      Otherwise, Libya really is the most promising part of the so-called Arab Spring: the only Real Revolution. Half a revolution is something else…a tantrum maybe? It can cause change on the margins and over time possible steer the boat in a different direction, possible only temporarily. It keeps the powers that be from taking things totally for granted. Is better than nothing.

      But Libya represents something very different and very positive. They had a big enough expat community of technocrats that oil production, if I heard correctly, is back to 90%+ of pre-war levels. The bureaucracy is also quickly coming back together with the same new blood, carrying with it experience with more enlightened governance. They’ll have problems, obviously, but there seems to be an underlying force of secularism undergirding things. If the Brotherhood makes inroads it may well come in a more benign and amiable form.

      We can only speculate how things will unfold and progress always tends to be a two steps forward, one step back sort of thing. But still, the ingredients for Libya finding its way in a good way seem to be in place, largely by virtue of their having gone through the pain of making a clean break with a real revolution.

      Maybe that’s what we should see as necessary for Syria, however (infinity) more bloody the circumstances there may make it?

  2. I think the Libyan people have a great chance here to create a successful country and rebuke the anti-Arab stereotypes. I wish them the best.

  3. It seems to me that this situation is proving the political science proposition that ‘stateness’ is a precondition for democratization. Maybe there is no such thing as Libya as a polity at all… If this is so, then elections may not be enough to restore order and no efforts by any well meaning outsiders can make a state where none exists…

  4. I doubt all of it. In fact, the claim that democracy might bring legitimacy is false as it is based on Western democratic values and understandings. Arabs might have different roots to legitimacy. For many years, the Iranian government might have been legitimate qua their position on religion. The Saudi Arabian is legitimate as caretakers of the holy sites. The Chinese is based on growth.

      • Yeah. That is precisely it. They have to find their own way. However, to imagine that democracy is the universal formula qua its popular foundation is utterly naive. There is a common denominator among these countries, which is that each of them has several subgroups which might not be inclined to support the centre despite its potential legitimacy. This is because these groups have a strong sense of identity which does not fluctuate around say a Libyan or Syrian identity. Thus, these groups might not believe in the democracy gained legitimacy. It has been argued before that the only reason why Yugoslavia kept together was because of its strongman Tito.

  5. What is being ignored here is consciousness; the not consciously detectable aspect of every person that determines what that person assumes is possible in life. Consciousness occurs in degrees, from quite primitive through to quite advanced (here optimal is autonomy, quality sensations while working, quality sensations while relating, and clarity about the makeup of the spiritual realm). Only after the majority of a population have a consciousness of individuality, and the awareness each person should be treated with respect and consideration, is it possible to have a mature democracy, where no group is favored, free enterprise is accepted, free speech and freedom of religion is enshrined in constitutional law.

    Obviously this did not exist in most Libyans prior to the Arab Spring, which is why Khadaffi could rule in his dictatorial manner. Also obviously most Libyans now want this, because there was an Arab Spring. But no shift in consciousness can be incarnated into everyday behavior except through trial and error over an extended period of time.

    So enough of this myopia regarding Libya, give them a decade or two window of opportunity, and sit back and relax.

    • Really. We’re far too infatuated with the dream of things happening overnite. A success, on their terms, because that’s all that (should) really matter, is going to take generations before it settles down to something they can more or less take for granted.

      It took several generations before the US got to the point it could have a really bloody civil war. It seems the best you can hope for in participatory governance is to keep the violence in check, and backsliding can happen at any moment.

      Give them support and encouragement to find their own way and in their own time, and keep the machinations and wet-dreams of the West out of it.

  6. I think for democracy to work there has to be an overarching value system that assures citizens fairness under the law, and a reasonable standard of living.

    The West would find such a value system antagonistic to its private sector objectives of unfettered access to Libyan markets and natural resources. The West wants to be at the table when Libyan wealth is sliced and diced. An economic model that supports wealth and power concentration is well suited to Western needs.

    I’d guess that the rebels’ assessment of the current situation is influenced by understanding how fast corruption can syndicate itself throughout the country, and how quickly it can become an overarching value system that pays little attention to the needs of the people. The rebels didn’t put their lives on the line to protect the institution of bribery.

    Maybe a look at the very early Gaddafi era could offer some ideas – free medical care and universal education can’t be all that bad.

    • It is rather ironic Gaddafi’s early years were viewed as idyllic by young revolutionaries throughout the world. He had been viewed as something as an Arab Che Guevara.

      It was only years later when he achieved recognition as an unstable purveyor of worldwide terrorism was he vilified almost universally both internally and externally.

      King Idris was deemed to have been not that bad after all.

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