As negotiations between Libya’s primary political factions take place in Tunisia, leaders and international advisors are debating potential governing models for Libya. For now – amid deep disagreements about basic constitutional concerns – the process remains stalled.
Is it realistic to think that democracy will work in Libya? History has taught that democracy is not only a very difficult political system to achieve, but that it is equally complex to maintain. If imposed from the outside, when a population is not yet committed to making it work, democracy can actually lead to ruinous results. If Libya is to become a democracy (a regime type that it has not adopted in any meaningful way in recent memory), it must be because Libyans themselves want it and are willing to work hard to get and sustain it. This will require difficult efforts in politics, the economy, and security.
Libya’s non-democratic history
Modern Libya has never experienced a real democracy, largely because a functioning democracy is extremely hard to build. The Italian occupation from 1912 to 1943, hardly an effort to build democracy, was rather a disaster for Libyans. Afterwards, taking power in 1951, King Idris banned political parties, rigged elections, fought freedom of the press, and exploited tribalism and regionalism to maintain power. When Muammar Gadhafi made his entry on the Libyan scene in 1969, he denied any kind of independent political activity and relied on tribalism to achieve security for his regime, selectively rewarding and punishing tribes to maintain favorable power balances and eradicate any hint of opposition. Not surprisingly, entrenched tribalism and regionalism reared their ugly heads in 2011, when the Gadhafi regime fell. With the fall of that regime in 2011, Libyans would have had enormous difficulties transitioning to a democratic system – they had never experienced one, not even during the kingdom of Idris. They had always been governed with a heavy hand of one sort of another. Ruthless repressions, assaults, censorship, systematic control of individual freedoms, terror: this is the sad history of Libya – tribal, ethnic, and regional conflicts – deeply linked to both exogenous and endogenous factors. Building an effective democracy is an uphill battle in any circumstances; in Libya, the conditions are uniquely difficult.
Today, Libya faces significant challenges in the political, economic, and security realms, which impede prospects for building a functioning democracy.
First, Libyans need to determine what kind of nation they want to be: federal or centralized. This could be decided through a referendum, for instance. The hypothesis of a Libyan confederation could have great potential because deep regional and local differences are not a weakness, but rather hold great possibilities. In order to obtain some result, Libyans need to do exactly the opposite of what they have done until now: decentralizing and giving too much power to local realities.
Second, Libyans need a serious process of integration that seeks to incorporate the marginalized: the tribes of the south, first of all, but also ethnicities profoundly damaged during the revolution like the Tawergha, in Tripolitania, who saw their town largely cleared in 2011 when Gadhafi's troops used it as a core center against the Misrata militias.
Third, they need a revised constitution that recognizes human rights, individual freedom, equal distribution of natural resources, and other core issues. Libyans must decide whether their constitution will adopt sharia or not. Moreover, they need a chance to adopt a new constitution via referendum. In order to run the country, however, these political steps are not enough. And this is where the international community might bring unique value, with its specialists and technicians in governance, administration, and other practical matters. Their only rule: listen to and understand Libyans and their needs.
The Libyan economy is paralyzed because previous governments were too focused on surviving. As a result, indispensable investments have not been made in the public and private sectors. Most importantly, Libya needs a complete renovation of its old infrastructures, corroded in the last six years; new investments in the Man Made River, the national aqueduct and in GECOL, the national electricity grid; and investments in new roads, railways, schools, hospitals, and every single thing that makes a nation work. All these investments must come not from the outside. It is time to invest in these areas. Oil revenues must be used to support the non-oil segments of the economy. Libya needs to diversify, and to do that, the private sector must be strengthened – a good starting point could be investing in small firms that are connected to key infrastructure. The economic system is old and flawed, it needs to be modernized.
The Libyan public remains armed to the teeth. One of the basic tenants of counterinsurgency efforts – at any time and in any country – is the disarmament of the population. In Libya there are 20 million weapons distributed among fewer than 6 million people. This reality – on top of the enormous political and economic challenges already outlined – has produced a situation that looks a lot like anarchy. In a country where there is no rule of law, the strongest makes his own laws. And militias are not inclined to give up their arms. One potential solution, paradoxically, is to allow them to keep their arms – but in the context of government-controlled structures like a national army or local police forces. This is no small order, of course, but could be a useful conceptual starting point for thinking about re-orienting current realities toward a better future.
As the World Bank wrote in its October 2017 Economic Outlook for Libya: "The Libyan economy still remains far below potential, hindered by the persistence of violent political conflict." This illuminates how intertwined intractable Libya’s challenges are today.
The international community – which has done considerable damage in Libya over the decades – should absolutely support Libya in its endeavors to improve its political, economic, and security situation. This should include, specifically, helping to stabilize the country so that there can be progress.
However, at the end of the day, it’s Libyans who must be willing to commit to progress and understand the challenges. What kind of nation do Libyans want? If they chose democracy, they must be prepared to fight, to die, and above all – much harder – to put aside their personal interest for a superior, collective good. Democracy has proven difficult to preserve for even the oldest and most advanced countries: Libyans need to be helped, but international actors must always keep the right distance, never forgetting that Libya belongs to Libyans. On the other side of the coin, it is up to Libyans to make the effort in order to achieve what they have never had: a truly independent and modern nation. They have the resources, they have the strategic position – it’s the collective will that’s still missing.
In the end, if we think of the alternatives on the table, they are not very exciting. On the one hand, the abandonment of the democratic project could represent a new descent into chaos, this time lethal for a country that is much more worn down and disrupted than six years ago. On the other, the imposition of a strongman – as some regional actors would like to see – in the long run would only lead to further and much more rooted conflicts. So the best choice, as it happens most of the time, is the most difficult to obtain.