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The birth of a new Libya?

Written by Alina Rocha Menocal


A recent ODI event on Libya helped to crystallise some of the dilemmas and tensions embedded in contemporary state-building efforts, both domestic and international. Inspired by the Arab Spring, and with critical support from the international community, the revolution in Libya ended more than 40 years of despotic, personalised and divisive rule under Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. This moment of transition in Libya, unimaginable scarcely a year ago, offers a unique opportunity to lay the foundations for a more effective state that is duly anchored in society – at least in principle.

However, as the Arab Spring has also shown, while getting rid of a dictator may prove relatively straightforward, building a new political order that is grounded in legitimacy and broad-based representation is likely to be much harder. Against a backdrop of great hopes and heightened expectations both within Libya and beyond, it has become clear that the country faces enormous challenges.

A prime concern is security.
This is not necessarily because security trumps all else, as suggested by Lord Paddy Ashdown at our event, but because it is symptomatic of a fundamental problem. The proliferation of local forces and militia – who do not see themselves as serving the National Transitional Council’s (NTC) authority and may have overlapping and competing claims to power – highlights the fact that, as of yet, there is no agreement among contending forces on what the fundamental rules of the game are and how political power is to be organised. In other words, a basic political settlement is missing.

This raises the question of how these militia can be (re)integrated into the political process and the kinds of incentives needed to convince them to give up arms, including not only jobs, training and salaries, but also consultations, dialogue with relevant stakeholders, and some form of power devolution or power sharing. At present, the NTC is engaged in some of these efforts. However, this is likely to remain an uphill struggle, not least because of crucial economic and financial constraints, but also because of considerable lack of administrative, institutional and political capacity.

A second challenge relates to the absolute necessity to build credible and legitimate state institutions that the population at large can trust. This, in effect, is the mandate of the NTC: to oversee the establishment of an inclusive, elected government. But as the increasingly charged domestic atmosphere and the growing criticism of Libya’s interim leadership suggest, the road ahead remains bumpy.

With support from the international community and in response to domestic pressures, the NTC has sought to tackle questions of legitimacy through elections and the creation of a new Constitution. However, as was highlighted at our event, the formal timeline for these milestones is extraordinarily tight (within 18 months of the NTC gaining control of Tripoli). It seems particularly rushed given the country’s deep-rooted legacy of ‘weak, at times absent, state institutions, coupled with the long absence of political parties and civil society organisations’, as the UN's Libya envoy, Ian Martin, recently told the Security Council.

There are a host of other issues at stake in Libya's transition, including: the role political parties should play in elections and the political process more broadly (the newly drafted Electoral Law is notable for omitting any mention of them); the role of religion in the state; how women should be incorporated into the political system (a women quota was dropped from the Electoral Law); the mechanisms that should be put in place to promote national reconciliation and transitional justice; and how power should be dispersed and the subsequent checks that should be established. These issues need to be addressed through an ongoing national conversation that is as participatory and inclusive as possible of the many forces that now comprise the Libyan political landscape – but it is also bound to take time.

There are no easy answers here. Clearly, elections and constitutions are essential to endow state-building efforts and the emerging (new) state with some sense of legitimacy in the eyes of the population. However, over the past two decades, a key lesson has been learned in democracy support efforts (sometimes the hard way) that holding elections too quickly in post-conflict or other fragile settings, before institutions are in place that are strong and effective enough to channel new rights and freedoms peacefully, can be highly problematic.

This is not to suggest that democratic reforms (especially elections), as well as responses to justice and the respect for fundamental rights, should be postponed until strong and perfectly functioning state institutions are fully in place. And yet, after 40 years of autocratic rule, we cannot expect a democracy to be built overnight. The rush to hold elections and write a constitution as quickly as possible in Libya seems premature, given that basic conditions do not seem to be in place. For instance, achieving free and fair elections with results accepted by all relevant stakeholders is contingent on the security issues highlighted above and on the existence of a viable political settlement, especially given that the country remains awash with weapons. And the compressed timeframe has left precious little room for dialogue, consultation and the building of political organisation.

What this tension points to is the absolute need to develop strategic patience and tolerance for unwieldy processes of transition, as Lord Ashdown put it at our ODI meeting. This, and a good dose of realism – which is true not only for international actors who may be concerned about producing results quickly, but also for the Libyan population itself, which is growing increasingly frustrated and disillusioned by the perceived slow pace of progress.