That the recent elections in Libya for a National Assembly went reasonably well is indisputably good news. Less than a year after NATO forces assisted the Libyan opposition in deposing Gaddafi, the country appears to be inching toward the hoped for transition to a democracy ruled by law and not despotism.
Yet enamoured as the west is of elections, several points need to be considered. Elections, in and of themselves, are meaningless... even free, open and fair ones. They are but a means to an end, a vehicle for the delivery of a government with a popular mandate. And in the absence of national cohesion and consensus on the nature of the government, elections can even serve to fuel conflict. We saw this in Iraq, where the triumphal dominance of the Shia electorate assured the violent rejection of the new status quo by the Sunni minority.
In the west, the slow creep toward democracy more often than not came after the gradual building of a unified national identity. Democracy produces winners and losers. If the latter believe losing means living under a government that does not represent their community or favours their rivals, they are less likely to accept electoral outcomes. This is all the more likely in countries where political identity is organized along tribal, ethnic, racial or sectarian grounds, as these communities then see themselves as effectively disenfranchised. Insurgencies, civil war or secessionist movements may result.
To be sure, all people have a right to representative politics. The question is, can a functioning democracy be established when it precedes nation building? Far more attention must be applied to the mechanics of constructing political structures and processes for new democracies in still-forming nations. And this must be done without falling back on a crudely implemented federalism (as in Iraq) or consociationalism (as in Lebanon) that can serve to fuel centrifugal forces in society.
That Libya has gotten this far is truly remarkable. Indeed, there is well-founded hope for the Arab countries that have felled brutal dictators and are now trying to forge ahead and build democracies. It was never going to be quick; it was never going to be easy. Democratization in the west lurched forward and back, inching along over centuries with long periods of stalled progress. The arduous efforts now underway in the Arab world speak of a determination that is heartening.
But the difficulties ahead should not be underestimated. A long period of instability is in store for the Arab world as they nation build and sort out the mechanics of governance amidst groups that sport mistrust instead of unifying bonds and who lack consensus on fundamental issues such as the role of government, the place of religion in society, the rights of the individual, and the path to economic development.
This instability, apart from exacting a high price for the Arab populations who must live through it, could pose problems for the west. Jihadist groups prey on instability; they’re able to make gains in a population demoralized by violence, unmet expectations, perceived injustices, and the lack of economic development that accompanies conflict. We’ve already seen the gains AQAP and related jihadist groups have made in Yemen in the wake of the instability there, and the destabilizing effect in the Sahel, particularly in Mali, of the Libyan weapons that have flowed into jihadist groups and neighbouring insurgencies. This will likely continue as these new governments struggle to consolidate their rule and establish an effective monopoly on force.
Internal instability also provides fertile ground for regional conflicts, as neighbouring states seek to assert their interests through the support of proxies, fuelling conflict and raising the risk of an expanded conflagration. In countries such as Syria which are particular hot-spots for internationalized conflict, the fall-out could be serious.
Stalled or troubled transitions will also undermine the region’s oil exporting countries’ ability to fund and fully carry out the oil production expansion plans needed for global supplies. Iraq’s inability to resolve deadlocks over hydrocarbon legislation and revenue distribution are a case in point.
So yes, the news out of Libya is good. But elections there were, relatively speaking, the easy part. Under Gaddafi, all national institutions were eviscerated. Libya’s transition has been aided by the fact that it has not had to dismantle the kind of ‘deep state’ that has made the transition in countries like Egypt so difficult, where entrenched interests have sought to preserve their power, immunity and financial assets. Consolidation will be more difficult. Democracies need buy-in from the major groups in a country, and that buy-in is contingent upon the state being able to administer to, protect, and enforce the law among all groups in the country. Libya does not have this buy-in yet, and will be hard-pressed to achieve it at the national level.
The poor showing of Libya’s Islamists in the recent elections, while good news to liberal democrats, also carries risks. Under Gaddafi’s blanket repression, Libya’s Islamists were unable to amass the kind of organizational capacity that strengthened Islamists in other countries such as Egypt, where they were able to build institutional strength through decades of charitable work. But no one knows if the Islamists’ continued buy-in to the democratic process is contingent upon their electoral victory.
On the promising side, Libya has a transitional government that has worked assiduously to lay the groundwork for a democratic state ruled by law. And, as a major oil exporter, it has resources. But its task is great: it has yet to gain control over disparate groups and militias in the country and the necessary nation-building project will be arduous.
The international community needs to step forward and offer the Arab world the kind of comprehensive political, economic and technical assistance it provided during Eastern Europe’s democratic transition. There the willingness was driven by the strategic imperative to enmesh the former Communist bloc countries into the security framework of the west. The Arab world poses no less a strategic imperative. For far too long this region has served to drain treasure and blood; full recognition of the obstacles the region faces, and a willingness to help it over the long haul, are in order.