Libya: a time for patience

The task of building a democratic and inclusive Libya with working institutions must overcome the international community’s key flaw as well as the Gaddafi regime’s legacy, says Vidar Helgesen.
Vidar Helgesen
29 August 2011

In the wake of the tumultuous end-days of Muammar Gaddafi’s forty-two-year regime, Libya faces the daunting challenge of turning the private networks of loyalty he created into a democratic state-building process. To meet it, Libya and the international community must work together in an imaginative way that combines decisive short-term policy with careful longer-term vision.

The immediate priorities are to establish security, law and order, to restore basic services, and to provide humanitarian assistance. These must be followed soon by a reinvigoration of Libya’s economy, in particular oil production, which accounts for almost all of Libya’s national income. The question here is how to establish a framework for the administration and distribution of oil revenues in a post-Gaddafi Libya. This will take time and the risk of corruption is high.

This particular task indicates Libya’s longer-term strategic priority: to develop institutions in a country whose basic existence and ideology have for decades been reliant on the very absence of institutions (see Fred Halliday, "Libya's regime at 40: a state of kleptocracy", 8 September 2009).

In practice this means writing a new constitution that determines the country’s form of government, establishing political parties, and forming a parliament. In Libya, this work will be even harder than elsewhere; for its singular experience of dictatorship means that it starts from the equivalent of a blank slate (Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge and East Timor after Indonesia, different from Libya as they are, offer a point of comparison).

How, then, should Libya and the international community proceed to try to accomplish these tasks?

The process

The incoming authority in Libya, the National Transitional Council, has promised elections within eight months. This timetable looks unrealistic, for two reasons.

First, Libya has no electoral system - and in a society where tribal groups exercise powerful influence, the development of an electoral system can become a matter of war or peace. A method of majority voting in single-person constituencies, which of its nature often leads to a “winner-takes all” outcome, can increase tensions and fragmentation. A proportional electoral system leads to a more representative parliament, but also requires functioning political parties, and these naturally will take time to establish.

Second, Libya has no electoral body or other credible independent institution that can oversee elections and guarantee their integrity. If in such circumstances the international community moves to support early elections, it will be replicating a key mistake made in other post-conflict states: pressing for elections which are then held prematurely, and in a way which neglects the need to build national capacity as the foundation for subsequent elections.

The political system in Libya needs to be outlined in a new constitution. But the development of a constitution involves more than setting out principles, human rights and responsibilities on paper. It is also about creating the conditions for democratic participation in the constitution-building process itself. The most successful constitutions are those which are owned by the people. It can be difficult and time-consuming in any circumstances to bring about this “public ownership” of a constitution - even more so when a country lacks democratic traditions.

South Africa is often cited as an example of a constitutional process where the people had ownership. It is thus worth recalling that the creation of a post-apartheid constitution in South Africa took several years, and the context was of a much more developed institutional background than Libya. Moreover, Libya must still be considered at risk of fragmentation, which makes it even more important that all groups there are heard and feel that they have been given a voice.

The test

The international community thus needs both to have patience in Libya and (just as important) to demonstrate this in practice to Libya’s people. It should counsel against any rush to elections, but rather encourage Libyans to form a broad coalition government which could rule the country for a substantial period. It should also support an interim constitution written by Libyans, not by European experts.

This is the way to help ensure that Libya’s new political system is shaped through a dialogue in which the country’s citizens are involved from the beginning, different options are discussed and considered compromises made. It would also allow political parties to develop as part of a broader political process, rather than as a result of the short-term need to mobilise before an election.

Much recent experience shows that the international community often lacks the very quality of patience needed for such an approach. This central flaw has led to mixed results in many countries and regions, among them Afghanistan (where the initial timetable agreed in December 2001 was unrealistic), Iraq, East Timor, Haiti and the Balkans.

The legacy of the past decades makes Libya the test-case for a better form of international action - one characterised both by a rapid response and a long-term strategy. How this action unfolds in the coming months and years has implications that go far beyond Libya.

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