Hamas lesson for Libya

Hasty implementation of “democratic” elections can be wrought with danger and can often lead to strife, bloodshed and even civil war.

September 7, 2011 00:14
3 minute read.
Libyans celebrating the capture Bab al Aziziya

Libyan celebrate flag Tripoli_311. (photo credit: Reuters)


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Libya’s rebel fighters have still not clinched control over a few areas such as Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, the desert town of Sabha and Bani Walid, but there is already talk of instituting democratic elections to choose a new leadership to replace Gaddafi’s dictatorial regime.

Not long after Libya’s National Transitional Council won control over Tripoli, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the council’s chairman, called for a new constitution and elections within 18 months. An internal UN document, meanwhile, envisions a two-stage transition to democracy in Libya.

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However, judging from numerous examples in recent decades, the hasty implementation of “democratic” elections can be wrought with danger and can often lead to strife, bloodshed and even civil war. Academic studies have backed up the argument that rushing to the ballots is often a bad idea.

Dawn Brancati of Washington University and Jack Snyder of Columbia University have found, based on looking at elections that took place around the world after civil wars since 1945, that the sooner a country went to the polls the more likely it was to relapse into war. On average, Brancati and Snyder found that waiting five years before holding the first election reduced the chances of war by one-third.

And there is a local example of what happens when the trappings of democracy are introduced before the prerequisites for any democratic regime – administrative institutions, rule of law, political and social stability and cultural norms – are put in place. In January 2006 Palestinians went to the polls and granted Hamas – a terrorist organization bent on using violence, including suicide bombings, to destroy the Jewish state – a landslide victory in the Palestinian elections for parliament.

The vote led to the eventual split between the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-controlled West Bank, and further complicated the already impossible chances for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Elliot Abrams, at the time a special assistant to president George W. Bush and the National Security Council’s senior director for Near East and North African Affairs, rightly noted in an interview with The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon in June that in retrospect the US position on allowing those elections was mistaken. A hasty implementation of “democracy” can mean that citizens’ first experience with democratic elections might very well be their last.

Similarly, Libya is far from ready for democratic elections. The country lacks a stable civil society and is bereft of modern institutions, while its oil-based economy has fostered rampant corruption.


Further exacerbating the situation is the all-too-real danger of a new round of fighting. While the rebels won a decisive victory over Gaddafi, thus negating the possibility that forces loyal to the old regime will try to make a comeback, the balance of power among the victorious factions still remains in flux.

And the country is still awash in weapons, including stocks looted from government warehouses. Those arms are held by rival factions and private citizens alike. And judging from precedents in Lebanon, Gaza and elsewhere, UN peacekeepers on the ground in Libya are unlikely to play a significant role in keeping the peace.

Before elections take place, Libya needs to be given the opportunity to build up impartial, rule-based, and noncorrupt institutions, including courts, police, and other governmental bureaucracies. Ideally, the country should also formulate a constitution that protects human rights, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly.

Premature elections in Libya might give the false impression of a speedy transition from dictatorship to democracy, but as the Palestinian example has shown, hastily implemented democratic elections alone are no guarantee that a more enlightened leadership will be voted in to power.

Democracies must be built from the bottom up, starting with administrative institutions that can help ensure the rule of law and protect basic human rights. Citizens must be educated to participate in civil rule and appreciate the benefits of a true democracy: freedom, liberty and equality.

Until Libya makes significant progress in these areas, it would be not only unwise but downright dangerous to push ahead with “democratic” elections within 18 months, as Libya’s National Transitional Council chairman is calling to do.

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