Libya, where to?

Libya must proceed cautiously, putting in place the sorts of institutions that are a prerequisite for even the most rudimentary forms of democracy.

October 23, 2011 22:50
3 minute read.
Libya flag seen on top of a damaged building

Libya flag 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani)


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Muammar Gaddafi, a wicked, violent and capricious dictator who is responsible for the deaths of countless victims at home and abroad, is no more. Libya is now at a crossroads comparable with 1952, when the country was first declared an independent state, or 1969 when Gaddafi wrested control from King Idris, Libya’s first unifying figure.

Unfortunately, Libya carries the legacy of centuryold fractures – social, economic, geographic and cultural – unhealed since Italy, in November 1911, first brought together by royal decree the disparate regions of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan under the artificial construction known, since 1934, as “Libya,” the Greek term for Northwest Africa.

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Bridging these fractures presents the biggest challenge to Libya’s future stability; failing to do so could result in years of violence and anarchy.

Further exacerbating Libya’s inherent volatility is a myriad of ad-hoc militias, police forces, neighborhood guards and miscellaneous riff raff – not to mention between 120 to 130 tribes all armed to the teeth with questionable loyalties and roaming the country.

Under the circumstances, it would be highly advisable for Libyans to proceed cautiously with their new-found “freedom,” says Prof. Maurice Roumani, of Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Mult-Discipline Studies and author, most recently, of The Jews of Libya: Coexistence, Persecution, Resettlement.

That’s why it was unsettling to hear Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya’s de facto government, announce plans to speed headlong into parliamentary and presidential elections in just eight months.

His call to draft a 37-point constitution that would ensure such pillars of enlightened society, such as basic human rights – regardless of race, religion or tribal loyalty – is admirable, but unrealistic in the short term.

Roumani, for one, believes that until the formidable task of disarming and disbanding the multitude of militias is completed and military power is consolidated and put under control, Libya will face insurmountable obstacles in its transition to some form of parliamentary democracy.

And there is, of course, the real danger of a resurgence of Islamists, who were handily repressed, jailed, exiled or hunted down under Gaddafi’s regime.

For 42 years, by the sheer force of his will and an ample and ready dose of brutality, Gaddafi had managed to hold together the pastiche of tribes, cultures, geographies and ethnicities that make up modernday Libya.

In the process, Gaddafi effectively undermined all independent institutions – from the legal system and police force, to the press and the universities. It will take years to rebuild the foundations of a civil society. Until then, uncertainty – perhaps utter chaos – will rein.

The fact that Libya supplies about two percent of the world’s oil and that this oil is highly accessible, and of very high quality, further ups the ante by attracting all sorts of potentially violent types interested more in self-aggrandizement and wealth than the good of the people.

The vigilante execution of Gaddafi is hardly auspicious. The anarchy and breakdown of command that enabled members of Libya’s revolutionary militias to murder Gaddafi after he was discovered could very well be a harbinger of the sort of disorder that awaits Libyans.

Though we sympathize with the masses who suffered at the hands of Gaddafi’s evil regime to seek swift retribution, how much more promising to a new Libya would the arraignment of the rogue in The Hague’s International Criminal Court have been?

Libya must proceed cautiously, putting in place the sorts of institutions that are a prerequisite for even the most rudimentary forms of democracy.

But, the first order of business – which could be achieved with the aid of NATO forces – is to disarm the myriad gun-toting militias and restore law and order. Only then will the Libyan people be ready to contemplate transition to some form of democratic rule.

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