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Libya’s Unstable Road to Democracy

11 Oct 2017
By Maneesha Gopalan
In the aftermath of the revolution in Libya, large quantities of unexploded ordnance and stockpiles of munitions were exposed.

Libya’s progress towards a full democracy continues to be slow, marked by institutional failures, sectarian politics and a culture of impunity. Increasingly, the country risks the rise of a new regime.

Following years of oppression and grievances, the Libyan people revolted against Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011 and sought their long-overdue freedom. With the assistance of external intervention, dictatorship was removed in the quest for democracy. What was not realised at the time, however, was that Libya’s transition to democracy would not be smooth sailing.

Progress towards a cohesive, unified Libyan state in the wake of Qaddafi’s regime has been slow and unpredictable. The revolution’s initial governing coalition, the National Transitional Council, engendered a sense of guarded optimism. Now, six years since the removal of Qaddafi, the Libyan people are still struggling to rebuild their political stability and produce a national identity. In order to undertake a process of national reconciliation to secure a successful transition to stability, the country must overcome a number of major challenges.

Qaddafi’s regime left behind a state of chaos throughout the country. A 2013 nationwide survey conducted by the National Democratic Institute indicated a general sense of optimism within Libya to improve political stability and increase national security in the post-Qaddafi era. In spite of this sentiment it is evident that the new leaders have struggled to break away from the legacy of Qaddafi’s tyrannical and hyper-personalised regime.

Outside intervention also appears to be a hindrance to Libya’s road towards democracy. There is no denying that the Libyan people suffered immensely under Qaddafi’s tyranny. What is not acknowledged is that his removal (aided by foreign governments) also destroyed “mechanisms that had been holding the state together” and left a political vacuum. Without a strongman to pave the way for the future, any hopes of creating viable and effective state institutions lie in “organic processes”. These processes, however, are directly short-circuited by outside intervention. Foreign powers—particularly European, American and Middle Eastern governments—will continue to maintain interest in establishing security within Libya as long as the country continues to supply oil to the international market. While their presence aims to indirectly assist with Libya’s transformation, it is seemingly at the expense of domestic actors and organic movements.

Not only were communities pitted against one another throughout the course of Qaddafi’s regime, but resentment also developed for its “atrophied institutions”. The revolution engendered a culture of division within the country, reflected in popular rhetoric: thuwar (revolutionaries) vs azlam (Qaddafi cronies). While this rhetoric empowered the Libyan people to defeat their dictator, it continues to linger today and fragment the population. Non-state armed groups from Tripoli, Benghazi, Zintan and Misrata hold power and actively exclude those involved in the former regime. At the same time, the official government is struggling to establish a clear path towards organising effective government control.

Ideologically, the inherent dichotomy between the official state’s quest for freedom, justice and equality and the authoritarian practices of subjugation undertaken by revolutionary non-state groups is impeding any possibility of achieving national dialogue and transitional stability. Competing attempts to exert control over institutions are also deepening divisions between and within communities. More importantly, the preservation of revolutionary mentality has the potential to transform “victims to tyrants” and set the country onto its past trajectory towards widespread conflict.

Libya also lacks sufficient judicial and law enforcement authorities to enforce order in the country. Accordingly, there has been notable development in the culture of impunity within Libya. This absence of accountability stems from the growth of factional militias. There is a general understanding that these self-identifying revolutionary groups are expanding their arms to “protect the revolution”.

Presumably, interweaved with this reasoning is also a deep mistrust in the transition process itself. Therefore, many Libyan revolutionaries are not concerned with altering the status quo and restoring the country’s social fabric. Ultimately, the steady increase in factional militias and military opposition devalues any attempt to restore the rule of law or reverse the growing culture of impunity within the country. Without a basis of mutual understanding, successful transition will remain unattainable.

The post-Qaddafi era is bittersweet for the Libyan people. Undoubtedly, Qaddafi’s removal has liberated an oppressed population. This freedom, however, is accompanied by immense uncertainty and fear without a basis of political stability and security. What remains uncertain is whether Libya will be able to unite and successfully resolve its transitional challenges to become a democratic state, or whether these challenges will instead spur a new regime.

Maneesha Gopalan is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW. She is currently studying a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of International Studies at the University of New South Wales.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.