Libya: Building Democracy

27/10/2011 08:58 BST | Updated 26/12/2011 10:12 GMT

On Sunday Libya was finally announced as liberated and free from the shackles of dictatorship. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and his tyrannical 42-year old reign are no more.

Granted, the nature of Gaddafi's death will not have helped in convincing the international community that the rule of law and human rights has settled on post-Gaddafi Libya but this was by no means a litmus test: Gaddafi died on the battlefield amidst what was a challenging and hostile environment for his captors and eventual killers, one that no average Libyan or westerner could even begin to comprehend.

Instead, the true test will come between now and eight months, an ambitious deadline for elections to take place in the country. Libyans, however, have a number of characteristics that favour them and put them in a good position to ensure their transition toward democracy is both peaceful and enduring.

This includes the fact that the fabric of the Libyan society does not suffer from the same ethnic and sectarian divisions that plagued Iraq, for example, in the aftermath of the 2003 war.

Nor does Libya suffer from being in a poisonous region, surrounded by powerful authoritarian neighbouring countries looking to use Libyan territory for their own proxy war and who, at the same time, feel threatened by a pro-Western democratic oil-rich state along its borders.

Instead, the country has an array of disparate fighting units, average lay-men who essentially organised themselves into revolutionary fighting units and who now want their stake in the future of the new Libya. Further, Libya is a tribal society and has some 30 major tribes. Some are region-specific whilst others are scattered across the country.

Do these divisions spell disaster for the future? The immediate priority for the National Transitional Council (NTC) is, of course, to integrate independent brigades or militias into official state security forces, as well as secure the weapons at their disposal, if indeed Libya is to have an effective and organised military and police force.

But to what extent failure to do this sooner, rather than later, will actually lead to instability is not yet clear. So far, the NTC has been able to adequately placate the interests of different military and political circles who have competing political visions. For example, most observers expected the death in July of a senior military chief - Abdul Fatah Al-Younes - to lead to civil war and the collapse of the NTC - but they were proven wrong.

Further, the constant and hyperbolic references to Libya's tribal division over the past nine-months and how this will provide for the dividing lines in the country and undermine any stability has not, and never has, materialised. At the same time, tribal identity cannot be discounted: in the aftermath of Al-Younes' death, for example, a member of his tribe, the Obeide tribe, was almost immediately appointed onto the NTC.

Instead, it is the secularist-Islamist divide that is likely to be most intense and the subject of much debate in the coming period, as evidenced by NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil's speech on Sunday, which stressed that Libya was an Islamic state, that the ban on polygamy was lifted and during which he stressed the country will look to god for success.

The speech was a deliberate and blatant attempt to appease the Islamists in the country, such is their current prowess; they have the most effective and organised of fighting units - and are equally organised as a political force - and have the financial and military backing of Qatar.

This does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. Militant or extremist Islam can be avoided - provided, of course, this is what Libyans want - but only if there is a genuine democratic system and a genuine effort to build independent institutions.

Libyans ultimately want the right to choose their own leaders alongside basic services, jobs, transparency and accountability. Whether they get this in an Islamist or secular Libya is irrelevant for them; if anything, it would make for an interesting and pluralistic democratic process, provided it is peaceful and part of a legitimate broad-based transition.

Unlike Iraq, Libya is unlikely to experience a bloody road to democracy. It is, however, vulnerable to sporadic attacks by pro-Gaddafi remnants, as well as violent disorder, especially if independent brigades do not give up their arms - which they see as insurance - and particularly since it could suffer from disorganization, disunity and lack of experience, shortcomings that may have been condonable before but which now have to be remedied and constitute the biggest of dangers it faces.

Libyans should be given the benefit of the doubt, simply because they have proven wrong the doubters who opposed the intervention and the skeptics who called for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement during the nine-month uprising. It is now time to prove the cynics wrong by building a stable, genuine and functioning democracy.

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