Where does Libya go from here?
By Daniel Serwer
The opinions expressed are his own.
With the press focused on scenes of joy in Tripoli and Benghazi, continued skirmishes with regime loyalists, and speculation about where Gaddafi might turn up, it is time to lift our sights and focus on the really difficult transition ahead. If another autocrat succeeds Gaddafi, the transition could be over soon. But if Libya embarks on an effort to create a more democratic state, unified and inclusive in many dimensions, we’ll need to wait the better part of a decade to know whether it has succeeded or not.
There are no magic formulas for how to go about this. Each contingency has its own requirements. We have seen many more partial failures than full successes: think Iraq and Afghanistan.
Certainly in Libya security will be job one. The immediate goal is public order, so that people can move freely without fear of large-scale violence. But there was public order of a non-democratic sort in Gaddafi’s Libya. What the rebels have done in areas liberated in recent months is as clever as it is remarkable: they have organized local councils to try to ensure security and other immediate requirements. This does not always happen in civil wars but it suggests a way forward. There were at least four councils in Tripoli before Gaddafi fell. Can they step in to organize local communities to protect themselves from the inevitable aftershocks of Gaddafi’s fall?
Even if that works, it is only a temporary expedient. Libya will need a retrained and re-oriented police force, one that seeks to serve and protect rather than intimidate and repress. International assistance in this regard has become the rule rather than the exception, but there is little unused international capacity, because of Afghanistan, Kosovo and other requirements. It is tempting to suggest that Arab countries take on this task, but difficult to imagine that they will do it in a way that encourages the kind of community policing that is needed. Even training and retraining 1,000 per year, it will take at least the better part of a decade to put in place a police force Libyan democracy would want.
Even well-trained police are no use if there are no courts where the people they arrest can be fairly tried and sentenced, as well as prisons to put them in. Courts require not only judges but also prosecutors and defense attorneys, not to mention court recorders, registrars and bailiffs. If the formal court system fails to provide fair and rapid justice, Libyans will turn to informal methods of dispute resolution, especially where tribal structures are strong in the countryside. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but there are difficult issues to be resolved concerning the interaction between tribal and formal justice systems, and the treatment of women in tribal systems.
The justice system is an important part of the state, especially in post-war situations, but it is not the only thing that needs fixing. Libya has only rudimentary state institutions apart from the oil ministry. There is no constitution. All power lay in the hands of Gaddafi and his family. So there will be a need to build the state almost from the ground up. There may be advantages in this, as there will be less to sweep away. The Transitional National Council (TNC) that has led the rebellion has published a good, relatively liberal and democratic constitutional charter. But the TNC needs to reformulate itself to be more representative of parts of the country that have been liberated only recently, including Tripoli. And its capability to implement its good intentions is not yet clear.
The TNC would like to prepare a new constitution within six months and hold elections within a year to help establish democratic legitimacy. The problem with this idea is that a democratic environment and culture cannot be created in such a short time frame, which favors those with an existing organizational infrastructure like Islamists (who will use the mosques) and disfavors those with shallower roots in Libyan society, like secularists. This tension is still being played out in Egypt. It might also be wise to consider holding local elections first, since they produce results more immediately reflective of citizens’ needs and provide a test of both the electoral mechanism and political outcomes. But in the end Libyans will need to decide. I will not be surprised if the one-year time frame gets extended to two, and the real outcomes are not apparent until the second elections, presumably four years later.
All this requires money. Libya’s economy is essentially 100 per cent dependent on oil and gas. It will take time to get production back up to pre-war levels. In the meanwhile, the TNC will need access to the frozen assets of the Gaddafi regime. This is not a simple matter. In many countries, including the United States, it requires not only a decision of the president but also a presentation to the sanctions committee of the United Nations. There are ample funds — well over $30 billion are frozen in the United States alone. But getting them to the TNC, and ensuring that they are spent accountably and transparently will not be easy. There are few well established oil and gas producing states that have managed that trick.
The people of Libya in the meanwhile are living in dreadful conditions. Food, water, health care and electricity are lacking, especially in vulnerable populations like the poor and displaced. The TNC needs somehow to begin to deliver goods and services, especially in the major cities. Libyans will be celebrating for a few days, but then they are going to start to wonder how they are better off. That is a question that will persist even once immediate needs are satisfied. Ten years from now Libyans will be discussing whether justice has been done to those who committed crimes under the Gaddafi regime, and whether the traumas of that regime and the civil war have been healed.
All these decade-long challenges will require an alert and informed Libyan citizenry. The activism and energy that they have shown in resisting the Gaddafi regime needs to be continued and channeled into the development of civil society organizations that can mediate between the citizens and their new state. Hundreds of such organizations have already emerged in Benghazi and other liberated areas. More will emerge in Tripoli. They are vital to keeping a democratic transition on track.
The international role in all of this is still unclear. The United States is trying to limit its burdens. It has too much to do elsewhere and no truly vital national interests at stake in Libya, even if it might have some specific interests in preventing Libya from becoming a source of arms trafficking and a haven for international terrorists. European interests are more compelling: oil and gas, related investments, and the desire to prevent migration from Libya becoming an issue in European domestic politics. The Arab League and its members also have an interest in seeing Libya back on its feet as soon as possible.
The international community, which so far has based its efforts on UN Security Council resolution 1973, needs a clear set of goals and a reasonable division of labor to guide it in the future. Getting Libya right in the post-war decade is going to require a lot of European and Arab support, and the Americans need to be ready to pitch in where they have unique capabilities.
PHOTO: A Libyan rebel fighter shouts slogans as his comrades search for snipers in the final push to flush out Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Abu Slim area in Tripoli August 25, 2011. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra