Day 1 of the Libyan experiment

October 20, 2011

By Kyle Scott
The opinions expressed are his own.

The U.S. has avoided some of the mistakes it made in Iraq and Afghanistan in its dealings with Egypt and Libya. While the context of the Arab Spring is entirely different from that of the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan, the thought that democracy could be forced upon a nation has been avoided by the Obama administration in a post-Mubarak Egypt and a post-Gaddafi Libya. With Gaddafi’s death today, the challenge now is to continue taking this view while helping Libya move toward democracy. Working towards a successful transition requires adherence to two rules:

  1. A bottom-up system will be much more successful than a top-down one.
  2. The system that works in the U.S. may not work in these countries.

Top-down systems require coercion and manipulation to get things done. Bottom-up systems govern through consent. One works on domination and the other on cooperation. The uprising in Egypt was certainly bottom-up, but the government that has supplanted Mubarak is decidedly top-down. The prospect for Egypt looks bleak if the goal is to establish a representative system of government in which the majority retains the right to rule but the rights of the minority are safeguarded. It is not only because dissident voices are being quieted and religious minorities are being persecuted that the future looks bleak, it’s because once power is gained, particularly in a top-down centralized regime, reform is difficult as power tends to entrench itself as the Egyptian people know all too well.

Libya is fertile ground for an individual or group to seize power, or for a foreign nation to come in and impose its style of government on the people of Libya. Moreover, the disparate ethnic and tribal factions that have a history of violence towards one another makes a political power grab seem likely. A bottom-up system, or federalism, can secure a peaceful transition. A federal arrangement is flexible enough to incorporate all groups into the government which gives them voice and access. Rather than a unitary system that is governed only by a nationwide majority which can ignore the interests and needs of a minority, a federal system grants a geographically concentrated ethnic or religious group the authority to govern itself under the coordination of a central regime in which it also has representation.

The local governing bodies can take the form of states, provinces, regions, or cantons. But, regardless of what they are called, when the lines are drawn it cannot be done by those on the outside. The process of drawing these boundaries must be done by those who are sensitive to the various ethnic claims and familiar with the historical disputes. Moreover, proposals must be given to those who will be governed by them before they are enacted. If it is to be a government by the people and for the people then they too need to have a voice in its development.

The legislative body through which representation will be granted at the national level needs to be crafted similarly. Each group needs to be represented, thereby gaining a legitimate avenue through which to voice their concerns. Whether it’s the recent bombings in India or rioting in England, we know that alienated groups will resort to means which are illegitimate in order to be recognized. This doesn’t justify or defend such acts, but it helps explain why they occur and suggest how they might be avoided. Granting representation to groups will allow those groups to be assimilated in such a way that their success is tied to the success of the government.

We should recognize that what works in one country does not work in all countries and should therefore encourage experimentation and flexibility in Libya. A president or a prime minister may not be what Libya needs, just as it may not require a bicameral legislature whose district lines are drawn with respect to geographical boundaries. The Libyan people should be consulted when plans are crafted by those with a purported expertise. The people must know the rules of the game, and agree to them, before the system kicks off.

The U.S. proves that what has been done is not all that can be done. In a radical break from theory and practice the U.S. created a system of representative government for itself that spanned a greater geographic area and incorporated a larger group of people than was ever thought possible. This same sense of experimentation and break from the past must be fostered by the U.S. without holding itself up as a model for emulation in crafting the institutions which must be relied on to guarantee liberty and equality Libya.

One comment

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In the end with this policy the odds of getting a decent replacement government is less than even with the “traditional” way.

Posted by ALandsford | Report as abusive

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