Libya’s democracy has a real chance

By Daniel Serwer
October 20, 2011

By Daniel Serwer
The views expressed are his own.

Libyans will be getting up late tomorrow morning, having enjoyed a spectacular celebration tonight.  “The Wizard of Oz” comes to mind:  “The witch is dead, the wicked witch is dead!”

Now begins the hard work of building a more open and democratic society with some distinct advantages, and Libya has vast resources—not only the oil and gas in the ground, but also cash in foreign bank accounts.  Qaddafi’s ironic legacy is that his ill-gotten gains will fund Libya’s reconstruction.

The population is small (about 6.5 million) and more or less homogenous.  There are tribal and geographic distinctions, there are Berbers as well as Arabs, there are blacker people and whiter people and there are rich and poor.  But none of these differences has yet emerged as a source of widespread violence.

All the Libyans I talked with during a visit to Benghazi and Tripoli last month showed confidence in the National Transitional Council (NTC), which has drawn a roadmap for preparation of a constitution and elections that is widely accepted as reasonable and legitimate.  Much criticized by the Western press for bungling a few public announcements, the NTC has managed to continue paying social security benefits and subsidizing bread.  In Benghazi and Tripoli, the water and electricity are flowing, markets are open and well stocked, police are on the street and at least some of the garbage is being collected. For most Libyans, that counts for a lot more than whether an announcement of Saif al Islam’s capture was true or not.

Most of Libya was rid of Qaddafi regime more than a month ago.  The main sources of friction so far have been two:  fighters, mainly from the Nafusa Mountains in the west, who have not wanted to leave Tripoli; and Islamists who seem ready to push for a less secular society than many Libyans would like.  Islam is already pervasive in Libya—most women cover their hair, alcohol is prohibited (and not generally available), mosques are ubiquitous and, I am told, well attended.  Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood is relatively moderate, as are its secularists.

But there will have to be political differentiation:  left and right, Islamists and secularists will begin soon to form political parties.  That process will not be an easy or smooth one for people with no democratic experience and a lot of guns, including surface to air missiles looted from Qaddafi’s armories. There is a real risk of revenge killing by militias and of insurgency by Qaddafi loyalists.

But Libya has better prospects than much larger and poorer Egypt, where the protesters handed power to a military that is now reluctant to surrender it. Nothing is guaranteed, but a democratic Libya that enjoys good relations with Europe and the United States is a real possibility.

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