Libya’s revolution pushes democracy forward

By Michael Ignatieff
October 24, 2011

By Michael Ignatieff
The views expressed are his own.

We like to think we made it happen. First in Kosovo, now in Libya, we believe our air power made it happen. Western politicians are taking the credit, but the truth is, we didn’t make it happen, any more than we made the Arab Spring happen and the air operation itself would never have been approved at the UN without the green light from the Arab League. The people of Libya, the peoples of the Middle East made it happen. We all need to understand how little of this is about us. Otherwise we risk succumbing to the illusion that we can shape the future in the Middle East.

The power we exercised in the sky gives us little control over what happens next. This is not just because we don’t have boots on the ground. Even when we did in the Balkans, we never controlled the way events rolled out after the air campaign was over. The people of the Balkans wrote their own history after the intervention and the people of the Middle East will do the same.

We called Libya a civil war and intervened to help one side win, as we did in Kosovo. But Libya was not a civil war. The dictator didn’t have deep enough support to turn it into one. It was a revolution, a people against a regime, rising up without any instigation from us, with nothing but rage, humiliation and hope to guide them. We gave them air cover and they made a revolution.

Let us not be romantic about revolutions, but let us also remember the hope they carry . The revolutionary moment—the discovery that ‘we the people’ brought the dictator down–gives the Libyans a chance to come together and build something out of the ruins. The people have discovered themselves. They have discovered their sovereignty and they will not willingly surrender it to gunmen or extremist Islamists, here or in Tunisia or Egypt. In Syria, in Yemen, in Algeria too, the people will see what the sovereignty of the street looks like and long for it too.

All revolutionary situations are poised between exhilaration and terror, and Libya is no exception. There are too many guns in the street, too many militias, too little authority and order. Revenge will be taken. Scores will be settled. Theft and vandalism will be legitimized as justice. Revolution could topple into civil war unless an army and a monopoly over the means of force are re-established. But those crowds, men and women all waving the same flag, the kids with their hands on their hearts, singing the anthem perched on their parent’s shoulders, are actually stronger than the men with guns, if they only could find a politics to express their power.

The future of Libya and the entire Middle East depends, not on us, but on something momentous and unpredictable: whether people who have never had the chance to do politics before can learn to do it now.

Like most of the peoples of the Arab Middle East, Libyans have never been citizens, only subjects. They have never been allowed to develop the trust among strangers that makes politics possible. They are a people divided by city, region, tribe, education and by collusion or opposition to the regime. They are divided as to whether their political future should be secular or religious. Now, as they enter the world of revolutionary politics, all of these divisions spill out into the open. Those who did well under the dictator will have to turn chameleon and change color to avoid revenge. Others went into exile and now rush home, hopefully not too late, to earn what they feel is their rightful place. Most just want the revolution to end and give them stability, order and a job.

The dictator would not have lasted 42 years if he had not understood these divisions and exploited them ruthlessly. He came himself from one of the weaker tribes and built tyranny on the politics of divide and rule. The tents, camels and robes were all a bravura show to manipulate and intimidate the tribes into subjection.

But if this is all it took to divide a people, it cannot be impossible to unite them now. The hatred of the old order—right across the Middle East—will keep the people together for a time, and then politicians will have to find a constitutional project to hold the people together: building the alliances and institutions that give strangers rewards to co-operate in building a new state.

Already, the Libyan diaspora—in Europe, United States and Canada—is coming home and they will bring back the experience about politics and institutions that speak the language of the people.

Libyans, some of them, know exactly where they should be headed.  Already in Benghazi this summer, one visitor noticed green graffiti on a bare concrete wall that read: “We want institutions.” And then in case there was any doubt about what that might mean, the graffitist added: “Constitutional rule, elected President, 4 year non-renewable term limits.”

We can’t improve on this advice. Of course we can help with governance: we discharged a responsibility to protect, and with that goes a responsibility to rebuild. But let’s be modest and remember that Libyans know what we will never know: their own history. They made their revolution happen. Now they have to make the revolution into a government. They will have to learn to trust each other. No one can predict whether they will succeed, but no one should doubt the magnificence of what they are attempting.

The people with guns will have to sit down with people who have none. The people who have no guns will have to have the courage to persuade the gunmen to return home. Force of argument will have to replace force of arms.

The transitional council has to hold together and then its leaders have to keep their word and bow out of presidential politics. A route to elections has to be mapped out. A constitution has to be written, laying out what the place of sharia law will be, how a structure of institutions—courts, free press and public administration–can be created in place of the void of dread that the dictator left behind.

All of it will be difficult but none of it is impossible. Libya has certain advantages. No one is trying to invade it. It has oil. Oil can be a curse if it fuels regional and tribal battles over the spoils, a blessing if its revenues are used to build schools and roads and hospital and give the Libyan state the resources to create enduring institutions. It will be easy to get the oil flowing, much less easy to diversify an economy so that the young people with educations find the jobs and economic security that anchor democracy.

All across the Middle East, the people face the same challenge of building institutions where dictators have left a desert behind them. If Libya succeeds, it can become a fulcrum of change for the whole region. If it fails, it could become a source of instability, spreading chaos south through the weak states of Niger, Mali and Chad, fueling the extremists who captured Robert Fowler, the Canadian diplomat. Certainly, American drones will soon be flying, if they are not already doing so, over the hideouts of the Al Qaeda in the Magrheb.

The peoples of North Africa are living their most dramatic hours since national independence in the 1950’s. Next door to Libya, Tunisia went to the polls this Sunday. A whole people voted as free citizens for the first time. Yes, they may vote for Islamist parties. Yes, Islamists may carry the day in Egypt too. The risk is obvious: one vote, for one time only. But what exactly is the alternative? Why are we so afraid to trust Islam with democracy? What other choice is there ?

Just like the Europeans, the peoples of the Middle East have seen all the political gods fail, one after another, from Nasser, through pan-Arabism, through Arab socialism and Baa’thism, through military dictatorship and finally the family kleptocracies of Gaddafi, Saleh and Assad. Only the monarchies cling on and their future will depend on making a deal with a people who are tired of promises. For the people of the Middle East, like people anywhere, learn from experiences and they know they are not at the beginning of a new dawn, where anything is possible, but at the end of sixty years of political failure that has blighted the hopes of each succeeding generation. The peoples of the Middle East know this—from Tripoli in Libya to Daraa in Syria–and this may be the single most important reason why they will try to make democracy work. Everything else has failed them and this year, from Tripoli to Daraa, they have felt, for the first time, their own terrifying power.

3 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Mr. Ignatieff lists all various failed ‘isms’, implying everything is inferior to western parliamentary institutions – never once does the article cite Libya’s Jamahiriya system of regional democratic councils.

The article’s lack of understanding (or its wealth of disinformation – take your pick) is clearly exposed in this “…American drones will soon be flying, if they are not already doing so, over the hideouts of the Al Qaeda in the Magrheb.”

The NATO-funded, NATO-armed al Qaeda brigades of infamous al Qaeda operative Belhadg, not NTC Military Commander, are the most active and most feard in all of NATO’s so-called Libyan Rebel ranks.

Painting this blatant neo-colonial, genocidal invasion (e.g. 10K strike sorties) as a ‘democratic’ rebellion is outlandish Orwellian double-speak. It was and is (not over yet) NATO authored regime change job from day one!

Posted by BlogDog | Report as abusive

Mr. Ignatieff is grossly mistaken that he thinks some form of budding liberal democracy will flourish in a post-revolution Libya. It has been proven time and time again, that Muslim immigrants have not or will not fully integrate themselves into Western democracies. Germany and the United Kingdom have openly stated that multiculturalism has failed miserably! The blatate open execution of Gaddafi in itself proves that lawless of the land within Libya. If this country is serious about some form of constitution, granted Gaddafi was a despot, he still has human rights regardless – let him rot in jail then after receiving a fair trial! Let’s remember that Libya’s interim leader, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, used to be Gaddafi’s Justice Minister from 2007 – 2011. So imagine what occurred during his watch. He has openly stated that Sharia Law will be implemented which means no interest bank loans and multiple wives for the men. This in my opinion is not a definition of a liberal democracy. There is no exclusion of Islam from the running of the country. Sharia Law will be implemented into the courts system and the rest is history. Politicians of the West have to get it through their thick heads that we cannot force democracy into a Muslim country. Their religious component of their life is so ingrained within their culture that they cannot separate state from religion. Come visit Libya in a year’s time and see what seed has been planted by the Freedom Fighters!

Posted by commando1000 | Report as abusive

Unfortunately the problem here, as in many tyrannic cases, is the fact that the dictator treats the citezens as more of property rather then people. We’ve seen it time and time again, from ancient rulers, to Adolf Hitler, to modern dictators like this one. The real question is why? What drives these men to treat people so badly. Although the world seems to be ever evolving, these men seem to never change.

Posted by cgonz01 | Report as abusive