Democratic Form Without Substance in Libya

Democratic Form Without Substance in Libya

An imperfect election contains important lessons about Libya, NATO and regime change in the Middle East.


It is easy for those either inside or outside Libya to get enthused about the election there this weekend. For some of those inside the country, the enthusiasm was expressed with horn-honking and the waving of fingers stained with the ink used to discourage repeat voting. Among outsiders, President Obama congratulated Libyans for “another milestone on their extraordinary transition to democracy.” United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon complimented the Libyan candidates for contesting the election “in a peaceful, democratic spirit.”

Given controversy among Libyans about the terms of the election and disruptions associated with that controversy, maybe congratulations are indeed in order for holding any election at all. Protestors stormed polling stations, armed militias prevented some voters from entering their assigned stations and tribal warfare in the South kept some polling places closed altogether. In the days preceding the election, other protests shut down oil-export terminals and closed the coastal highway. On Friday, a helicopter carrying election materials was shot down near Benghazi. These were only the most visible signs that Libya has a very long way to go to become a workable democracy.


The principal grievances underlying the violent disruptions concerned dissatisfaction over the allocation of legislative seats among regions, with the easterners of Cyrenaica being especially dissatisfied with their allotment. This was a reminder of how fragile any sense of national unity is in a country that is a patchwork of what were different provinces in imperial times. Less than two decades separated Libya's independence (before which it was ruled by Italy, which snatched it from the Ottomans) from the coup d'etat that initiated the more than four decades of Muammar Qaddafi's highly personal, institution-destroying rule. Libya has not had sufficient time and experience to develop a well-entrenched sense of nationhood.

Western press coverage of the early, unofficial election results has applied what has become the usual yardstick of how non-Islamists did versus Islamists. This is not a useful way to view results, partly because that dimension does not correlate with prospects for a stable democracy or even with support for other U.S. interests. It also is not useful in the Libyan case because the large number of newly born parties and alliances that contested the election do not divide clearly with regard to the favored role for Islam in public life.

Religion was less important an influence on voting decisions than such personal and candidate-specific factors as association with the old regime. Most important were sentiments based on tribe, family, and all of the patronage considerations associated with tribal and family ties. One candid member of the Warfalla tribe (the same tribe to which former interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, leader of the alliance reported to have done best in the election) explained before the voting, “We are racist and each will vote for his own tribe—and not only his own tribe, but the family within the tribe closest to his.”

Missing from the electioneering in Libya was the sort of debate over ideologies and governing principles that we routinely associate with representative democracy in the West. That absence in turn is part of a pattern that has been seen elsewhere in the Middle East during the Arab Awakening: people welcome the idea of democracy and are happy to participate in it, but they have little understanding of what it entails beyond that it is an alternative to a despised dictatorial regime and that it has something to do with casting votes, along with the ink-on-the-finger business. This is a far cry from developing widespread understanding, let alone the ingrained habits, necessary for Western-style democracy to function.

An added piece of confusion, similar to what has arisen next door in Egypt, concerns what the representatives being elected will be empowered to do. Originally, the elected body was supposed to function not only as a temporary legislature but also as a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. Then the self-appointed Transitional National Council determined that the new body would not write the constitution itself but instead would choose a separate group to perform that task. Then two days before the election, the council said the constitution would be written by a completely separate body to be chosen in the future by a separate vote.

Despite the confusion and controversy, the process we are seeing may still in the long run—perhaps a very long run—lead to a political structure that is in some respect democratic, is better for Libyans than what they had before and is better for the rest of the world that has to deal with Libya. In the meantime, however, the post-Qaddafi Libyan story as it has played out so far has a couple of lessons. One concerns how much messiness and instability are apt to follow the overthrow of regimes in this part of the world. The lesson becomes all the more acute when bearing in mind two other things. One is that Libya has fewer complications regarding sectarian and ethnic divisions than do some other regional states, such as Syria. The other is that there is good reason to believe that the worst instability in Libya is yet to come, once disagreements are even less held in check than they are now by post-Qaddafi good vibrations.

The other lesson concerns how premature it is to put the NATO military intervention of last year into the win column, as it so frequently is.

Image: Al Jazeera English