Libya, Institutions, and War

The fall of Qaddafi will only be the beginning

“Libya is an artificial colonial creation. But unlike other colonial entities, it lacks the social fissures and historical grievances that have led to sectarian or ethnic violence in places like Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan.” So says James Pack who is convinced that the overthrow of Qaddafi will be followed by a relatively peaceful transition to democracy under the banner of the TNC (Transitional National Council). Pack disregards the possibility that the complete lack of state institutions in the country could drag Libya into a civil war after Qaddafi falls. The TNC has legitimacy in east Libya and is generally supported by most tribal factions outside of Qaddafi’s Qadhadhfa and Magarha tribal coalition, yet it would be unwise to overlook the potential instability of a disorganized and fragmented Libya.

The concept of a state with no institutions falling into civil war is hardly without precedent. One simply needs to look at Iraq where, until recently the government was farcical: “Orders given in Baghdad have no meaning, because there are no state institutions to carry them out. The governmental positions of Iraqi leaders have no substance,” writes William Lind. Of course, there are major differences between the two countries – namely the presence and activities of foreign troops. Yet, the fall of Sadam underlined the lack of independent institutions, leading separate factions to disagree (to put it lightly). As Pack notes, Libya is not as sectarian a state as Iraq or Lebanon, but it does have its divisions. The country is divided into the three regions of Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the center, and Cyrenaica in the east. The well-established national identity does not completely erase the possibility of regional tensions. Pack admits this, writing “One potential shortcoming of the rebels’ current political structure is its heavily Cyrenaican, Arab, and elite makeup. If the rebels succeed in overthrowing Qaddafi, they will face enormous pressure to rapidly incorporate new players from western Libya, the Libyan diaspora, and the Berber, Tuareg, and Tabu ethnic groups.”

Wolfram Lacher highlights this weakness well:

The institutions of the old regime -including the General People’s Congress (Parliament) and the local Basic People’s Congresses – play a purely symbolic role and will not survive Qaddafi’s fall. As a consequence, the foundations of the state and the political system will have to be built entirely from scratch, such as the form of government, the separation of powers, the role of the regions and the electoral systems…

In addition, the rebels do not appear to be promoting any clear vision of post-Qaddafi Libya, focusing instead on Qaddafi’s dimise and voicing general demands for democracy, freedom and an end to corruption… [T]he lack of concrete ideas is also telling, insofar as – during the transitional phase -most players are likely to be focused on the redistribution of resources.

Moreover, the wealth from these resources (and potentially the frozen Qaddafi assets) that the new government will inherit will create conditions ripe for corruption. As Andrew Exum notes, throughout the colonial period, the Italian government constantly avoided bureaucratic state institutions, leaving the country completely devoid of any “nationwide administration or broadly based political organization.” Under Qaddafi, the situation was worsened, leaving the country absolutely lacking any form of national administration. If the future government is dominated by one region or tribe (it is currently dominated by eastern elites), corruption will greatly benefit one group, leading to divisions and grievances. As “virtually the entire Libyan economy is directly or indirectly dependent on the distribution from the oil sector,” “disagreements over the structures of the new state will primarily be distributive conflicts.” Exum points out that the wealth that will flood the new government from oil will exceed the government’s capacity to administer it or redistribute it throughout society, leading to a raft of corruption.

The lack of national institutions and the mass influx of money from oil are both good reasons to worry for the future of a post-Qaddafi Libya. Considering the popularity of the uprising and the determination of the Libyan people, I suppose it would be as foolish to overlook the possibility of a peaceful transition as it would be to prematurely deem one to be impossible. It is possible that the TNC will be able to peacefully push Libya forward after the fall of Qaddafi. It is a respected institution that may have the ability to create institutions that have been completely absent for more than four decades. From Najla Abdurrahman:

Such concerns, while not unjustified, are often overblown. By most accounts pro-democracy Libyans, both at home and abroad, have largely rallied around the Libyan Interim Transitional National Council formed under the leadership of the widely respected former justice minister, Mustafa Abduljalil, and composed of professionals and representatives hailing from every corner of Libya, in an apparent show of unity that would be the envy of every American general from Iraq to Afghanistan…

Many of these institutions, however imperfect, existed before the current regime dismantled them, and they can exist once again.

I hope that Abdurrahman is correct is saying that the TNC will be able to create some resemblance of governance in a post-Qaddafi Libya, as an inability to do so could lead the country towards insurrection and civil war. Indeed, after the fall of Qaddafi, look for signs of corruption on an individual, regional or tribal level. Mass corruption by the new and shiny government would bring the Libyan people back to the streets, as governmental corruption is one of the main complaints of the rebel movement. Unfortunately, the lack of institutions makes corruption exponentially more likely.

Photo from Political Ruminations

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