By Vidar Helgesen, cross-posted from openDemocracy
The task of building a democratic and inclusive Libya with working
institutions must overcome the international community’s key flaw as
well as the Gaddafi regime’s legacy
of loyalty he created into a democratic state-building process. To meet
it, Libya and the international community must work together in an
imaginative way that combines decisive short-term policy with careful
The immediate priorities are to establish security, law and order, to restore basic services, and to provide humanitarian assistance. These must be followed soon by a reinvigoration of Libya’s economy, in particular oil
production, which accounts for almost all of Libya’s national income.
The question here is how to establish a framework for the administration
and distribution of oil revenues in a post-Gaddafi Libya. This will take time and the risk of corruption is high.
particular task indicates Libya’s longer-term strategic priority: to
develop institutions in a country whose basic existence and ideology
have for decades been reliant on the very absence of institutions (see Fred Halliday, "Libya's regime at 40: a state of kleptocracy", 8 September 2009).
practice this means writing a new constitution that determines the
country’s form of government, establishing political parties, and
forming a parliament. In Libya, this work will be even harder than
elsewhere; for its singular experience of dictatorship means that it
starts from the equivalent of a blank slate (Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge and East Timor after Indonesia, different from Libya as they are, offer a point of comparison).
How, then, should Libya and the international community proceed to try to accomplish these tasks?
authority in Libya, the National Transitional Council, has promised
elections within eight months. This timetable looks unrealistic, for two
First, Libya has no electoral system - and in a society where tribal
groups exercise powerful influence, the development of an electoral
system can become a matter of war or peace. A method of majority voting
in single-person constituencies, which of its nature often leads to a
“winner-takes all” outcome, can increase tensions and fragmentation. A
proportional electoral system leads to a more representative parliament,
but also requires functioning political parties, and these naturally
will take time to establish.
Second, Libya has no electoral body
or other credible independent institution that can oversee elections and
guarantee their integrity. If in such circumstances the international
community moves to support early elections, it will be replicating a key
mistake made in other post-conflict states: pressing for elections
which are then held prematurely, and in a way which neglects the need to
build national capacity as the foundation for subsequent elections.
political system in Libya needs to be outlined in a new
constitution. But the development of a constitution involves more than
setting out principles, human rights and responsibilities on paper. It
is also about creating the conditions for democratic participation in
the constitution-building process
itself. The most successful constitutions are those which are owned by
the people. It can be difficult and time-consuming in any circumstances
to bring about this “public ownership” of a constitution - even more so
when a country lacks democratic traditions.
South Africa is often cited as an example
of a constitutional process where the people had ownership. It is thus
worth recalling that the creation of a post-apartheid constitution in
South Africa took several years, and the context was of a much more
developed institutional background than Libya. Moreover, Libya must still be considered at risk
of fragmentation, which makes it even more important that all groups
there are heard and feel that they have been given a voice.
The international community thus needs
both to have patience in Libya and (just as important) to demonstrate
this in practice to Libya’s people. It should counsel against any rush
to elections, but rather encourage Libyans to form a broad coalition
government which could rule the country for a substantial period. It
should also support an interim constitution written by Libyans, not by
This is the way to help ensure that Libya’s new political system is shaped through a dialogue in which the country’s citizens
are involved from the beginning, different options are discussed and
considered compromises made. It would also allow political parties to
develop as part of a broader political process, rather than as a result
of the short-term need to mobilise before an election.
experience shows that the international community often lacks the very
quality of patience needed for such an approach. This central flaw has
led to mixed results in many countries and regions, among them
Afghanistan (where the initial timetable agreed in December 2001 was unrealistic), Iraq, East Timor, Haiti and the Balkans.
The legacy of the past decades makes Libya the test-case for a better form of international action - one characterised both by a rapid response and a long-term strategy. How this action unfolds in the coming months and years has implications that go far beyond Libya.