Skip to main content

Why democracy has a good chance in Libya

By Ronald Bruce St John, Special to CNN
  • Ronald Bruce St John: About 3 months after rebellion, opposition offers path to democracy
  • He says oil revenue, growing national consciousness, other factors in new Libya's favor
  • Libya is also relatively homogenous ethnically; should help with making transition
  • St John: Few civil bodies exist there; other hurdles remain, but Libya can rise with help

Editor's note: Ronald Bruce St John served on the International Advisory Board of the Journal of Libyan Studies and the Atlantic Council Working Group on Libya. He is the author of five books on Libya, including "Libya: Continuity and Change" (2011).

(CNN) -- In mid-January, small groups of Libyans took to the streets to demand a more dignified way of life and a more responsive government. Issues that concerned them included military corruption, inadequate housing and job creation.

Initially, the Gadhafi regime responded by offering limited socioeconomic reforms, but as peaceful protests grew in size and intensity, the regime resorted to force. Mindful of recent events in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, where popular uprisings routed longtime rulers, Gadhafi's security forces repeatedly overreacted, shooting more and more demonstrators.

In response, the protesters proclaimed February 17 a day of rage, and when the regime again responded with force, killing as many as 50 demonstrators in Benghazi alone, the February 17th Revolution was born.

From the outset, the TNC, the official opposition body, embraced the political objectives of the revolution and worked to keep them at the forefront of policy deliberations. The TNC recognized that the defeat of Gadhafi's armed forces would simply mark the end of the beginning, with the greater challenge being the creation of a freely elected government responsive to the wishes of Libya's people.

Less than three months after the revolution began, the TNC in early May offered the 28-nation International Contact Group on Libya a road map that called for an orderly transition to an elected government in an open and transparent process. The key steps in the road map outlined almost four months ago were then reiterated in the Draft Constitutional Charter for the Transitional State released by the TNC a few days ago.

Meet the Gadhafi family
Tortured Gadhafi nanny gets treatment
'Writing on wall' for Gadhafi family?

Over the last few months, one positive development has been the formation of popular committees in liberated areas to collect weapons, clean the streets, control traffic, and supply water and electricity. The structure and operation of these committees is reminiscent of the nationwide system of congresses and committees established by the Gadhafi regime after 1973. Most Libyans were reluctant participants in the latter, as they were organized and controlled by the government. But citizens gained valuable experience in managing local government functions, which they are now putting to good use throughout Libya.

History offers additional reasons for optimism when assessing the prospects for an elected government in Libya. In the run up to independence in 1951, Libya was a divided country with no experience in self-governance. Throughout the Italian occupation (1911-1943), Libyans were second-class citizens in their own country with their Italian occupiers actively discouraging indigenous political activity. Regional ties remained strong, and the interests of most Libyans centered on local or provincial concerns.

Already strong, tribalism and tribal ties were strengthened during the Italian occupation. Nevertheless, Libyans were able to come together in 1951 in a federal system of government with a monarch as head of state.

Today, regionalism still exists in Libya but it is much less important than it was 60 years ago. In recent decades, Libya has developed levels of national consciousness and national identity that were nonexistent in 1951.

In part due to extensive urbanization after the discovery of oil and gas deposits in 1959, the importance of tribalism has also been reduced. While the tribes remain significant in socioeconomic and political life in Libya, the divide-and-rule tactics employed by Gadhafi accorded them an exaggerated importance that does not reflect contemporary reality.

Libya is also a relatively homogenous society in terms of ethnicity, language, and religion, which will facilitate the transition to a more democratic form of government. Amazigh (Berber) speakers constitute the largest single minority, and their central demand is to have their culture and language recognized in a new constitution.

Still, cautious optimism about the prospects for democratic governance must be tempered by reality. Immediate concerns center on consolidating post-conflict security and stabilization, which includes disarming all rebel factions and securing all weapons stores.

After that, the road ahead still remains difficult for a country with no institutions and no civil society. Civil organizations are already being created in many rebel-controlled areas, with 80 or more such institutions operating in Benghazi alone. But it will take time to create the durable institutions necessary to maintain the cohesion of the state and to support economic and political development. Another challenge is developing a labor force in a country with a poor education system, an inept bureaucracy, and a work ethic undermined by oil money and the importation of foreign labor for all menial tasks.

As Libya moves toward a more responsive government, the members of the International Contact Group and other states have important roles to play. Air operations must continue until Gadhafi's forces are defeated and the threat to the civilian population is ended. At the same time, efforts to release frozen Gadhafi funds around the world must be accelerated to provide the TNC with the means to ensure security and to continue on the road to democratic governance.

The international oil and gas companies operating in Libya before the revolution, the most important of which are headquartered in NATO states, must also be encouraged to resume operations as soon as possible. The TNC can help here by honoring all contracts in place, many of which were negotiated over the last decade in what was widely considered to be a fair and transparent process.

Finally, the democracies of the world have a role to play in providing counsel and guidance to Libya -- preferably through independent bodies like non-governmental organizations or the United Nations -- on constitutional development, institutional building and state building.

It is clearly in the best interests of the international community to create a representative and responsive government in Libya, and with its continuing support, there is every reason to believe the Libyan people are up to the task.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ronald Bruce St John.