Stanford experts weigh in on Libya

Sept. 20, 2011, 3:52 a.m.
Stanford experts weigh in on Libya
(OLLIE KHAKWANI/The Stanford Daily)

After months of stalemate fighting, rebel forces overran pro-Gaddafi forces in August’s Battle of Tripoli. With the defeat of Gaddafi loyalists, the end of the military dictator’s 42-year rule of Libya is near. Despite the Transitional National Council (TNC)’s eagerness to establish a functional government, Libya’s road to recovery from its authoritarian regime will be a rocky one, Stanford professors say.

“It’s too soon to tell, but I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI). “It will depend on what comes after, whether a more decent form of government emerges.”

Hoover fellow Kori Schake, a specialist in national security strategy, is also optimistic about Libya’s future. She praised the TNC’s impressive track record in creating an effective, temporary government as well as its response to humanitarian needs.

“The new leadership of Libya is making smart choices,” Schake said. “They have discouraged reprisals. They’ve done a good job in taking over cities and quickly addressing infrastructural needs … they did a terrific job in getting aid rolling for medicine and water.”

While the TNC’s efficiency as a governing body during wartime shows promise for its capacity to function as a stable and fair government, several factors hinder the TNC’s projected potential.

Among the challenges facing the TNC is the absence of a united body representing the interests of Libya’s numerous tribal groups. Gaddafi’s rule divided Libyan leadership along tribal and regional lines. Without the camaraderie of wartime rebellion, the chance of civil war outbreak between rebel factions is high.

“The TNC is making all the right statements about inclusiveness,” Schake said. “But it’s really hard to do in practice. For 40 years, Libyan rule has been divided among different parts of the country … Even within Tripoli, the military has not yet been under a unified, complete authority.”

In the wake of Gaddafi’s defeat, the diversity of tribal groups may spark a “policy of vengeance,” according to Diamond.

“It’s a fluid and challenging time,” Diamond said. “The leaders of the TNC are acutely aware in principle that they need to build a broad base of support, to create a new and inclusive political-social order, but whether they can completely restrain the fiery impulse for revenge among the tribes — it’s unclear.”

While civil war among the rebel groups remains a looming possibility, the likelihood of immediate conflict may be less likely than some political scientists speculate, other scholars say.

“There will be something of a honeymoon period where the TNC has a chance to get things going,” wrote James Fearon, professor of political science, in an email to The Daily. “But serious tensions may develop the longer it takes to get to elections, as those people and groups who fear that they are farthest from the center of transitional government may increasingly worry about getting shut out.”

There is a time crunch-induced pressure to establish a democracy and to hold fair elections, a process that will take at least two years, Diamond said. However, the transition from dictatorship to democracy is a slow, arduous one.

“You’re not going to go from over 40 years of extreme ideological, controlling dictatorship to democracy overnight,” Diamond added. “There needs to be dialogue and consultation for the drafting of a constitution. Maybe in a few years, you’d have the rudiments of a democracy.”

Schake emphasized the importance of not rushing election implementation, especially before political and civil rights have been established.
“Elections aren’t meaningful until there is freedom of association and of press, the freedom to form political parties,” Schake said.

While the TNC’s projected timeline sets the first elections to be held in 22 months, the democratic legitimacy of these elections will be difficult to assess.

“We will see a somewhat fair first election within the next two years, probably sooner … followed by a government that will almost inevitably prove disappointing to most Libyans because expectations are usually impossibly high,” Fearon said.

In spite of the numerous challenges the TNC faces in establishing democracy in Libya, its adamant refusal to accept foreign aid is viewed positively by many of the scholars interviewed for this article as a testament of the nation’s resolve to take initiative.

“Avoid the mistakes of Iraq … the United States’ imposing presence in shaping the emergence of their democracy created a huge crutch in their political legitimacy,” Diamond said.  “If [Libya] has domestic ownership and authority of [its] emerging democratic order, it would appear to be a more legitimate and stable democracy.”

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