Why Libya’s transition failed


The ultimate blame for Libya’s failed transition must lay with Muammar Gaddafi, who bequeathed Libyans a country without a state, notes a leading analyst. Leaders of the new Libya found it hard to break free from the pull of an exploitative, hyper-personalized reign that pitted communities against one another and atrophied institutions, the sinews of governance, argues Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Of course Libyan actors carry responsibility; incompetence, petty vendettas, and an unabashed lust for power all played a role. So too did ambivalence and meddling by outside powers. A confluence of fateful missteps during and after the revolution set the country on downward spiral that will probably take years to reverse, he writes for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage:

Much of the U.S. effort was focused on bolstering civil society, education and a free media, what one diplomat termed “nation-building by proxy.” No doubt it was inspiring to watch the blossoming of voluntary associations, clubs, charities, and media outlets, unfettered by government control. And the United States and others did their best to nourish these groups. Yet the impact of aid was destined to be limited, given the absence for so long of meaningful people-to-people contacts between the United States and Libya under Gaddafi. Moreover, many of the Libyan civil societies, whose dual-citizen leaders gathered in marble hotel foyers eager for outside support, rarely penetrated beyond Tripoli or Benghazi. But perhaps most damningly, the absence of early Western assistance on the security front left the activists vulnerable to violence by militias and extremists.

Libya’s institutional fragility was always likely to be a major obstacle to a democratic transition, according to a report from the National Endowment for Democracy.

Some veteran scholars of democratic transitions warned at the time, almost prophetically, that holding elections in Libya so soon after conflict would lead to a relapse of civil war, he notes, but it was the contest for security institutions — for the monopoly of control on force — that proved Libya’s undoing, Wehrey adds:

The NTC had at various times tried to dissolve the militias. At the same time, bereft of the ability to project its authority it began subsidizing militias, placing them on the nominal control of the ministries of interior and defense. But these ministries were themselves captured by competing political factions. The result was a swelling of militias — beyond the number that had fought in the revolution — and the formation of a localized, highly divided and hybrid-security sector that existed in parallel to the decrepit army and police…..

The fragmentation and devolution of power  not only opens door for spoilers and rejectionists, it complicates U.S. and other Western efforts to channel military aid in the fight against the Islamic State through a cohesive chain of command. It simply does not exist.

“But perhaps most troubling has been the spread of a profound disenchantment with the revolution’s early promise, a despair that extends not just to democracy, but to politics itself,” Wehrey notes. “Along with the country’s ruptured social fabric, it is an affliction that will be difficult to remedy.”


Print Friendly, PDF & Email