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Guma El-Gamaty

Obstacles to democratisation in Libya

Libyan society is made up of over 100 different tribes, with strong local loyalties [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 July, 2016

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Comment: Stability will be key to addressing the challenges on the road to democratisation, and to developing a clear strategic vision for Libya's future, writes Guma El-Gamaty

If one of the key driving motives for the Arab spring revolutions was to end tyranny and totalitarianism and replace it with a democratic system of government, then countries such as Libya, five years on from its 17th February revolution, still has a long way to go to achieve democratisation, due to both short and long-term obstacles.

Democratisation is essentially a process of transition from a non-democratic system of rule to a democratic one that is not only characterised by free elections but also the existence of a vibrant civil society, rule of law, separation of powers including an independent judiciary, and underpinned by state institutions and a democratic culture.

Immediately after the fall of a non-democratic regime there can be unstable periods of violence, a lack of security and even civil wars which obstruct a transition to democracy.

Some of these obstacles can be common to a whole region - like the Middle East and North Africa - however, there are also intrinsic factors specific to each country, and Libya is no exception.

Key obstacles to democratisation in Libya include a lack of basic state and institution building, tribalism, weak or non-existent democratic culture, weak civil society and a "rentier" economic system that relies solely on collecting revenue from exporting natural resources such as oil and gas, and distributing it among the population. 

Lack of state and institution-building

Since 1969 when Gaddafi came to power through a military coup, Libya has ceased to have clear formal institutions and political structure; neither the decision-making process nor those who hold power and make decisions are easily identifiable and accountable.

Gaddafi was able to maintain power for such a long time through a combination of co-option and coercion, and his ability to manipulate informal power networks and tribal alliances. Libya after the demise of Gaddafi could be characterised as a stateless state with no state institutions, political parties, free press or civil society; pillars of a democratic system.

Is tribalism an obstacle?

The Libyan population is relatively small (just under six million) scattered geographically over a large country with diverse ethnicities such as Arab, Berber, Tuareg and Toubou. Libyan society also consists mostly of different tribes (over 100) with some tribes having strong local loyalties, wielding influence and aspiring to play a major role in their respective regions.

Different ethnic groups and tribes feel that they were marginalised during the Gaddafi era and now wish to reassert their right to a fairer distribution of power and wealth

Different ethnic groups and tribes feel that they were marginalised during the Gaddafi era and now wish to reassert their right to a fairer distribution of power and wealth. A shift from a culture where loyalty is mainly to the tribe, ethnic group or region to a nationalist culture, in which loyalty is primarily to the country and its institutions where all citizens see themselves as equal under the rule of law, is an important prerequisite for a successful transition to democracy.

A deficit of democratic culture

A democratic culture is all about educating citizens to live by democratic values, norms and practices. It is about people seeing themselves as citizens with equal rights, enshrined in constitution and law, that they should demand, attain and protect and not merely be clients of a patron authoritarian ruler.

Libyans who lived for 42 years under a totalitarian rule, where political parties, free press and independent civil society organisations were prohibited, have no experience or knowledge of the dynamics of how a democracy works. This has clearly created a deficit of democratic culture which constitutes an obstacle impeding transition to state institutions and democracy.

Rentier economy

Libya has an economy which is based on the natural resources of oil and gas (representing over 80 percent of GDP, and over 95 percent of export and government revenue) and is one of the least diversified economies in the region.

Countries whose main source of revenue is derived from rents received from the selling of natural resources are called "rentier" states. Such states tend to be mere distributors of income to their citizens, who in turn become reliant on the state rather than contributors to state building, and Libya is a clear example of such a distributive state.

Some of the largest Muslim countries in the world, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey, have enjoyed many years of democratic rule

On the other hand, states that depend on extracting income from the economic activities of their citizens tend to have a vibrant productive economy, mainly characterised by being industrial and entrepreneurial.

Diversifying the Libyan economy away from reliance on finite natural resources will facilitate wealth creation by the people from other productive infinite sustainable sources and reduce state patronage where the state is the main source of people's income. A diversified economy will harness institution development and allow the private sector to thrive, giving people the economic and political empowerment necessary to insist on their right to freedom and democracy. This in turn enhances the success of democratisation.

Islam and democracy

There are groups with extremist ideologies in Libya and across the Arab and Islamic world who advocate the notion that democracy is not compatible with Islam as they associate it with secular rule that separates religion from the state. These groups advocate the establishment of an "Islamic State" based on a distorted understanding of Islam and most resort to violence and terrorism to impose their discourse as seen by the rise of IS in a few countries including Libya.

There is also a wealth of literature showing that there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy, and some of the largest Muslim countries in the world, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey, have enjoyed many years of democratic rule that resulted in higher levels of development and prosperity while preserving their Islamic identity, values and culture.

Only with stability can the inherent structural obstacles to democratisation be addressed with a clear strategic vision for the country

This proves that states can become democratic without being essentially secular, and it is crucial that those extreme groups opposing democracy must not be allowed to become an obstacle to democratisation in Libya.

Finally, Libya today is effectively a country that has no state institutions and is considered largely to be a failed state being torn apart by civil war between factions fighting for power and wealth. The urgent priority is to stop the violence and stabilise the country so that a national consensus can be achieved between the various factions, through a new social contract being a permanent constitution.

Only with stability can the inherent structural obstacles to democratisation be addressed with a clear strategic vision for the country and a roadmap to achieve such a vision. Libya needs to begin by laying the foundations and build the basic structures of a state, and then address the other challenges on the road to democratisation.        

 

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process. Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.       


       

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