My how large your challenges are!

I hope you’ve checked out the “constitutional charter” mentioned in yesterday’s post.  It’s worth a glance, if only to convince yourself that the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) is serious about projecting a democratic future for the country.  Whether they can achieve a democratic future is another question.  Here are a few of the things I learned listening yesterday over at the National Endowment for Democracy.

The challenge is enormous.  There are now 47 armed groups (including at least a small one with avowed Salafist leanings) in rebellion against a totalitarian system that systematically eviscerated many of the country’s institutions in favor of ensuring that Gaddafi could rule uncontested.  The court system was thoroughly corrupted.   The bureaucracy was inefficient, but there are capable technocrats who could serve in a new, democratic regime.  The country is not only wealthy but relatively well-educated (unfortunately on a steady diet of the Green Book).

Tripoli is a big pill to swallow.  It was intentionally loaded with pro-regime inhabitants even before the current fighting, which has caused more of them to take refuge in the capital.  Tripoli fears Benghazi.  Maintaining order in the capital will be a huge challenge.  No one is thinking of the kind of deep de-Ba’athification conducted in Iraq, but it is not at all clear what to do about vetting and purging the security forces and public administration.  Everyone seems to want to avoid rounds of revenge killing, but no one seems to have a real plan how to do it.  Experience elsewhere suggests justice for many of those who abused power under the Gaddafi regime will be a long time in the making.

The good news.  Libyans like to think they will not fragment along tribal, regional or ethnic lines. They think their version of the Muslim Brotherhood is relatively moderate.  Federalism is out.  New Libya will be based on national citizenship.  Civil society is thriving in the liberated areas, with 300 nongovernmental groups in the east and something like 150 media outlets of one sort or another.  There are at least four interconnected local councils associated with the revolution in Tripoli, but Benghazi–which has long been the cultural capital of the country–remains dominant in the anti-Gaddafi effort.

Gaddafi won’t survive long.  Few really think Gaddafi will survive long if there is a deal for him to step down from power but not leave Libya.  Something like 30,000 Libyan families (on both sides of the fighting) blame him for deaths in the last few months. There is a good deal of concern that his son, Saif al Islam, might try to resuscitate his fortunes if allowed to stay in the country.

Libyans can accept international assistance gracefully, even including a future peacekeeping force if necessary to establish a safe and secure environment.  But there is a absorptive capacity problem when it comes to international advice.  There are also perception differences.  While internationals are counseling that the Libyans should take more time to establish a more inclusive, transparent and accountable process, the Libyans see early elections as the key to sustaining legitimacy with a population that is thirsty for them.  The TNC is thinking about a transition period (from fall of Gaddafi through constitution-writing, constitutional referendum and elections) as short as 6 or as long as 13 months. I didn’t see any non-Libyans in the room who thought it could, or should, be accomplished even in the longer of those time frames.

Important things are still unclear.  It is not clear whether the TNC or a successor “congress” will carry Libya through the transition process; nor is it clear how the people who write the constitution will be chosen.  There appears to be consensus on a constitutional referendum, but no clear consensus yet on the electoral law.  International advisors will likely recommend a mixed system, with some representatives chosen from constituencies and some in a proportional system.

No one should look for clarity in Libya, which is fighting a civil war, forming a state and democratizing at the same time.  Gaddafi’s continued resistance and the depredations of his regime would make even one of these tasks difficult.    But Libya also has advantages:  a relatively homogeneous language and culture, easy accessibility, vast resources, a population of manageable size, and no truly hostile neighbors.  Most of all, it seems to have serious people ready to think hard about the challenges the country faces.

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