Libya on track, but delay may be wise

Geoffrey Curfman reports, from the Carnegie Endowment yesterday:

Ali Tarhouni, former finance and oil minister in the National Transitional Council (NTC) and briefly prime minister, gave an upbeat rendering of current and prospective circumstances in Libya at the Carnegie Endowment yesterday.  He was optimistic that widespread turmoil seen in other parts of the Arab world would not afflict Libya, but concerned about whether transition to a democratic regime could be accomplished within the established timeframe.

Though remarkably stable for a grassroots movement lacking fundamental sources of cohesion other than ousting an autocrat, Libya’s revolution still faces challenges. Armed militias are hesitant to relinquish their weapons. Most want to disarm, but are worried others will renege. Foggy prospects for integration into a national army and the benefits that would accrue therefrom only increase their reluctance.

Political prospects are also uncertain. Tarhouni hopes a coalition embracing centrist principles will form. Otherwise, the country could splinter or fall to the Muslim Brotherhood, by Tarhouni’s reckoning the only organized political entity in Libya today.  To level the playing field, the NTC has considered allocating funds to emerging civic organizations and political parties. But the question of who receives limited financial resources, a point of contention even in a thriving democracy, is especially controversial given the absence of a legitimate legislature in Libya.

Tarhouni is nevertheless optimistic. Fragmentation along tribal lines is a figment of Western imaginations.  Tribal divisions exist, but inter-tribal marriages have blurred many of the lines that may have prevailed in the past. Sectarianism is far less evident in Libya than, say, Iraq or Saudi Arabia. A Sunni by birth, Tarhouni points out that his own name, Ali, is one of the most popular in Libya and is traditionally Shi’a. Islam plays a more moderate role than elsewhere in the Arab world. Individual relations with God are emphasized above interactions between the state and religion. For these reasons, a precipitous decline into civil war, which may occur in Syria, Iraq and even in Egypt, is less likely in Libya.

Libya is a wealthy country. Unlike Egypt, which has been forced to borrow heavily from domestic banks and foreign markets, Libya’s oil revenues can finance the bulk of government services rendered to its small population. Wealth, however, does not guarantee societal prosperity.  Resources are still somewhat frozen given the inertia of transitional politics. State domination of the economy under Qaddafi all but eliminated a once vibrant private sector.  What remains survived on corruption, now woven into Libya’s cultural fiber.

The NTC has worked to lay the foundation for transparency, which Tarhouni sees as an important prerequisite of free markets in Libya. Laws protecting property rights and requiring the publication of all oil contracts will be crucial. Just as corruption became a cultural phenomenon over time, so too will transparency emerge gradually.

Forming an inclusive coalition is a priority, but who is included and how disparate actors might be brought together is still an open question. This much is clear:  in five months, 200 representatives will be elected to draft a constitution, which will then be revised based on recommendations from the NTC. Once the NTC approves a draft supported by an up-or-down vote taken in the drafting body, the constitution will be put to a referendum before being ratified, thereafter providing the framework for future political activity. It is important for this process to occur in a timely manner, since only then can the economic activity required to restore normality in Libya ensue.

But more important than the speed of state formation are the underlying politics. Whether Libya’s new government is sustainable will depend on its legitimacy in the eyes of the people, which itself will be a product of the extent to which society is involved in the formation of the new state. State formation cannot be an exercise restricted to elites and intellectuals, even if they play a strong leadership role. This is especially true given the success Qaddafi enjoyed in driving many elites out of the country during his reign, thereby removing them from day-to-day life in Libya. Elites must interact with society and account for its various preferences, which will take time to develop.

For a country that has been systematically de-politicized over the last forty years, the current timeframe might be too hasty. The unavailability of public funding to stimulate civil society reinforces the need to allow time for an organic process to develop. A democratic government can invite the activities characteristic of democratic politics, such as the formation of civic organizations, special interest groups, and political parties. But this only occurs if societal groups buy into the governmental arrangement in the first place. If not, they’ll work outside the system and undermine it.

What happens in the interim is more important than the amount of time elapsed. In Tunisia, the elected assembly is now drafting a “mini-constitution,” which includes legislation governing institutional procedures that will apply until a permanent constitution is ratified. This “low stakes” effort allows different actors to enter the political fray and influence negotiations without immediately cementing a permanent order.

Political unraveling in Iraq is providing a stark example of the dangers attached to premature political settlements. Libya would be wise not to repeat these mistakes.

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One thought on “Libya on track, but delay may be wise”

  1. Ali Tarhuni, like Mahmud Jibril last winter at the Brookings, came to give a speech tailored for the american audience. A nice fairy tale of democratization optimism with a lot of nice buzz words (elections, constitution, civil society, moderate Islam etc) but little substance and no analysis. For example after having talked about elections Tarhuni was asked more details about their organization but he could not answer. The fact is that in Libya the situation is so chaotic that not even the idea of how to organize elections has been undertaken. Many villages have been destroyed, cities like Misurata and Sirte are half destroyed and a lot of population has moved elsewhere, in other words without a new census we wouldn’t even know who could vote and where. Regarding the weird idea that Libyans do not recognize anymore local and regional distinctions and allegiances…one has only to ask the current Prime Minister al Kib what criteria he had to use to form the government. Tarhuni is a politician and gave a political speech, fine, but analysis and reality are another thing

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