A recurrent theme in contemporary discussions about the future of Libya, now that Tripoli has come under the control of the rebel forces, is whether the country will manage to make the transition to democracy given that it has no democratic history or traditions. In slight variations the same question is being (fearfully) asked with reference to all those countries set in motion by the Arab Spring.
The question as to whether and when a country is fit for democracy is of the ‘catch 22’ type. If the assumption is that for democracy to work, it is imperative to have had some past experience, then how can you ever get started on gathering that experience if you don’t have some to show in the first place? Ergo, that is a no go.
There is no denying that Libya (like Egypt, Tunisia, and, eventually, Syria) will face a bumpy path to democratic governance; and there is also no denying that past experience helps, as in everything else. But posing the question thus shifts attention away from what is really at stake—namely, how to create and/or support those external and internal conditions that will facilitate the transition to democracy. At the end of the day if there is any meaning at all in the term ‘fitness’ or ‘maturity’ with respect to democracy, then no more than in this connection.
Presently the National Transitional Council (NTC) is doing many things right. It is continuing to fight Gaddafi who apparently has still cash to pay his private army but who is in the meantime ousted in the in-between routes between Bali Walid, Sirte and Sabha; it is trying to restore public infrastructure and services in Tripoli and around the country; and it has negotiated a first partial release of Libya’s assets abroad to enable it to begin paying state employees in order that they resume employment.
In the near future, many more decisions will have to be taken and even though each deserves careful consideration, speed and expedience are equally important:
• The first step to a peaceful transition is maintaining security—which in the case of Libya means securing against the eruption of civil war. It is unfortunate that the NTC has so far declined the UN offer to send in a peace-keeping force of observers. Even though it is understandable that it wants to prove to the Libyan people that it can manage without what they consider to be ‘foreign’ intervention, holding onto this attitude would be unwise if not straight out foolish.
• The second step is to establish a decision-making framework that supports collaboration in addition to enabling the drawing of external expertise when and where this is necessary. In this regard it is useful to consider ways to back strategic alliances which are neither territorial nor ethnic first and foremost. The concept of ‘twinning’, which has often been used in cultural policy to support trans-national learning towards peaceful co-existence, could serve as a starting point.
• Third, Libya is in the lucky position to be rich in oil reserves which foreign investors and multinationals are keen to exploit. This is a pawn that Libya could use to encourage private investment into local infrastructure as well as the training and employment of Libyan youth. (Training is here as important, especially from the mid- and long-term perspective). Besides, a concerted effort ought to be made to avoid the consolidation of oligopolies with respect to economic development and trade relations.
The above are transitional steps and not the pillars on which to found the new republic. The latter remain the task of the constitution which has still to be drafted. In doing that, the Libyan people might not have much own past experience to build on; but democracy, like human rights, belong to no nation alone, and therefore the knowledge accumulated by other nations collectively over the past centuries could serve as a basis on which to construct the unique Libyan democratic experience.