A Norwegian F-16 fighter jet preparing for takeoff as part of the NATO-led Operation Unified Protector in 2011
In the days and weeks after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall from power in Libya in 2011, an unprecedented wave of optimism swept through the country’s populace regarding the North African country’s prospects to become the world’s newest democratic state. Yet three years on, instead of democracy, the world has seen Libya devolve into a fragmented state dominated by a dizzying array of militias, former Libyan army units, and al-Qaeda affiliates in open conflict with one another. Nostalgia for a more stable, secure era runs high, and there is even some talk of the reestablishment of a new autocratic government, if such a move would mean an end to the fighting.
It is clear that the scene on the ground in Libya today is one that few intended when they first took up arms against the Gaddafi regime back in 2011. So what went wrong?
A significant component of any explanation must include Libya’s premature push for democracy. Democracies are not built overnight; instead, they take decades to solidify. Take the case of the United States, a country that didn’t fully ratify a constitution until 14 years after independence, and another 175 years to achieve universal enfranchisement. Even today, American democracy remains imperfect, with a recent Princeton study finding that the United States by most measures should no longer be considered a democracy.
In recent post-conflict countries, a rush to democracy can be highly destabilizing. For this reason, democratization in these countries — if it occurs at all — tends to be slow and non-linear. In addition to the thorny dilemmas of structuring a new system of governance and educating its citizenry on how they can participate, new democracies must handle other post-conflict issues, including disarmament of competing militias and rebels, repair of damaged infrastructure, attraction of new foreign investment, and reconciliation between previously warring factions.
Oftentimes, democratization and peace-building processes can even work against each other. In the new, post-Gaddafi Libya, organized political parties were lacking, but what wasn’t lacking were militias, or other groups with a military component. It should come as no surprise, then, that some of these groups were so successful in Libya’s 2012 elections, as they were far and away the groups in Libyan society with the most effective organizational capacity. Thus, democratization in Libya actually served to hinder peacemaking to a certain extent, as it raised the stakes for these military groups, as they sought out the spoils that were likely to follow the gaining of legitimacy among the population and international community through an electoral victory.
As is common in civil wars, many of these militias were identity-based, either around religious affiliation, ethnicity, or geographic location. When these groups attempt to make the transition to competitive politics, the voices of moderates within particular groups tend to be drowned out, as extremists are able to portray elections as zero-sum affairs in which the victory of one identity group is seen as harmful to others, and thus victory must be achieved at all costs.
When armed groups are not demobilized and disarmed, as happened in Libya, elections can spark renewed violence. Violence has a profound capacity to shape election outcomes, as people fearful of being harmed may vote against their own interests, and electoral candidates are at any given time at risk of being assassinated. Ultimately, if certain groups feel that an election isn’t going the way they would like, they may pick up their guns in an attempt to impose their will rather than concede defeat.
As the world has seen, this has been the outcome in Libya. When the National Transitional Council called for elections within 8 months of its declaration of victory over Gaddafi’s forces, the slide towards civil war began. When the nascent Libyan government failed to corral and disarm the many militias throughout the country, war became inevitable.
While the prospects of Libya moving toward democracy anytime soon are slim, such an outcome isn’t an impossibility in the long-term. The key factor will be how the group that eventually emerges from the fighting in Libya as the strongest once this current round of fighting ends decides to dedicate its efforts. If such a group focuses simply on maintaining its grip on power in order to reap maximum benefits for its constituents, democracy is unlikely to emerge. If, on the other hand, such a group decides to focus on state-building and increasing state capacity, a chance for democracy — however slim — exists.
It matters little if technically flawless elections and democratic institutions are constructed if the state does not have a defined territory, population, and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Ensuring that the basics of statehood are met is a prerequisite to democratization, especially following internal conflict. To have a democratic state, one must first have a state.
Chris Newton is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame, pursuing a one-year fellowship with AVSI Foundation in Juba, South Sudan.