Two years after the death of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s transition is not going well. The headlines tell a depressing story: the Prime Minister (briefly) kidnapped by his own security services; daily assassinations, bombings and robberies; militias and secessionists in the east blockading oil facilities; and the General National Congress (parliament) in disarray. In the coffee shops and dilapidated government offices where the Tripolitanian middle classes and government officials gather, there is talk of stasis and disappointed expectations.
None of these travails are surprising in the context of a bloody transition from a long-entrenched dictatorship. For a successful transition, Libya needs to work towards an internal political settlement that balances the interests of its different regions, and to build state structures that are able to enforce the rule of law and administer the economy in a way that serves the wider population rather than, as under Qaddafi, selected elites.
The International Community is responding to this challenge creditably, with the UN, World Bank, EU, US and numerous individual countries rushing to offer assistance. Keen to see a stable Libya emerge which can get oil production back on track, control its porous borders and crack down on homegrown jihadists, they are providing a range of technical assistance to the Libyan security sector and civil service. By building up these government institutions in the context of a constitutional process, goes the logic, a duly elected Libyan government will be able to get a grip on the country. It seems “obvious” that, in a country with a small population, abundant oil wealth, and a lack of deep sectarian or ethnic divisions, this standard statebuilding formula should work.
However, there is a contradiction at the heart of the Libyan state-building project. Unlike many of its neighbours, modern Libya has deliberately tried not to build a state. While Libya appears to have the trappings of modern statehood (ministries, flags, airlines, security forces), at the deeper conceptual level, the country has eschewed real state-building. This was most explicit during Qaddafi’s rule when he put in place a system of “permanent revolution” and deliberately undermined state institutions. But even under the monarchy, the regime only constructed the façade of statehood. The central administrative and coercive institutions were built purely to protect a narrow elite rather than to support a wider programme of state-building.
Historians have argued that this aversion to statebuilding derives in part from Libya’s disastrous experience with modern statehood under the brutal Italian occupation and in part from the relatively recent and rapid process of urbanisation. Whatever the cause, the Libyan predeliction for “stateless statebuilding” means that an overly simplistic approach of transferring international skills, equipment and organisational structures is unlikely to succeed.
Libya’s international allies will need to avoid the all too common tendency to import templates from other jurisdictions and Libya’s leaders will need to recognise that they cannot “buy” a modern state overnight. They will need to focus as much effort on the essentially political tasks of linking state structures to the population as on the technical tasks of bolstering government institutions. It will be a fascinating, if fraught, journey.
For a recent update, see David Hammond’s blog at: http://9bri.com/human-rights-in-libya-interview-and-comment-on-the-deaths-in-tripoli-from-the-national-council-for-civil-liberties-and-human-rights/