Now a separatist Libyan region has announced an establishment of an independent oil company after taking over several commercial sea ports. As Tripoli struggles to regain control, the PM has warned of foreign intervention unless central government rule is restored.
A decade ago, Arab experts and scholars of democracy warned President George W. Bush that his plans to bring democracy to the Arab world would fail, both because the region would resist American influence and because it lacked the institutions and the habits of behavior upon which democracy could be built. The debacle of Iraq proved that they were right about the first problem; the Arab Spring, paradoxically, seems to be proving the second point.
In places where citizens have risen up on their own to overthrow a dictator -- Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya -- the vacuum of power has been filled mostly by chaos. It's no wonder that in a speech to the U.N. in which he laid out his priorities for the Middle East, President Barack Obama said virtually nothing about democracy.
Libya is carrying out a very peculiar, and right now very unhappy, experiment in political change. The 42-year-old reign of Muammar al-Qaddafi was so utterly personal that when he fell from power, everything fell with him. Libya was left with no governing institutions at all.
It is almost impossible to build a democracy and a government at the same time, since new leaders depend on institutions to deliver the benefits which convince citizens that democracy is worth having. What's more Qaddafi's revolutionary regime taught Libyans to trust no one beyond their own extended family, thus sowing a bone-deep distrust of government -- which helps explain why the country's 300 militias have refused to disarm, and why workers in the oil sector prefer blackmail to negotiations.
Libya ought to have a decent future: With just 5.5 million people and vast oil reserves, the country has the GDP per capita of Turkey; there are few sectarian divides; and the international community, which gave the rebellion military and political support, is eager to help make the country work. And yet the country is locked in a vicious cycle. The government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has precious little legitimacy because militias refuse to disarm and continue to act as they wish.
Meanwhile, the government's fecklessness in turn persuades Libyans that they can only get what they want at the barrel of a gun. Insecurity leads to weak legitimacy leads to insecurity. Unless Libya can break the cycle, that future will remain a tormenting dream.
Libya seems to keep approaching a brink and then backing off. The Zeidan kidnapping ended peacefully; rumbles between militias rarely lead to large numbers of killings. Libyans seem genuinely afraid of jeopardizing their own revolution -- something which can hardly be said, for example, of Egyptians, who cheered the army as it overthrew the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government.
But something has to happen soon. Libya's government has money, but no ability to spend it. The General National Congress, a constitutional assembly which has neither made advances on the constitution nor advanced legislation, mostly gets in the way of Zeidan's initiatives. Central ministries are helpless. Ben Fishman, who recently stepped down as the Libya specialist on Obama's National Security Council, points out that the prime minister could avoid those constraints by spending money through municipal councils, perhaps to help create jobs for young people who now view a gun as their only asset -- and thus to demonstrate that the government matters.
Libya also desperately needs some sort of process of national reconciliation, such as Yemen is now holding, in order to reach agreement on fundamental questions, such as the degree of autonomy which the country's three regions will enjoy. Zeidan has called for such a dialogue, but since every political faction in the country insists on sponsoring the talks, nothing has happened. Dysfunction thus breeds dysfunction. And yet the only way to break the vicious cycle is to increase the legitimacy of the government, through spending programs, and to make the new Libya inclusive, as the old one was not.
Libyans need to learn everything -- how to make a budget, run a ministry, create a national military. But in the aftermath of the revolution, Libyan officials proudly refused Western offers of help; they wanted stuff, not training. Zeidan now understands how bad the situation is; at the last G-8 meeting, he asked Western states to train a national army of 8,000-10,000 troops. This, too, is very late; had training begun in 2011, Libya might not be at the mercy of militias.
Now the effort is being revived. Italy, Britain, and the United States have agreed to start training the national army. (The U.S. effort will take place in Bulgaria and is set to begin this spring.) By this summer, Libya may have a thousand or so soldiers under arms, which would allow the state to begin challenging the militias; this, too, could help break the vicious cycle. Of course, Libya has to survive until then, which is no sure thing.
Libya does not, however, prove that democracy in the Arab world is doomed. Of course it's preferable for democratic habits and institutions to grow organically over time, or for autocrats to hand off power in "pacted transitions." But most autocrats won't cooperate, and most people won't wait. And so Libyans are now caught between building a country and holding it hostage. It's a harrowing process, but it has also forced Libyans to devise their own rough-and-ready forms of compromise.
Nor does Libya demonstrate that international actors can't do anything to shape better outcomes. Rather, it shows that they have to tread very carefully. Outsiders can do very little to help Libyans -- or Yemenis or Tunisians or Egyptians -- learn the habits of compromise which make political reconciliation possible. They are going to have to have their own fights, and make their own mistakes.
But Libya cannot build a state on its own. And it cannot solve the security dilemma without significant outside help. The good news is that Libya does not need what the United States will not offer -- money. What it does need is training in subjects that the United States knows a lot about. Whether Washington can or will help Libyans learn these democratic lessons is another question.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
African Affairs Expert
Photo-Credit: Reuters-A rebel from Misrata tests his weapon at Bir Doufan check-point about 70 km from Bani Walid