What to Watch in Libya in the Coming Months (and Years)

From the perspective of someone who knows little about Libya but has spent a lot of time studying transitions from communism (both to democracy and autocracy) in East-Central Europe and former Soviet Union, here are what I think are three important things to keep an eye on in Libya in the coming months:

1) Outsiders vs. Insiders: How much influence will members of the “Old Regime” be allowed to wield in the new Libya? This question pertains to both economic and political actors. In both cases, there is a very delicate trade-off that needs to be negotiated. On the one hand, there will be demands for justice against those who helped maintain Qadaffi in power (and in many cases benefitted financially from doing so) for four plus decades, and a sincere concern that if the same people stay in power and in control of the economy after the transition as were in power before the transition, it will undermine Libyans’ faith in democracy, thus increasing the appeal of non-democratic actors (Islamists?). On the other hand, incorportating at least some members of the “Old Regime” into a post-Qadaffi Libya offers the tantalizing appeal of a smoother transition, both due to the real knowledge and insight these actors have about how to run a state and economic enterprizes and the fact that this will decrease the pool of potential pro-Qadaffi insurgents who could seek to violently disrupt the new regime. A particularly important question is what happens to members of Qadaffi’s security forces, with Iraq again offering lessons about the dangers of simply sending soldiers from the old regime on their way.* To be clear, there is not a “correct” answer to this trade-off, but how Libya negotiates it will likely have a major impact on how the country develops in the future. For more on this topic of outsiders vs. insiders, I would recommend John Gould’s new book The Politics of Privatization.

2) Watch the Immediate Security Situation: This is more of a lesson from Iraq than from the post-communist world, but we now know that the consequences of chaos from a security standpoint can be long-lasting. The received wisdom on Libya is that Qadaffi largely destroyed all elements of civil socieity. Combined with a high degree of uncertainty about what is happening to armaments collected by the Qaddafi regime (see here, here, and here), the possibility for rampanent violence is real. One of the stories told about the Balkan conflicts was that communism helped surpress some long-standing conflicts between Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs, and the collapse of communism eventually allowed these grievances to be aired and to turn violent. While there has been a great deal of push back against that theory, there is no reason to be complacent and simply assume there are not scores to settle in Libya after four decades of authoritarian rule. Either way, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where a successful democratic transition is made more likely by sustained violence like we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

3) Election Rules Matter: At some point in the near future, some group of people in Libya will gather to determine a set of rules for elections. While again there is no silver bullet for the perfect set of electoral rules, the point I want to make here is that these rules will have very serious consequences. Moreover, if patterns from Central Europe are repeated, important political actors will be aware of these consequences and will try to shape these rules in their interest. Indeed, in some ways this will be the first real “democratic political challenge” faced by the new Libya: trying to avoid letting the crafting of electoral rules get hijacked by the interests of the few at the expense of what is best for the many. For more on the ability of interested actors to influence the crafting of electoral rules in the post-communist cases, see these insightful (ungated) articles by Ken Benoit and Jacqueline Hayden and Benoit and John W. Schiemann.

All signs point to the West and NATO trying to step back quickly from involvement in Libya, and the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan suggest this might be a good move indeed. However, to the extent that there is still the opportunity for Western countries to exert some influence over developments in Libya – and one has to assume there will continue to be contacts between the NATO powers and the new Libya regime – I would suggest that these three areas are important ones for the West to keep an eye on.


*From the perspective of the question of what happens to the Qadaffi security forces, the fact that there is renewed fighting in the capital today paradoxically might not be as bad a development as it seems. Last night, the big story seemed to be how the expected fights with Qadaffi loyalists in Tripoli were not materializing, suggesting that Qadaffi forces might be trying to melt away, i.e., take their weapons and quietly leave Tripoli. The problem with this scenario is the question of how you engage the existing security forces becomes much harder if you can not find them. And while it is possible that this would just lead to these people exiting the security game and trying to quietly make a new life for themselves in a post-Qadaffi Libya, experiences in Iraq show that the more likely scenario is that these are exactly the kind of people – armed, with military experience, and loyal to the previous regime – who could form the basis of an armed insurgency. Thus the fact that Qadaffi loyalists have not completely disappeared yet may have some positive long-term benefits, or, at the very least, may make certain negative scenarios slightly less likely to unfold.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.