Democracy is a tough project. Even in well-established democratic countries the process can get extremely messy at times and some even claim that here in the United States our democracy is failing. Now, the accusation that American democracy is failing might be hyperbolic, but try to imagine constructing a democratic system in a country without any history of democratic rule, a lack of institutional viability, and no control over what happens within its own borders. Enter Libya.
Qathafi claimed, in his Green Book, to have found “the final solution to the problem of the instrument of governing.” Of course, the Brother Leader never really precisely laid out what the organizational apparatuses of the Jamahiriya were supposed to be. Oh sure, you can find charts aplenty that show the interrelations between his proposed Popular Congresses, but the operational aspects? Regardless of ‘theory,’ Qathafi left a state that wasn’t a state. What was meant to be an attempt to reach the ‘ideal’ of direct democracy effectively remained a totalitarian state under the thumb of the Brother Leader and his family. There was almost no institutionalization to speak of and rule of law was a pipe dream. What existed was a bizarre combination of both strong and weak state.
Flash forward to today and one sees that creating a democracy from such a shambles is indeed messy. Perhaps messy is too light a term. What we are seeing now is a shambles. The country is effectively split between various militias and localized groups that maintain control of their region/ city/ neighborhood/ street. At this point even the government’s nominal ability to influence the country has been significantly damaged.
Let us look at only Tripoli, for the sake of brevity. This week has seen militias storm government offices, including the parliament, and dictating legislation. From April 28 until May 5, militias held the government under siege until parliament passed a political isolation law that would exclude former Qathafi-era government workers (of any rank) from holding office in the new Libya. This law could potentially even include the Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, who had defected from the Qathafi regime in the 1980s. The vote was only democratic in the sense that it was passed by elected representatives. Now a precedent has been set. Bring enough guns to the table and the Libyan government will be forced to acquiesce.
Unsurprisingly, the militias responsible have no made further demands upon parliament, including explicitly requiring the Prime Minister to resign, freezing the state’s budget, and taking charge of the foreign ministry. The government is powerless to do anything about this, although rival militias claiming to support the government are now offering to dislodge those besieging the government. Zeidan himself is trying to play the man in middle saying, “We don’t have militias in Libya, we have revolutionaries.” In this case, truly a distinction without a difference.
Democracy simply cannot function without an effective security sector. Without the proper level of coercive authority the state becomes simply another player in a complex version of the Middle Ages as groups struggle to assert territorial and governmental dominance. While Libyans explicitly refused any sort of external peacekeeping force post-revolution it is hard at this point to see how an effective transition can be made without one. The state simply cannot support itself and without any sort of security cushion it is hard to believe that militia-style direct democracy won’t become the wave of the future. Of course, getting anyone to sign up for such a task would be no easy feat. And defining what end such a theoretical force would be may prove even more difficult.
Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.