Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi (photo: dpa)
Libya after Gaddafi

The High Price of Freedom

For years, Middle Eastern autocrats have been scaring their people into submission, keeping them in check by warning them of the dire consequences of toppling regimes. Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi is no exception. Omar Ashour examines the prospects for democratisation and four possible outcomes of the current uprising in Libya

Middle Eastern autocrats routinely warn their people of rivers of blood, Western occupation, poverty, chaos and al-Qaeda if their regimes are toppled. Those threats were heard in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and – rendered in black-comedy style – in Libya. But there is a strong belief across the region that the costs of removing autocracies, as high as they might be, are low compared to the damage inflicted by the current rulers. In short, freedom is worth the price.

In Libya, four scenarios may negatively affect prospects for democratisation: civil/tribal war, military rule, becoming "stuck in transition" and partition. Given the high price Libyans have paid, those scenarios should be prevented rather than cured.

Civil/tribal war

The civil/tribal war scenario is the worst threat. Egypt's revolutionaries understood this. When sectarian violence erupted there following the removal of Hosni Mubarak, the revolutionary coalitions adopted the slogan "You won't gloat over this, Mubarak". Repressive dictatorships cannot win free and fair elections. But they can use extreme violence to consolidate their control over the state, its people and its institutions.

Rebels in Misrata (photo: dpa)
Quo Vadis Libya? Will Libya stride forward on the path to democracy or will it slip back into civil/tribal war or military rule, become stuck in a transition phase or split into independent regions

​​So, to win, Libya's Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi has deliberately and successfully turned a civil-resistance campaign into an armed conflict. That will have ramifications in the post-authoritarian context. A study published by Columbia University on civil resistance has shown that the probability of a country relapsing into civil war following a successful anti-dictatorship armed campaign is 43 per cent, versus 28 per cent when the campaign is unarmed.

According to the same study, which was based on 323 cases of armed and unarmed opposition campaigns between 1900 and 2006, the likelihood of democratic transition within five years following a successful armed opposition campaign is only 3 per cent, compared to 51 per cent when campaigns were unarmed.

Libya, of course, can survive the gloomy prospect of post-authoritarian civil war. But this requires containing tribal and regional polarisation as well as the rivalries between the Interim National Council (INC) and the Military Council (MC), and between senior military commanders. Violent polarisation has developed not only between Eastern and Western tribes, but also between some of the Western tribes.

Last month, for example, armed clashes erupted between rebels in al-Zintan and the villagers of al-Rayyaniya, 15 kilometres away. Six people were killed – a reminder of what can happen if violent polarisation continues between neighbouring towns and villages. Vendetta politics is not unknown in Libya and, in an armed society comprising more than 120 tribes – including around 30 with significant numbers and resources – it can become extremely dangerous.

Military rule

Another negative scenario is military rule. Several figures from the "free officers" – the group that plotted the 1969 coup against the monarchy – are leading the INC. They include General Abd al-Fattah Younis, General Soliman Mahmoud, Colonel Khalifa Haftar, Major Mohamed Najm and others. Those figures hold a mix of historical legitimacy, for participating in the 1969 coup, and current legitimacy, for helping the 17 February revolution. They also belong to several large tribes, guaranteeing wide tribal representation if a military council were to take power, as in Egypt.

Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi (photo: dpa)
According to Omar Ashour, Gaddafi deliberately and successfully turned a civil-resistance campaign into an armed conflict; according to a Columbia University study on civil resistance, the probability of a country relapsing into civil war following a successful anti-dictatorship armed campaign is higher than when the campaign is unarmed


Unlike Egypt, however, whoever takes power in Libya will not necessarily inherit poor economic conditions that could threaten their legitimacy and undermine their popularity. This might lead a group of senior officers to rule directly, especially if victory in Libya comes militarily. A move by army officers in Tripoli against Gaddafi and his sons might end the conflict, with military commanders getting not only the credit, but also the political capital.

But four decades of military-based dictatorship may be enough for Libyans, a majority of whom never really benefited from their country's wealth or potential. When it comes to producing terrorists and undocumented immigrants – two critical issues for Europe – Arab military dictators have an inglorious record. Algeria in the 1990s is a potent reminder of this, and Western governments do not want the vicious cycle of repressive autocrats producing violent theocrats and refugees to restart.

"Stuck in transition"

Getting "stuck in transition" is a third possible scenario, with Libya remaining in a "grey area": neither a fully-fledged democracy nor a dictatorship, but "semi-free". This means regular elections, a democratic constitution and civil society, coupled with electoral fraud, skewed representation, human rights violations and restrictions on civil liberties. Getting stuck in transition usually kills the momentum for democratic change, and widespread corruption, weak state institutions and lack of security serve to reinforce a myth of the "just autocrat". Vladimir Putin's rule in Russia illustrates this outcome.

Unfortunately, a study published in the Journal of Democracy showed that out of the 100 countries that were designated "in transition" between 1970 and 2000, only 20 became fully democratic (including Chile, Argentina, Poland and Taiwan), five relapsed into brutal dictatorships (including Uzbekistan, Algeria, Turkmenistan and Belarus), while the rest were stuck somewhere in transition.

NATO fighter jets preparing for a mission to Libya (photo: dapd)
NATO got involved in the Libyan conflict in order to protect civilians; but the outcome of the armed rebellion is anything but clear


Given Libya's lack of democratic experience, some view this as a likely outcome in the post-Gaddafi era. But Libya is not the only country that has tried to move from dictatorship to democracy with weak institutions and strong tribal identities. Albania, Mongolia and India successfully passed more complicated tests and offer some useful lessons in democratic transitions under unfavourable conditions.


The fourth scenario is partition, with the old three-province, Ottoman-style setup commonly mentioned: Cyrenaica (East), Fezzan (South) and Tripolitania (West). Cyrenaica is Gaddafi-free, Tripolitania is not, and Fezzan did not fully join the revolution. But the administrative borders of these districts were never fully established, and they have changed at least eight times since 1951. In 2007, Libya had 22 sha'biya (administrative districts), not three.

All of these scenarios will be affected by outcomes in Egypt and Tunisia. In the case of democratic transitions, a success nearby often helps at home. Either country, or both, could provide Libya with a successful transition model, thereby erecting an important obstacle to military dictatorship or civil war.

Omar Ashour

© Project Syndicate 2011

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan

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