By Clotilde Asangna

This essay offers a basic framework for analyzing Libyan democratization by looking at the deficit of a modern (post-modern) political transition élite and the potential of civil society.



The Libyan transition to democracy has covered an extensive time frame during which the state has regressed politically.

After the transatlantic exit, all that remained was tribal politics and military weakness. Thus, the absence of checks and balances, which rendered the country resistant to democratic reform, yet vulnerable to civil war.

The Jamahiriya (state of the masses) functioned along relatively weak administrative and security institutions, as such the National Transitional Council (NTC) hoped, upon assuming power, to reconstruct major state structures and embark on a seamless transition to democracy, within one year.

However, almost eight years following the end of the Qaddafi regime, and Libya is still in a transition phase.

The Libyan transition is remarkable because this is the state‟s first democratic and state building attempt since independence. Also, the nuances of the Libyan transition will greatly impact the type of democracy that will eventually materialize.


Last week I was in Tripoli and Benghazi. I saw the hunger of a people eager to get on with reclaiming their country, writing themselves a new chapter of freedom and democracy…The people of the Arab world have made their aspirations clear.

They want transparency and accountability of government. An end to corruption; the fair and consistent rule of law. The chance to get a job and to have a stake in how their country is run.

The freedom to communicate, and the chance to participate in shaping society as citizens with rights and responsibilities.” David Cameron addressing the U.N General Assembly in September 22, 2011.

The 2011 outbreak of mass-civilian uprisings in Libya were a representation of local uprisings of a regional crusade for democracy, human rights, and freedom, termed the Arab Spring or Arab Awakening.

The revolutionary spark that started in Tunisia on December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in Sidi Bouzid to protest the humiliation and loss of income visited upon him by the Tunisian police, kindled a blazing mix of hope and anger that had been suppressed for several years.

Most of the Arab society was fighting to introduce human rights and greater political freedom and to transform and rehabilitate state structures heretofore unknown to them.

Aided by media houses like Al Jazeera, people around the Arab world watched their counterparts fight for human rights and democratic institutions. A shared sense of anguish accompanied by the realization that democracy trumps authoritarianism (perhaps an unanticipated upshot of Pan-Arabism) unified people across state borders who shared similar grievances.

The Arab Spring was the first momentous occurrence to destabilize Middle Eastern politics. The outset of these uprisings promised to end decades of Arab exceptionalism and introduce Arab nations to the third wave of democratization.

Why then did the revolution that had so many promises fail? Is a democratic Libyan state feasible?

The answer to my research question is grounded in understanding the performance of the transition élite following the end of the Qaddafi regime.

This essay holds that the Libyan revolution failed due to the near absence of a modern élite to create a strong and democratic transitional government. The transition élite in Libya depended on pre-modern techniques in an effort to democratize.

In the aftermath of the fall of Qaddafi on October 20, 2011, there was hope that Libya would flourish and experience slow, but steady political growth.

The Libyan revolution promised the reemergence of democratic politics and popular sovereignty. However, Libya has regressed economically, politically and socially.

Following the fall of Tripoli into rebel coalition hands, the diversity of actors emerging on the political scene increased tremendously; militant groups remain a threat, frequent targeted killings of politicians and civic actors, and economic growth decelerated (as Libya sank into recession).

The absence of security is the ultimate expression of a pre-modern notion of statehood and sovereignty. According to Wolfram Lacher, while “well-defined political parties, camps and institutions appear to be operating in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, external observers have trouble identifying and placing political actors in the new Libya”.

The political climate in Libya since the second quarter of 2011 has been destabilized rendering the need to understand state building (and state formation) paramount in 21st century scholarship.

Beyond wide-scale violence, the impact of the transition has been devastating on public institutions, national economy, political structure, and social cohesion of Libya and neighboring states in the Sahel.


The intervention that toppled Qaddafi was crafted on the notion of the Right to Protect (R2P) and human rights‟ concerns, yet the mandate that legalized Operation Unified Protector (OUP), neither mapped out nor adopted a post-Qaddafi plan of action (as was the case in Kosovo).

In Kosovo, for instance, the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) was mandated on June 10, 1999, following the end of the NATO military intervention by UNSCR 1244.

This resolution authorized member states to establish a security presence to deter hostilities, demilitarize the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and facilitate the return of refugees.

The mandate also demanded that the Secretary-General establish an international civil presence in Kosovo to provide an interim administration for Kosovo under which the people could enjoy substantial autonomy and self-government.

Chivvis (2014) maintains that during the 2011 Libyan war, the interim leadership (NTC) largely objected to foreign ground force deployments, advocating only airspace support and weapons‟ supply.

The elected General National Congress (GNC)sustained the decision of the NTC even with the multiplication of revolutionary brigades.

The GNC‟s decision to refuse foreign military presence was partly due to calls by postwar rebel leaders, who “were deeply concerned with their legitimacy, which they feared a foreign troop deployment would undermine”.

Coupled with the interim government‟s opposition, the UNSCR 1973 explicitly ruled out an “occupying force.” Thus, rendering NATO‟s continuous presence illegal after October 31, 2011.

The transatlantic exit resulted in the makings of civil war sparked by extremists and militant groups like Ansar al-Sharia and the Zintan militia.

The first post-revolutionary attacks occurred in February 2012 when “militias raided a Tawerghan refugee camp in Janzur and killed seven civilians, three of them children, in what they claim was a weapons‟ inspection”.

As is typical of a pre-modern élite,the NTC failed to sanction or investigate this initial attack, enabling revolutionary brigades to continue perpetuating abuses on civilians.

The dilapidating security conditions were neither limited to human rights‟ abuses nor racial feuds. Ethnic clashes also ensued between Arabs in Zuwara and Berbers resulting in the loss of at least two hundred lives in April 2012.

According to the International Crisis Group (2012), these conflicts could neither be resolved by the local councils nor the justice system, because of the inability of the interim government to follow-up on agreements that had been previously negotiated by tribal leaders to deploy security forces meant to impeach extremists and militias.

The tribal system (council) is one of the major problems stalling Libyan democratization; loyalty has thus far been to tribe rather than state.

Tribes have become self-sufficient and powerful to where they are able to afford their own security and administer justice. Not only did traditional leaders (councils of wise men) install themselves as peace negotiators for the tribal militias and armed brigades, they also influenced political outcomes.

For instance in Zintan, the Shura Council became the highest order to which both civilian and military cases deferred. Loyalty to these tribal structures superseded acknowledgment for the justice system, further strengthening the periphery while the central government suffered major structural weakness.

Another profound flaw in post-Qaddafi Libya has been the continuation of tribal politics by the transition elite. Instead of engaging in innovative problem-solving (political inclusivity) at the onset of the transition, the NTC (and subsequently, the GNC and later GNA) rather administered the transition state similar to the Jamahiriya; along tribal lines.

Qaddafi exploited tribalism as anapparatus to consolidate his position and enforce direct democracy, but not as an instrument to administer the rule of law. Only he ruled and governed Libya.

These problems were further heightened by the NTC whose party was formed along counter tribal lines (and lacked legitimacy because it assumed power as a de facto government without electoral accolade) to oppose tribes that were loyal to Qaddafi‟s government, marking the continuance of tribalism into the transitional phase.

Given that Libya‟s transition élite was identical with the old regime, tribalism ultimately became the expression of a conception of sovereignty. Loyalty to tribe contributed towards stalling democratization, as different tribal groups clamored for resources and state control.

The intensity of tribal politics in Libya, corrupted and even threatened the very foundation of democracy.

Moreover, the balance of power between local and regional actors was undefined, and interest groups that formed at the tribal level competed with one another.

The absence of judicial and security institutions only further rendered the transition government powerless, hence the state‟s dependence on militias as power enforcers.

An example of this dysfunction was portrayed when the terms of the constitutional process were amended shortly before polling day, such that the constitutional committee could be voted directly by the people when initially they were to be appointed by the GNC.

And because the judicial system was equally as dysfunctional as the state system, the interim government did not have any professional peacekeeping force to ensure security or handover suspects to the courts.

Tribal structures became the deciding agents in the north-eastern region of the country, with no central authority. None of these is to say that Libya is incapable of transitioning, or that tribal ties are entirely to blame for the ongoing instability.

Efforts to democratize are being made by the GNA. Following the Skhirat agreement, the GNA was tasked with asserting itself as the sole, legitimate government in Libya with Fayez al-Sarraj as Prime minister.

In an attempt to restore peace, Sarraj announced general elections to be held in December 2018. Sarraj‟s decision to organize elections is the most effective way to create legitimacy in the war-torn country because in the electoral process, “citizens organize themselves according to their various social, economic and political activities, in a multiplicity of groups and associations.

It is the existence of these self-activated groups which gives vitality and power to the political institutions on which rests the legitimacy of government”. Then again, it is impossible for a state to democratize without nationwide recognition and political inclusiveness.

Libya is split between the U.N-backed GNA government, which rose to power in Tripoli following the Skhirat Agreement of 2015, General Khalifa Haftar‟s Libyan National Army (LNA) in Benghazi, the Tobruk House of Representatives and (to a small extent) the Sanussi loyalists.

Tribalism and the unfortunate security condition of the state has rendered the new government weak and void of legitimacy. The GNA has been unable to provide effective military backing to restrain militias and extremists in the East, leaving the LNA to gain legitimacy and popular support in that region.

Nevertheless, media houses like Alarabya and Al-Jazeera report that the U.N-backed prime minister has also called for a national ceasefire and unity of rival groups in Tripoli and Cyrenaica.

The stakes are highest for the government of Sarraj, because failure to restore the Libyan state can potentially result in the end of Sarraj‟s administration, either by means of a vote of no confidence from within the GNA party or more likely, the government of Sarraj can lose legality and further fail to assert its authority nationwide, particularly in the absence of security.

At the very least, a continuation of the civil war is not inevitable given the tribal and militia factions that define the country. Even though a ceasefire was reached between Haftar and Sarraj in July 2017, the leaders of the Tobruk House were absent.

To enhance the probabilities of resolving the immense range of problems plaguing the country, the role of tribalism in the Libyan transition needs to be reckoned.

Sweeping analytic statements will not lead me to a complete explanation of the Libyan state. Seeing as my goal is to understand what caused the outbreak of violence that occurred in Libya following the end of Qaddafi‟s regime, it is paramount that my study analyzes the intricacies of the Libyan transition.

to continue …


Clotilde Asangna – A researcher in History of Humanitarianism and Human Rights, History of Philosophy and Quantitative Social Research. Clotilde has published papers and opinion editorials on topics relating to the MENA region, Arab Spring, transatlantic relations, human rights and identity politics in “third” states.


Source: IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science (IOSR-JHSS) – Volume 24, Issue 6.






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