Democratic Transitions and the Shadow of Past Legacies

Hadil Dayri

To what extent are past legacies and grievances relevant in understanding the failures of Libya’s post-2011 transition?



In contrast to the resilience of Gadhafi’s authoritarian regime (1969-2011) and the so called ‘stability’ that it brought about for decades, Libya since 2011 has been the theatre of a wide range of tumultuous events; from revolutionary uprisings to the death of Gadhafi, from democratic elections to the outbreak of civil war and unrest. Yet, Libya today is deadlocked in its’ ability to further the democratic goals advanced in 2011.

The democratic process has been in fact hijacked by many particularistic interests – from the “revolutionary” militias who are not willing to give up arms until they can trust the government to rule and protect its’ citizens, to individuals and extremist groups who have been benefitting from the weakness of the state and the absence of the rule of law – whether financially or in the form of increased power and prestige – notably through the smuggling of oil and migrants.

On the political front, Libya has yet to develop a cohesive political community that can overcome the fragmentation that has ensued following the heydays of the uprising and one that can actively engage in institution building. The fragmentation of the Libyan political community is evident in the existence of two to three governments that each, claims its’ legitimacy.

In the face of the lack of a strong and centralized authority that can devalue the strength of regional, local and kinship ties in favor of a more cohesive Libyan identity; in the face of the state’s inability to rebuild Libyan infrastructures and to sustain the provision of cash and basic needs for the average Libyan, people have reverted back to age-old dynamics of tribal and local affiliations, which, historically, have had the capacity to provide for families and guide local governance.

Today, almost none of the powerful stakeholders are genuinely open to furthering the promises of a national unity government – which was prompted by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL)’s initiation of the Skhirat Agreement in December 2015 – and have instead engaged in increasingly zero-sum winner-take-all political games.

Explanations for the current situation have varied in their appeal to different causal factors. The internationalization of the Libyan conflict following NATO’s intervention in the popular struggle against Gadhafi’s regime in March 2011 has been the object of extensive debate.

Through its lack of clear post-intervention planning to accompany the transition, the international community failed to uphold its’ commitments following the intervention, leaving quite a wide window of opportunity for the proliferation and sustained power of predatory actors, inside and outside Libya.

However, this research paper focuses on an explanation that is based on an analysis of the internal dynamics that have been pervasive in the Libyan state’s modern history throughout the 20 th century. It thus looks at how enlightening past legacies are, insofar as they allow us to make sense of the challenges of today’s “failed” transition.

In fact, Cole & McQuinn (2015), quoting Marx, provide us with a helpful representation of the overarching argument: “Men make their own history within the structural constraints of the past”. This basic idea will thus serve as the foundational backbone of the argument advanced for the remainder of this paper.

Accordingly, the aim of this project is two-fold;

On one hand, it identifies and analyzes the impact of two main dynamics. Thus, it first focuses on the legacy of state formation from colonial domination to Libya’s independence and beyond – or rather the historical absence of a strong and centralized state – and more specifically, how the bureaucratic and institutional vacuum was severely exacerbated by Gadhafi’s rather whimsical political experiments. The significance of this legacy has been strongly argued for, as this research will show, by many analysts and historians inside and outside of Libya.

The second major dynamic described pertains to the continued prevalence of informal and decentralized power structures, whereby tribalism and regional/local identities have been revived “as political identities of last resort”.

In that sense, the second dynamic emerged as a direct response to the continued impairments that the first one entailed: Libyans revert back to such identities as a result of the historical mismanagement and neglect of the Libyan central authority. As such, this research paper attempts to establish a robust connection between both dynamics, so as to show how they represent well established and mutually reinforcing grievances that have plagued the post-2011 climate.

On the other hand, this paper also attempts to address two significant failures of the post-2011 transition – the political and security failures – by linking them to the dynamics mentioned above. The political failures mainly relate to the mistakes of the transitional justice process, which can be exemplified in the complete absence of real dialogue between the different stakeholders and a complete unwillingness to initiate national reconciliation.

In regards to the security failures, the concern pertains to the absence of real demobilization of the “thuwwar” from the early days of the transition, which have instead been concerned with score settling and have found considerable interests in sustaining the instability.

Thus, I find that both failures had a direct impact on the insidious rise of winner-take-all politics and a revitalization of tribes and other peripheral, regional and local affiliations.

These dynamics are more generally instantiations of Libyans’ inherent trust deficit towards the state and towards each other, which are, to a certain extent, consequences of Gadhafi’s attacks on the Libyan state and the Libyan nation.

Of course, the aim is not to deresponsibilize Libyans citizens’ actions and mistakes in building the post-Gadhafi Libya but rather to show how current grievances are not so new; how there are expressions of wider phenomena that have historically steered the modern Libyan state and that have been severely exacerbated by Gadhafi’s manipulations.

Therefore, I aim at establishing a certain continuity with respect to the rule of successive regimes, by highlighting inherited grievances that continue to plague the transitional process today. The analysis thus combines structure and agency explanations through a historical lens.

The 2011 uprisings: hope vs. deception

On the 17 th of February 2011, massive uprisings broke out in several cities in Libya, inaugurating the start of a bloody civil war and ended in August 2011 as Tripoli fell under the hands of the “thuwwar” and the Gadhafi regime collapsed.

The euphoria that supplanted 42 years of passive quiescence and the feeling of unity amongst Libyans following the fall of Gadhafi quickly waned, “as age-old divisions and cleavages” reasserted themselves.

Traditional Libyan social structures were reinvigorated, as distinctive social and political groups reemerged at the outset of the transitional process; tribes, remnants of the old bourgeoisie, Salafi/Jihadist movements, moderate Islamist political actors, Gadhafi loyalists, militias, returned exiles. Cities and regions also reaffirmed themselves in terms of organization, autonomy and governance.

Cole & McQuinn (2015) capture the perplexing climate that follows the fall of an authoritarian regime; “the creation of a centralized state is a race of time, against the closing window of opportunity, to construct viable state institutions and implement agreed-upon rules before the centrifugal forces that dispute those rules overwhelm forces of centralized power”.

Indeed, this window of opportunity persisted in Libya, amidst both a power and security vacuum; the absence of rule of law thus created a permissive environment for non-state radical actors to undermine the process of reconstruction of the state and the reestablishment of centralized power.

On the other hand, the political leadership at the center was subject to increasing infighting and disagreement that severely hampered on the ability to cooperate and comprise. In fact, in discussing theories of democratic transitions, Carothers holds that, in countries where state building had to be carried out from scratch, the “the core impulses of power holders went contrary to what democratic building required” (2002). Pack associated such a situation with a “Jacobin tendency” (2013) to first give the impression of unity before radical forces of change hijack the transitional process and instill chaos.




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