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?


From historical review to explanation

The arguments exposed in scholars’ writings are indeed pioneering in their understanding of Libya’s historically prevalent political and social dynamics.

Indeed they all point to the pervasiveness of the legacy of statelessness and to its impact on the role of informal structures of governance. Moreover, Cole & McQuinn, as well as Pack and a few other authors, further link many of the post-revolutionary struggles to these pervading dynamics.

However, it also seems that none of the authors present a comprehensive model that draws on both Libya’s modern history of a lacking state and on the specific experience of authoritarianism under Gadhafi to shed wider understanding on the limitations that have plagued the transitional process post-Gadhafi.

This research thus views, on one hand, Libya’s history as an argument for the permissive conditions under which such dynamics have emerged.

It views, on the other hand, the experience of authoritarianism as the ultimate trigger of the reinvigorated power asymmetry between centralized, formal structures of governance and decentralized, informal structures. Indeed, while the former possesses ‘theoretical’ power, historically, ’real ‘power is in the hands of the latter.

Under this perspective, the current challenges of the state and the Libyan polity are viewed, to a certain extent, as by-products of past legacies and grievances. Together, the dynamics of state formation, informal structures and authoritarianism shed light on some of the causes of our most significant grievances post-2011; a trust deficit both vis-à-vis the state and its overarching institutions, and vis-à-vis each other.

Therefore, I argue that lacking trust nurtured and was in turn nurtured by both political and security vacuum. Throughout the transition, this was articulated in the form of winner-take-all factionalism and the growing power of decentralized informal actors at the detriment of the center.

Ultimately, lacking trust impeded on both national reconciliation and on state/institution building. Indeed, there can be no functioning state and overarching governing institutions if the people themselves do not trust nor recognize the legitimacy of the state.

Therefore, addressing the root causes of the lacking trust in Libya – which is undoubtedly related to the prevalent political culture – is thus essential to further any developments regarding both state and nation building. Until the trust component is reestablished, Libya’s efforts at democratic transition will not be consolidated.


To have a complete picture of the Libyan context, this dissertation would’ve needed another 10,000 words, as I believe that social and political dynamics are too complex to explain within such a limited endeavor.

As such, due to the constraining scope of this research, my ability to present a comprehensive and exhaustive explanation of prevalent dynamics was ultimately constrained. For a more thorough analysis and understanding, I could have included a section on presenting the traditional societal structures in Libya and recounting the significance of tribes and other peripheral and localized identities throughout history.

Initially, I also intended to present a comparative analysis with Tunisia’s experience of state formation, from the French protectorate, to independence under Bourghiba, ultimately conducive to the different paths taken by Libya and Tunisia in terms of transitional justice and reconciliation post-2011.

However, in virtue of the constraining scope of this research, I believe that this depiction is as accurate as could have been. Yet, I must also highlight that my personal attachment to this topic made it more difficult to express certain ideas in a rigorously academic way and might have ultimately flawed my depiction of the complexities of the Libyan experience of state and nation formation.

Conclusively, the aim of this dissertation was to capture the prevalent dynamics in Libya today, derived from an analysis of its historical experience of foreign domination, inadequate institutional state structures, and authoritarianism.

It is no surprise that Gadhafi’s social and political experiments had an impact both on the Libyan state and the Libyan nation. Overall, this led to the rupture of interpersonal trust and of trust towards the state.

Trust towards each other was broken by Gadhafi’s continuous ‘divide and rule’ tactics and his utmost emphasis on self-governance and self-policing (‘Al Fawda Al Mounadama’).

Trust towards the state and central authority had already been severed under the Italians and the monarchy but was sharply exacerbated by the persistent reshuffling of administrative and governing institutions as well as the prevalence of the informal power of the revolutionary leadership, which overall depoliticized the population.

Indeed, in the minds of Libyans, the state was more or less absent as a structure as well as absent as a culture. These ruptures led to two particularly pervasive dynamics, which have been instantiated in the transitional era.

The first dynamic relates to the historical tendency to revert back to informal peripheral actors and structures of power that gradually dominate the center. This is highly evident given the prevalence of hinterland culture in Libya and the persistence of the urban/rural divide.

The second dynamic relates to the pervasiveness of winner take all political games. Winner take all politics were highly evident under Gadhafi’s rule with his constant undermining of political compromise and of Libyans’ sense of cooperation.

Winner take all politics however is also exacerbated when tribal mentality immerses itself into the political process; this ultimately leads to factionalism.

Tribal political structures would go against the emergence of a broad national civic culture that cuts across tribal modes of organization.

As Gadhafi’s regime collapsed, he left both an institutional vacuum and a security vacuum, which left a wide window of opportunity for predatory actors. From there on, we can discern between the substantial mistakes of the transitional leadership and those impediments to state and nation building that were purely exacerbated by Gadhafi.

On one hand, the transitional leadership lacked real expertise at the center as to the implications of many decisions on reconciliation and state building. Many of the mistaken decisions of the transitional leadership (whether in the NTC, GNC…) widened the window of opportunity and weakened the little institutions there were, which reinforced informal actors’ claim over governance.

The leadership was too late in realizing the power of peripheries at the local level, which, if harnessed adequately, could’ve contributed to national reintegration under the authority of the state.

Moreover, the security vacuum and political instability was reinforced by elite infighting over a state that doesn’t exist – subsequently, there were no genuine attempts at initiating state and institution building.

Instead, the elite weakly coopted different armed and political groups, who have, in turn, benefitted from a surplus of power, legitimacy and financial resources.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that Gadhafi’s emphasis on personal sovereignty, self-policing, the absence of rule of law, distrust of central authority reinforced the zero-sum primordial and tribal character.

Indeed, old Libyan rivalries were exacerbated by a post-authoritarian thought process, through which we can discern the aftereffects of the prevalent mentality and political culture under Gadhafi.

Moreover, the Gadhafi-induced impediments on Libyans’ sense of political compromise and cooperation undeniably strengthened the zero-sum mentality that many have been prone to today.

The current climate of insecurity and political instability bolstered winner-take-all attitudes of the different stakeholders. In that respect, the Skhirat agreement ultimately failed because of this pervasive zero-sum factionalism that many groups have been prone to since 2011; indeed because of the differences in social and political orientations, no group was genuinely willing to compromise and cooperate with opposite factions.

This point thus bring us back to the inherent trust deficit among a great number of the population, which was sustained by the failures of the transitional justice process to properly initiate national reconciliation and integration.

Fearful of having a forceful leader seize power and bring the country back to authoritarianism, utilizing state institutions for personal survival, most people felt a greater incentive to sustain the power vacuum and state of insecurity.

Indeed, one of the great dilemmas of the transition was that the ‘thuwwar’ and other armed groups were not willing to give up arms until they felt they could trust the central authority to protect the population, and conversely, the transitional leadership did not have the capacity to pursue state and institution building until militias were properly demobilized and insecurity was tamed.

This why, today we need to focus on addressing this post-authoritarian impulse to reject top down authority by rebuilding trust in the state’s legitimacy.

As such, amid both insecurity and political instability, the peripheries gained a great amount of power at the detriment of the center, which also meant that tribes and other local identities were to trump over political party affiliation.

This ultimately generated an imbalance between the theoretical power of formal governing institutions (NTC, GNC…) and the real power of informal actors (militias, tribes…).

Today, the only forces that are imbued with a substantial amount of legitimacy and trust are mostly tribal and traditional religious leaders at the local-level. As such, so as to initiate genuine reconciliation, we need to engage with these local peripheral forces.


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