The Libyan revolution had all the ingredients of a success story: civic courage, far-reaching international support and widespread popular desire for political freedom, human rights and democracy. Yet it remains far from realising the peaceful transition to democracy many hoped would occur.
Libya appears to be heading for disaster, harried by kidnappings of highranking officials, mortar strikes, assassinations, car bombings, attacks on diplomats, mob rule and a lack of institutions strong enough to rebuild the country.
In this volatile climate, political decision-making is fatally slow, oil output is down 70% (due to insecurity) and Libyans are increasingly pessimistic about their country’s fate, with one-third of citizens having doubts about the value of democracy.
Rather than standing as a model for political transition, Libya has become a toxic mixture of inherited structural weaknesses, post-conflict challenges and the fallout of regime change, all made worse by a series of unwise political decisions.
Stumbling through this new era, the country seems poised on the edge of lawlessness, violence, political atomisation and even renewed authoritarianism.
Libya’s precarious state is the result of three complicating factors, each of which would have been difficult to tackle in isolation.
They are the legacy of the previous regime, the usual challenges that follow a conflict and a mishandled transitional phase – taken together, they have produced a country on the brink of collapse.
It was clear from the outset that the governance structures and procedures Libya inherited from the previous regime would make the country’s transition a particularly difficult one.
Although the notion that Libya has any such structures contrasts with the popular image of it as a political wasteland, the foundations of a state are present and an attempt to rebuild on them is being made. Unfortunately, these foundations are so weak that they threaten stabilisation efforts.
Libya also faces the challenge of recovering lost expertise, knowledge, infrastructure, resources and mechanisms as an inevitable consequence of war and regime change.
Lastly, the country must deal with a series of problems that were all avoidable: a culture of revenge, militia rule and inefficiency created by its post-2011 decision-makers.
A rotten substructure
Although Muammar Gadhafi’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya is gone, its patterns of dysfunction are alive and well in the new republic, particularly the political system.
Plagued by a preference for participatory politics, distrust of political parties and the inability to pursue national interests over regional or even local aims, the country has faithfully replicated the Jamahiriya’s ‘committee culture’.
Caucus democracy, flat hierarchies and the absence of strong parties (and therefore party whips) result in endless debates, watered-down decisions and severe inefficiency.
Neither the National Transitional Council (NTC), the country’s former governing body, nor the ruling General National Congress (GNC) were able to establish streamlined structures for decision-making; it took the latter four months to form a government and one year, instead of the planned 30 days, to lay the groundwork for the Constitutional Commission, a 60-member body established to draft the constitution.
Such inefficiency results from a strong resemblance between the republican system laid out in Libya’s 2011 Constitutional Declaration and Gadhafi’s governance structure of people’s committees and congresses.
The Jamahiriya sought to establish a direct democracy with the highest possible level of participation by individual citizens, with the result that politics under Gadhafi were local and direct; in lieu of a parliament, consultation and deliberation forums were open to every Libyan citizen.
Membership of political parties had been punishable by death since 1973, although such organisations had been banned since 1952.
In polls taken shortly before the 2012 elections, Libyans admitted that they remained suspicious of parties, seeing them as disruptive and a threat to national unity. Only 27% of citizens were willing to trust parties totally.
Most of those interviewed struggled to define parties or their role, but recalled the previous regime’s slogan, ‘whoever joins a political party is a traitor.’
Consequently, parties are distrusted to build cohesion in Libya, as is reflected in the composition of the GNC: 120 of its members are elected as individuals, whereas only 80 run on party lists.
And even the strongest parties – the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party, and the National Forces Alliance, led by Mahmoud Jibril, former interim prime minister – do not act cohesively or in a manner that could speed up decision-making.
Rather, the GNC has several fault lines that run through parties and wings, as a consequence of both the revolution and diverging local interests.
The GNC’s fragmentation would be less problematic if it were counterbalanced by a strong executive, but it is not.
Libya has no de jure head of state, although GNC President Nuri Abusahmain is seen as the country’s de facto leader.
The fact that members of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s cabinet are not allowed to join the GNC widens the gap between the legislative and executive branches even further.
Zeidan only managed to gain GNC approval of his government because his lack of a strong constituency in parliament allowed him to secure sufficient trust from all sides.
Therefore, neither Zeidan nor Abusahmain has the authority to make the decisions warranted by Libya’s dire situation.
Zeidan’s brief kidnapping by militia fighters in October 2013 clearly reflected this lack of authority.
Such ambiguity at the top also echoes the idiosyncratic Jamahiriya system, in which Gadhafi’s position as the ‘brotherly leader and guide of the revolution’ had no official connection to Libya’s institutions, with the secretary of the General People’s Committee serving as the nominal head of state.
Although the country’s current governance structure reflects a general distrust of executive systems rather than nostalgia for the Jamahiriya, it still results in a tragic lack of efficiency during an intensifying crisis.
At a time when Libya needs a strong and speedy decision-making process, its executive and legislative branches are weak and fragmented respectively, lacking the structural provisions to even out such shortcomings.
Instead, the country navigates its difficult transition with an individualised, decentralised and fragmented political system and culture largely inherited from the Gadhafi era.
The surviving security institutions are similarly unfit to serve a country recovering from conflict and regime change.
Having been in a lamentable state even before 2011, the war further diminished their capacity and effectiveness; as a consequence, they have little of value to be recycled and incorporated into a new structure.
The armed forces, previously estimated to employ 76,000 troops, in reality had only 20,000.
Not only was their arsenal outdated and badly maintained as a result of sanctions and neglect, but most soldiers lacked training and discipline, having been organised in a way that undermined their cohesiveness, with a view to protecting the regime from a military coup.
The frequent rotation of officers, allocation of positions based on tribal affiliations and loyalty rather than qualifications, and punishment of independent thinking created an armed forces lacking leadership, motivation, cohesion and effectiveness.
Its officer corps consisted primarily of colonels, as the recruitment of junior officers had ceased following the 1993 coup attempt and promotion to ranks higher than Gadhafi’s own was politically inconceivable.
Once the conflict erupted, these structural weaknesses and the extent to which official figures had been artificially inflated became apparent, as many of the troops were revealed to have defected or deserted, or simply never existed.
The same was true of the police force – also known as the People’s Security Force and, formerly, the Police at the Service of the People and the Revolution – which was estimated to have 45,000 officers but was in fact far weaker than this number suggests.
In contrast to other security agencies – such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps – which were used primarily for regime protection, the police force was tasked with law enforcement, crime prevention and the management of prisons.
Although tainted by human-rights abuses, the People’s Security Force possessed a marginally better reputation than the other security services as it was less involved in acts of popular repression.
Yet like the armed forces, the police lacked staff and equipment, and displayed low levels of efficiency and effectiveness.
As a result, neither the police nor the armed forces were in a position to offer a structural or personnel foundation upon which a new Libyan security sector could be built.
More importantly, the use of security agents for political purposes in the Jamahiriya instilled a culture in which politics and control of the security sector were entwined, and the armed forces and the police were more used to advancing political goals than ensuring the safety of the country or its citizens.
Predictably, the same approaches have continued to dominate in present-day Libya: political actors do not seek to improve the professionalism, doctrines or equipment of the police or the military, but rather seek to maximise their control of these forces.
Libya has therefore emerged from a 42-year dictatorship and an eightmonth civil war with a security and political culture unsuitable for the difficult transition to democracy.
Florence Gaub is a Senior Analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, where she covers security and strategy in the Arab world.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies