The euphoria that originally characterized the Arab Spring was, in retrospect, entirely premature. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt—the Jasmine and Tahrir Revolutions—seemed to offer great hope for democratic change in the MENA region, particularly since both resulted in relatively peaceful regime change. Yet the path to “democracy” was not as painless in other countries: civil war engulfed Libya and Syria, complicating the image of populist driven and peaceful transitions. Though it was global economic crisis and neo-patrimonial political structures that fomented protest in all cases, the totality of authoritarianism that characterized Libyan and Syrian rule resulted in conflict-driven regime change. In the case of Libya, mass demonstrations culminated in extended periods of fighting between Gaddafi forces and opposition groups across the country. It was, in large part, due to the extended support of NATO coalition forces that the protracted nature of the conflict was broken. Continued economic and military support managed to fracture Gaddafi’s security forces and bring victory for the rebels. After a precarious transition, in July 2012, Libya held its first elections in 52 years with a fair amount of success. As this government began rule, it appeared as though the promise of the Arab Spring was finally realized.
However, as the articles in this report attempt to illustrate, the democratic overtures of elections should not be mistaken for substantive democracy in the country. Indeed, it is still not clear whether the highly tenuous post-regime situation will revert to civil war or stabilize into a sustainable transition. Gaddafi left behind a malfunctioning state, with weak governmental institutions and little to no civil society, both of which are necessary to the task of post-transition state building. The current government is suffering from many deficiencies, including a democratic deficit and a number of geographic and secular-Islamist divisions, that prevent cohesion and effective governance. There has been frustration over the rampant corruption and infighting that has characterized current political rule. The International Crisis Group estimates that real military power lies with the 100 militias containing over 125, 000 armed Libyans, all looking to retain their military power and geographic autonomy. Under these circumstances, fledgling state institutions have struggled to create a monopoly on legitimate violence, centralize political power, and cultivate social capital among civilians. Meanwhile, traumas of international intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq has stultified any extended form of involvement from Western powers, both in terms of “boots on the ground” and overt military assistance. The picture of a weak, quasi-legitimate government seeking to impose control over a myriad of militias with a certain degree of populist appeal does not bode well for Libyan democracy. The democratic and security deficit is also preventing the establishment of a well-functioning economy. Not only has violence resulted in diminished oil production, but attempts to direct public spending towards infrastructure and social services has largely beens squandered.
The security and political crisis have far reaching implications for all sectors of Libyan society, and by extension, its prospects for democracy. Currently, Libya has struggled to establish both a monopoly on legitimate violence and a viable social contract between the state and its citizens, both of which are crucial thresholds for any stable regime. Yet these shortcomings, though troubling, are necessary “rites of passage” for all newly instituted democracies. To this effect, the fate of democracy in Libya does not rest on current institutional failures, but rather how these deficits are contended with and overcome in the upcoming years. In this regard, success for the regime lies in being able to fashion hybrid political institutions that are able to overcome the disparate regional grievances preventing effective governance. As the article on political institutions points out, creating and enforcing a new constitution is vital in this regard. On the security front, our authors suggest that soliciting and diverting foreign aid into strengthening the military might be an effective solution. Finally, it is crucial that oil exports return to their maximum output levels so revenue might be diverted towards establishing a cogent welfare state and infrastructure in the country. This can be achieved through concentrating security forces towards stabilizing sites of production.