Imagining Libya, a Decade from Now

Ten years after the guns have finally been laid down, will Libya still be a mess?


Libya is currently consumed in that strange combination of joy and residual violence that marks the end of war. But instead of fixating on the events playing out on the streets of Tripoli these days, the world should focus on how the postwar scenario will play out over the next decade. What is the best we can hope for? What is the worst that can be imagined? Where in that is Libya likely to settle?

There are many worst-case scenarios. Muammar al-Qaddafi is doing his best, even now, to promote chaos and continued resistance, which in turn could inspire revenge killing or degenerate into internecine warfare. Continued chaos could tempt someone of his ilk — in the army or among the rebels — to seize power and concentrate it in his own hands, under the guise of restoring law and order. Renewed autocracy could engender continued resistance, leading to a downward spiral of violence and repression. An effort to seize power might also split the country. Indeed, Libya like so many places in Africa, was cobbled together from disparate provinces in the early 20th century; it wouldn’t be the first country to come apart along old fault lines.

Chaos, autocracy, and partition are only three of the perils facing Libya. The country has in the past produced a significant number of Islamist fighters and suicide bombers who targeted U.S. troops in Iraq. If Libya remains anarchic, areas outside the central government’s full control could become havens for extremists. The many unguarded weapons floating around Libya could also reach the international arms market, putting Stinger-type missiles or even chemical weapons into unfriendly hands. Worse, Libya’s new rulers could revive the Qaddafi-era nuclear program and make material and expertise available worldwide. And there has been little accounting of just how many weapons have been smuggled in more recently to aid the rebel cause.

Even if the immediate postwar chaos subsides, major risks lie ahead. Libya’s economy is dependent on oil and gas production. Qaddafi seems to have stowed most of the oil and gas revenue in banks abroad, leaving many Libyans destitute. Very few countries in which the government is able to fund itself from natural resources have developed in a liberal and democratic direction. Transparency and accountability are not easy to establish; perhaps only Norway and East Timor can really claim to have mastered this trick.

Nondemocratic states commonly suffer from competition over revenue gathered from natural resources. This struggle can become especially debilitating if the competition is complemented by ethnic, tribal, or regional fractures. There is ample reason to fear this scenario in Libya: While most Libyans are Arabs, some are what Americans call Berbers, who will unquestionably want to express their identity more openly than they were permitted in the past. Tribal distinctions are not strong in Libyan cities, but they persist in the countryside. Qaddafi was skillful at playing the tribes off against each other, but he was far less successful in co-opting the region around the northeastern city of Benghazi. That may become even more difficult in the post-Qaddafi period, as much of the oil and gas production is in the east.

What is the best we can hope for in Libya within the next 10 years?

The Transitional National Council has set out a constitutional charter that clearly points in a liberal democratic direction, albeit with Islam as the state religion and principal source of legislation. Plans call for preparation of a constitution (Libya had none under Qaddafi) within six months and elections within a year. That is overly rapid in my estimation, but if Libyan institutions cannot keep pace with democratization, there can always be postponements, as often happens in postwar situations. The important thing is that Libya not only develops a constitution that distributes power among its institutions and elections that determine who governs the state, but also a democratic culture of freedom of speech and association.

That will take more than a year or two to develop, but it shouldn’t take a decade. If Libya is to sustain a democratic culture, its government will have to learn the difficult art of accountability and transparency for oil and gas revenue. There can be no real democracy if oil and gas revenue goes to the government without any parliamentary control or public accounting, as happens in most Arab oil-producing countries. All citizens, regardless of tribe, ethnicity, or region, will need to feel that they are getting a fair share of Libya’s natural wealth.

Even if this occurs, Libya will still be in need of a major national reconciliation effort. The Qaddafi regime benefited a single family at the expense of a whole country, but significant numbers of people, especially in Tripoli and Sirte, supported the regime and reaped benefits from it in return. These people are going to be the object of discrimination, disdain, and even revenge in post-Qaddafi Libya. At some point in the next decade, the effort to document, discuss, and disseminate the historical record of the Qaddafi regime will be important to ensuring that the population can move beyond the past and enjoy a more promising future.

Where will things likely end up a decade from now? My prediction is that Libya will be messy — but closer to the democratic end of the spectrum than to the chaotic, autocratic, or partitioned outcomes. If the international community and Libyans themselves are clear about the goals they seek — a united and inclusive Libya, based on the rule of law, that can defend and sustain itself, using its oil and gas resources for the benefit of all its citizens — then we will come close to achieving the best-case scenario.

There will be setbacks, as there have been during the past six months, but there is no reason why Libya cannot follow in Tunisia’s footsteps toward a more open and peaceful society. With a great deal of effort and determination, it could even become a model for other Arab societies hoping to replace their brutal, unaccountable leaders with more just systems of government.

Daniel Serwer is a professor of conflict management at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He blogs at and tweets @DanielSerwer.

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