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Guest editorial: Will it be chaos or repression?

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Posted on October 3, 2011 |
By Haviland Smith



Clearly, Libya is stumbling to a final conclusion. We have, rightly or wrongly, played some role in the outcome. We have been involved in air support of the rebel troops on the ground and there are rumors that we have been involved in an advisory capacity as well.

But the extent of our involvement doesn’t really matter. What really matters is what is to come in Libya and the extent to which we as a nation believe that we should have a say in that outcome.

It would be wonderful if Libya could somehow find its way to liberal democracy. In this context, keep in mind the primary requirements for the evolution of a liberal democracy anywhere in the world. A society hoping to evolve democratically requires some past direct experience with democratic governance and personal freedom.

It requires existing political movements that could evolve into democratic governance, a free and unfettered press, and an uncompromised court system. Without these factors, reaching democracy is problematic.

Like so much of the Mediterranean basin, Libya has been ruled infinitely longer than it has ruled. Many of history’s most famous conquerors and empires were residents in the region. Beginning in the 5th Century B.C., the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arab Islam, Ottomans and Italians ruled successively until 1951 A.D.

Only then did Libyans get home rule in the form of a kingdom under Idris. Gaddafi cut that short in 1969 and he retains tenuous power even today.

Libya is the fourth largest country in Africa, by area, and the 17th largest in the world. Its population of roughly 6.5 million is 102nd in the world and is concentrated largely along the Mediterranean coast. Libya is blessed with crude oil and natural gas, but it plagued with desert in the south of the country and desert encroachment on the north. Although water is not today a problem, it is likely to become one, as it is in most of the rest of the world.

Libya has one of the most tribal societies in the world. Over the centuries, those tribes and clans have associated, allied, and quarreled with one another. Animosities have normally been kept in check in the past by repressive governance. The Arab population there is divided into something in the neighborhood of 150 clans and tribes. It is said that if you know a Libyan Arab’s last name, you know his tribe because most such names are directly derived from the name of the tribe to which they belong. Tribalism and an inherent level of corruption are dominant facts of life in Libya.

Add to that a Berber population that is made up literally of hundreds of tribes, clans and sub-tribes and you begin to see some of the problems inherent in the governance of Libya.

Gadafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, warning of civil war if the tribal fabric breaks down, recently said: “Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Libya is made up of tribes, clans and alliances.” For this reason, it is the tribes and their alliances that will control Libyan power in the absence of a controlling central government.

In addition to its tribalism, Libya suffers from deep-seated corruption. The New York Timesrecently referred to a “Libyan culture rife with corruption, kickbacks, strong-arm tactics and political patronage” and concludes that “Libya is a kleptocracy.”

These realities do not bode well for Libya’s future and particularly for the prospects for democracy. The road to democracy is long and difficult and has fairly unyielding requirements, which Libyans, by dint of their past suppression, do not appear to meet. Under today’s conditions and in the absence of strong, perhaps repressive central authority, Libya would appear more likely to fragment.

It is difficult to think of Libya as a modern state. It is easier to characterize it as a collection of Arab and Berger tribes and alliances. How those entities work out their past problems, given their past histories with one another, remains to be seen. However, it is not likely to be a smooth trip.

We face the current dilemma posed by the “Arab Spring,” a Middle East in which repressive autocratic governance is replaced by tribes and tribal associations that do not necessarily share common visions for the future. How should we be reacting to such conditions, particularly if supporting the freedom of repressed people is likely to lead to chaos? It is truly a Hobson’s choice.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief, who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East, and as Chief of the Counter-Terrorism Staff. A longtime resident of Brookfield, he now lives in Williston.

 

 

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