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After Qaddafi: Can a democratic Libya unify a divided society?

The death Thursday of ousted Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi ends speculation about the former dictator’s lingering power and fully shifts the spotlight to the country’s new leadership and its ability to govern all Libya.

A central question for Libya and indeed for the Arab Spring will now be this: Can a democratic and representative government stabilize and unify a historically divided society in the absence of the kind of authoritarian rule that kept Libya together for four decades?

Historical precedent would suggest that the prospects for Libya – a tribal society traditionally divided between the east, where the now-ruling opposition sprang up, and the west, where Colonel Qaddafi was in full command – are not good, some political scientists who have studied political transitions say.

Yet one factor that Libya has going for it, they add, is that Libyans largely threw off their shackles on their own (albeit with assistance from NATO) and will not be trying to sustain a “democracy” imposed from the outside.

“We would actually feel fairly pessimistic about the prospects for this [transition] to be successful and stable,” says Prof. Michael Greig, an expert in international conflict management at the University of North Texas in Denton.

“One of the key factors for survival of a new democracy is the social cohesion of the society,” says Mr. Greig, basing his conclusions on his study of 41 political transitions around the world over the last 170 years. “The more diverse the society, the less stable these new regimes tend to be,” he adds, noting that Libya is a hard-to-unify tribal culture with ethnic diversity.

On the brighter side, Greig says, is the fact that Libya’s political transition was accomplished by indigenous forces and was not imposed from the outside.

“One area of optimism would be that Libya is not Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says, “where the change in regimes was imposed by an outside power. Those kinds of regimes tend to struggle pretty significantly.”

Libya will be watched closely around the Arab region and indeed by powers, like the United States, concerned about the ability of inexperienced leaders to stabilize and control a fractured society.

One of the purposes of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s surprise visit to Tripoli Tuesday was to convey this concern to Libya’s transition leadership – and to underscore American support for a timely and open political transition to a representative democracy.

The Libya scenario may have less in common with that of a country like Egypt, with its fairly cohesive society, than with other regional trouble spots like Yemen and Syria, some regional experts say. In those countries, authoritarian rulers continue to try to hold on to power in either tribally or religiously and ethnically diverse societies.

The lesson Bashar al-Assad of Syria is likely to take from Qaddafi’s bloody demise is not the one the US would like him to take, says North Texas’s Greig.

“If you are Assad, you are probably going to look at today’s events and adopt increasingly extreme measures to hold on to power,” he says.

But it’s not just regional leaders who will be watching Libya. Global powers like the US, Europe, Russia, and China, will also be keeping a close eye on whether or not Libya’s new leaders are able to put out the fires of civil discord as they turn to the country’s political and economic transition.

One of the reasons Russian leaders said they vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution earlier this month that would have opened the door to international sanctions on Syria was that such measures would only increase the prospects of Syria deteriorating into a an all-out civil conflict.

Now the Russians will be monitoring Libya for any signs of deepening chaos – a development that would tend to justify their earlier rejection of international actions they warned could weaken regimes like Assad's and provide an impetus to civil conflict. The US, Europe, and others, on the other hand, will be acting to support the proposition that a homegrown rebellion can transition into an orderly and stable democracy.

“The concerns the Russians expressed about a full-fledged civil war in Syria are probably not too far from the truth,” says Greig (who adds that the true motivation for Russia’s Security Council veto may have been something altogether different).

In the coming weeks and months, he adds, Libya will provide the freshest test of a nascent democracy’s ability to survive one civil conflict – and avoid a new and deeper one.

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