Argument

Why Libya Matters

If the international community doesn't help Libya build a democratic society now, it'll have no one but itself to blame for the consequences of failure.

One year ago, a large international NATO-led coalition was critical in helping Libyans free themselves and their country from Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's three-decade-long bloody dictatorship. But that victory is not yet secure. Today, international engagement is even more necessary to win sustainable stability in post-conflict Libya. The success of a peaceful, democratic transition in Libya is not only in the interest of Italy and Europe, it is a common good in the interest of the entire international community -- on at least three accounts.

First, only a democratic and stable country can meet the legitimate aspirations of its people, those who fought the revolution and paid the price for freedom with their lives. The international community has both the interest and the moral duty to consolidate those human gains achieved with military intervention in the name of the "responsibility to protect."

Second, a democratic and stable Libya can become a positive agent for regional cooperation and integration. Qaddafi's Libya was a regional trouble maker that spread fear and mistrust among its neighbors in both Africa and the Arab world, but the new Libya has already demonstrated its willingness to reintegrate positively in the region. It normalized relations with most of its neighbors, including Egypt and Tunisia and more recently, Algeria; it participated in the ministerial meeting between the five countries of the Mediterranean's northern shore and the five of the southern shore which was held in Rome last February; and it has positively re-engaged in the Union for the Arab Maghreb.

Third, due to its strategic geographical position, a democratic Libya, closely anchored to international Euro-Atlantic institutions, could become an important partner in the common fight against international terrorism, piracy, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The fall of the Qaddafi regime was only the first part. The challenges facing Libya today are particularly complex and different from those encountered in the other countries of the Arab Spring. Unlike Egypt, oil-rich Libya does not need financial assistance and is scarcely populated. Unlike Tunisia, it does not have a structured civil society. But Libya is not Lebanon or Iraq either. Unlike the latter, it has a homogeneous population and its internal divisions are along tribal and geographical lines rather than religious and sectarian ones. Last but not least, unlike other countries of the wider region, Libya does not present immediate risks of widespread Islamic radicalism: The overwhelming majority of Libyans are moderate Muslims -- they follow Islamic precepts in the organization of their daily lives, while rejecting the assumptions of state confessionalism.

Libya, in other words, is a special case and should be treated as such. The country today faces two major challenges. First is the establishment of a new functional and democratic government. Libya has never been organized through structured central institutions. Despite its official ideology and rhetoric (Jamahiriya, the "state of the masses"), Libya under Qaddafi was a de facto one-man show. Political parties and state structures were suppressed. Qaddafi even curbed the power and influence of the military, lest it be a threat to his rule. To keep his hold on power secure he relied on his family and a few close associates, who in turn controlled the most powerful tribes and the paramilitary brigades.

So how to build a government in a state that has lacked one for 30 years? Unquestionably, elections are the first step to building democratic, inclusive, and accountable institutions. By the end of June, Libya is going to elect its 200-member National Congress, which, in turn, will have to designate the 60 members of a Constitutional Committee tasked with drafting a new constitution. Since its independence in 1951, Libyans have experienced open elections only once, and that was under the monarchy in 1952. The challenges that await them, therefore, are huge. The preparation for the elections has already spurred widespread participation in the democratic process, which bodes well for the country‘s future. Political parties and candidates are mushrooming: More than 2,000 candidates and 120 new political parties registered to stand for the 200 seats, 120 of which will be allocated to individuals, with the remainder reserved as party seats. Forty-three percent of the registered voters are women, while 43 women are candidates. Elections will not solve all Libya's problems -- but, for the first time, Libya will have an elected government directly accountable to its people and with which the international community will be able to engage.

The second major challenge is security. Since the fall of the Qaddafi regime last September, security in parts of the country has been precarious. The National Transition Council -- the transitional political body that has been running the country -- failed to establish its authority over Libya's huge territory. Militias were not completely reintegrated, weapons not confiscated, and as a result, violence broke out frequently in different parts of the country. In addition, Libya "imported" some serious security problems -- extremists, drugs, and weapons trafficking -- from its porous southern borders. Much of this was due to the endemic instability in the Sahel region, which the recent crisis in Mali has further exacerbated. Therefore, a key challenge for the new Libyan democratic government will be the establishment of full control over state territory and the guarantee of security for its citizens. This will require rapid and decisive action to demobilize and reintegrate militias, confiscate weapons, manage borders and migration, and reform the security sector. Last but not least, there needs to be a process of national reconciliation: The consolidation of security should go hand in hand with more rigorous respect for human rights and people's dignity.

How can the international community help Libya's democratic transition? Our approach should be based on three main priorities.

First, we need to be more determined in helping build a secure Libya. Security is the prerequisite of any successful state-building process. Libya cannot be left alone in facing border insecurity. We must provide Libya with needed equipment and training for its new state security forces. In addition, an effective international strategy to stabilize the Sahel region is badly needed. To this regard, bilateral efforts are important, but not sufficient. Italy has already committed to providing Libya with advanced equipment for border control and training for its security forces. The mobilization of efforts and resources of key multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations and the European Union, is also required.

Second, we need a more ambitious plan to invest in Libya's human capital. That means launching training and education programs in different areas, from state administration to economic management, from free media to democratic civil society. We should pay particular attention to the country's youth. After 40 years of oppression, Libya's society has been reborn and the country's youth is keen to learn from other countries' experiences -- it wants to open itself up to the outside world. We have a human reservoir in which to invest that can help the country overcome its tribal traditions and modernize.

Finally, there needs to be a medium-term strategy to integrate the new democratic Libya more closely with Euro-Atlantic institutions. As Libya consolidates its democratic institutions and rule of law, the European Union should be ready to engage in negotiations for a new trade and association agreement. Likewise, Libya should be encouraged to join NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue. A Libya closer to the Euro-Atlantic family will eventually be a country more secure for its own people and a better partner for both the region and the international community. This is not the time for the international community to turn away and simply wish for the best.

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

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