Thursday, 20 October 2011

With Gaddafi Dead, Libya's Biggest Challenges Begin

The death of Muammar Gaddafi has been announced by both sides, and footage of his dead body, at first hunched over headfirst into the street, then turned over with what seemed to be the help of a foot and sprawled out on the street for a head-shot, his hands still tangled up in the sleeves of his shirt above his head. An awful end, as awful as many have had in defence against his repression, and in defence of his regime. It was perhaps a fitting death that resonated with the tragedy of his character - in the end, delusional and self-aggrandizing in equal measure, able only to see his heroic reflection mirrored back at him through the eyes of himself and others. The martyr's death he sought out did not find him. A martyr is only a martyr in the eyes of others, not in his own eyes.

Yet the finality that accompanies the death of a dictator, or the removal of a dictator, is often misleading. The euphoria of freedom, while well deserved in most cases, having followed a difficult struggle to attain it, can create the conditions for the smooth talkers to enter the fray and hijack the newfound freedom, while it is still virginal, untouched and untested. In the desperation to make a show of stability and solidarity to the outside world, many compromises may be made without thinking through the long term consequences sufficiently. This is not to suggest that compromises won't be necessary. Undoubtedly, compromise will play a key role in establishing the bonds and trust that is necessary to forge unity. However, instead of speeding up the transition, now is the time to slow it down. In the rush towards a new dispensation, there is a good chance that Libya might establish agreements (especially over it's oil and natural gas) that may seem worthwhile in the short term (primarily to get funds into the new government), but may in the long term lead to the self-replication of the very same structures and power relationships that enabled their oppression in the first place.

This is the time for Libya to slow down the technocrats who will undoubtedly invade their newly freed country, promising to rebuild infrastructures and ensure prosperity and global competitiveness. Their primary goals will be to get the flow of oil and gas pumping again, and to ensure their share of it for the needs of their respective markets or countries. They will remind Libyans of how the western world views them, and distrusts their commitment to 'global principles', in much the same way as the new dispensation in South Africa was coaxed to privatise and deregulate the South African economy just two years into the new democracy (in 1996). Above all, Libyans will have to recognise that building a new democratic dispensation is not a technical exercise. It is a profoundly socio-cultural and political exercise. Democratic countries can often give the appearance of stability and wealth generation, yet the fundamental values upon which democracy is constructed can be absent. These are empty vessels, where democratic rhetoric prevails while the institutions, power relations and political structures remain the same, or worsen, deepening inequality, corruption and poverty. Putting the technical needs of a democracy first - i.e. rebuilding infrastructures, stimulating consumption, and so forth - while understandable, has been the undoing of many newly founded democracies.

What Libyans should be acutely conscious of, is how adopting policies, positions and trade, regulatory and governance frameworks that may at first seem desirable, may in the end lead to the formation or re-establishment of the very same structures that prevailed in the past, or new forms of the same exploitative hierarchies, structures and processes of governance i.e. the same old wolves disguised in the new sheepskin gear of democratic progress. The sly opportunists will also make their voices heard, now that the danger of death is no longer imminent, and they may even exploit pre-existing divisions to achieve their ends. Now is the time for vigilance in Libya - I must add, a calm vigilance that slows down the pace of change enough for engagement of all the peoples and communities of Libya to be achieved, in formulating their new constitutionality and form of government. Democracy is by no means a faithful partner, it requires rethinking, contemplating, consulting widely and acting with care. At worst, democracy yields a mirage of freedom - an appearance of freedom may prevail, yet it will remain beyond one's grasp.

The Transitional National Council will face difficult challenges now that they will be called upon to ensure that the functions and services of the state is restored, and that society can begin to live again. It is appropriate to celebrate the newfound freedom that Libyans have achieved through half a year of desperate fighting. That is undoubtedly deserved. But Libyans should beware the rush to establish 'normality'. New norms need to be established for democracy to thrive. These are not universal, and should be determined from engagement with citizens from every community, district, town and city in Libya. The Libyan constitution should be drafted by the people of Libya, and not a select group of appointed representatives who specialise in writing new constitutions for virginal democracies. If it is formulated in this way it will not reflect the will of the Libyan people as expressed by themselves. It will be a second-hand constitutionality that runs the risk of being equally foreign to Libyans as the very same regime they fought against.

There will be heavy international pressure to turn the Libyan revolution into a success as quickly as possible so that nations who backed the Libyan rebels can find justification for their decision to intervene. The timing is good, as by comparison the Egyptian revolution seems to be faltering under heavy military rule, and the Syrian and Bahraini peaceful uprisings have been brutally repressed by their regimes, who are still in place. Libya will be touted as an 'example' of how regime change can be effected through intervention. In short, where George Bush Jr failed  through war in the Middle East, Barack Obama will be eager to show success. There is a danger in this, as eagerness to achieve 'success' often results in the show of success rather than substantive, real results. Moreover, the scars of war and conflict will take longer to heal than might at first be appreciated. Re-building society in the aftermath of war requires more than just re-establishing basic services. It requires rebuilding communities that may be deeply affected by the war. It requires reconciling the conflicts and feuds that may remain, even after freedom has been achieved. It also requires broad participation in envisioning what kind of country Libya should be in the future. Failure to approach the future through wary eyes may result in a Libya that Libyans are still not free in, and in which their freedoms are guaranteed on paper, but not in practice. Slowing down, and taking each step carefully, will go further towards ensuring a lasting democracy in Libya.

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