Hafed Al-Ghwell: Illiberalism threatens Libya’s prospects



In a world roiling with turmoil and uncertainty, Libya finds itself precariously balanced between a fragile peace and looming chaos. Forgotten by international headlines and living in a murky world of hybrids, precarious arrangements and shaky compromises, Libya’s obscure calm barely holds on. It is eerily reminiscent of Afghanistan prior to the Taliban’s takeover, signaling Libya’s potential plunge into a similar quagmire. For now, a three-year-old ceasefire still holds, albeit barely, buoyed by oil revenues that have continuously diffracted tensions — or exacerbated them.

Today, only a transactional frenzy glues together the tattered fragments of once-grand aspirations to establish the first ever legitimate, publicly endorsed constitutional, governance and institutional frameworks for a post-Qaddafi Libya. However, with rival powers within and beyond vying to adjust Libya’s trajectory toward a stable, unified state, the North African country risks becoming the next Afghanistan. Yet, a strange tolerance for this troublesome dynamic prevails, especially from an international community that continuously assesses the status quo as eminently favorable to Libya’s past convulsions.

Nonetheless, there is a growing cost to this “pragmatism,” which is more a lack of courage and initiative than a deliberate, well-thought-out and actionable policy choice. Of particular note is a deeply concerning erosion of civil liberties, which paints a grim picture for Libya’s already troubled transition to a semblance of a democratic state. Beyond the self-interested transactionalism at the heart of Libya’s current maladies, a stubborn power vacuum remains, fueled by deep-seated tribal divisions, two warring politico-military entities and the presence of numerous armed factions.

READ: Haftar throws spanner in the works in Libya over oil revenues

Recent attempts to bridge the divide have been hamstrung by persistent political tensions in the country, to the detriment of hard-fought civil liberties — a cornerstone of any true democracy. Human rights abuses are notably prevalent, while freedom of speech and the right to peaceful assembly remain under constant threat. Forces loyal to both sides of Libya’s political divide continue to target outspoken civilians, journalists and activists, reflecting an unwelcome descent into illiberalism.


Recent attempts to bridge the divide have been hamstrung by persistent political tensions in the country

Lately, a tide of religious extremism has also come to the fore, further cementing the parallels to Afghanistan. The changing tenor of the rivalries among Libya’s elites, from lethal confrontations to a heated competition for influence, has opened the door to extremist ideologues seeking to exert their own presence in a country adrift. As a result, a wave of oppressive Islamization is now systematically targeting the “new undesirables,” i.e., atheists, secularists, foreign language teachers, ethnic minorities, women and even civil society activists.

Public funding continues to flow freely to controversial Islamist-influenced institutions in Benghazi and Tripoli, which arguably makes the crackdowns and the deterioration of Libya’s socio-religious landscape a state-sponsored endeavor. An uncanny alliance has also emerged between Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh and extremist religious leader Sadiq Al-Ghariani, affording what were once peripheral groups some political clout and ultimately normalizing the pivot toward exclusionary Islamism. Unaccountable and seemingly unassailable political elites now openly collude with unchecked extremist forces to introduce public policies, such as a fatwa barring women from traveling without chaperones.

READ: UN warns that interim government in Libya will spark conflict

This tide of illiberalism is also evident beyond the public square. Online, the state is cracking down on any spaces that host dissenting voices or atheist views deemed hostile to the Islamization of Libyan institutions, including those responsible for educating its youths. These escalations are similar to what happened in Afghanistan in the 1990s, when a ruling political class was happy to facilitate exclusion and suppression, so long as it helped consolidate power, divert attention from its shortcomings and conceal its intent to undermine a nascent democratic state.


An additional exacerbating factor is the global community’s penchant for a divide-and-rule approach that unwittingly fans the flames of instability despite pronounced intentions to do the exact opposite. A state of impunity also prevails and influential external actors have so far proven unable to effectively intervene or exert pressure toward safeguarding civil liberties, which are always the first casualty of post-conflict state rebuilding that has gone awry.

This plight does not bode well for a nation in the throes of a fragile transition. Besides, a democratic state, as envisioned by Libyans themselves and the global community, is hardly viable within this current context. Libya requires not just comprehensive reforms, but also a renewed emphasis on establishing the rule of law and preserving civil liberties in order to democratize effectively.

The global community should aim to support these measures while pressuring the involved parties to commit to a just and peaceful transition process, in which the preservation of civil liberties must be nonnegotiable. Such an intervention can focus on three pillars: unyielding support for civil society, fostering inclusive dialogue, and committed support to helping Libyans realize their democratic aspirations. This long-held dream remains within reach, but only if the international community engages in Libya assertively and judiciously, striving for the principles of democracy, citizenship and dignity.

First, the international community must bolster civil society’s capacity to tackle the multitude of pressing issues besieging Libya. By directly supporting capacity-building, financial assistance and advocacy training, international actors can augment civil society’s resilience and allow it to participate effectively in peacebuilding and democratization.

Second, given Libya’s splintered landscape, there is still a need to continuously facilitate dialogue with various factions and in multiple forums. Encouraging that level of communication and the setting of expectations between civil society, political rivals and various ethnic or other regional groups forges a shared vision for the nation’s future, ensuring a sustainable peace. It demands impartial and consistent mediation efforts, under UN auspices as well as those of key regional stakeholders.

Finally, inclusive political processes remain crucial to Libya’s democratic evolution. The global community must ensure the country’s political future encompasses as many diverse voices as possible. In turn, this will help counter the growing marginalization of ethnic minorities and advocate for the genuine representation and participation of women and youth in politics.

The worsening sociopolitical and socio-religious dynamic in Libya should serve as a reminder of the complexity and stakes involved in post-conflict nation-building. For Libya to rise above its current challenges and evolve into a stable, unified democratic state, the international community and Libyans themselves need to insist on the upholding of civil liberties, solidify a shared national identity that supersedes tribal lines and advocate unrelentingly for the end of the ruinous political divide.

Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell


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