Is Libya a Democracy Now?

Political Systems in the Middle East

SIRTE, LIBYA - Journalist Jim Foley films Libyan NTC fighters attacking Colonel Gaddafi's home city of Sirte in October 2011.
SIRTE, LIBYA - Journalist Jim Foley films Libyan NTC fighters attacking Colonel Gaddafi's home city of Sirte in October 2011.

John Cantlie/Getty Images

Libya is a democracy, but one with an extremely fragile political order, where the muscle of armed militias often supersedes the authority of the elected government. Libyan politics is chaotic, violent, and contested between rival regional interests and military commanders who have been vying for power since the fall of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s dictatorship in 2011.

System of Government: Struggling Parliamentary Democracy

The legislative power is in the hands of the General National Congress (GNC), an interim parliament mandated with adopting a new constitution which would pave the way for fresh parliamentary elections. Elected in July 2012 in the first free polls in decades, the GNC took over from the National Transitional Council (NTC), an interim body that governed Libya after the 2011 uprising against Qaddafi’s regime. 

The 2012 elections were largely hailed as fair and transparent, with a solid 62% voter turnout. There's no doubt that a majority of Libyans embrace democracy as the best model of government for their country. However, the shape of the political order remains uncertain. The interim parliament is expected to select a special panel that will draft a new constitution, but the process has stalled over deep political divisions and endemic violence.

With no constitutional order, the powers of the prime minister are constantly questioned in parliament. Worse, state institutions in the capital Tripoli are often ignored by everyone else. The security forces are weak, and large parts of the country are effectively ruled by armed militias. Libya serves as a reminder that building a democracy from scratch is a tricky task, particularly in countries emerging from civil conflict.

Libya Divided

Qaddafi’s regime was heavily centralized. The state was run by a narrow circle of Qaddafi’s closest associates, and many Libyans felt that other regions were being marginalized in favor of the capital Tripoli. The violent end of Qaddafi’s dictatorship brought an explosion of political activity, but also a resurgence of regional identities. This is most obvious in the rivalry between western Libya with Tripoli, and eastern Libya with the city of Benghazi, considered the cradle of the 2011 uprising.

The cities that rose against Qaddafi in 2011 have grabbed a measure of autonomy from the central government they are now loath to give up. Former rebel militias have installed their representatives in key government ministries, and are using their influence to block decisions they see as detrimental to their home regions. Disagreements are often resolved by the threat or (increasingly) the actual use of violence, cementing obstacles to the development of a democratic order.

Key Issues Facing Libya’s Democracy

  • Centralized State vs. Federalism: Many politicians in the oil-rich eastern regions are pushing for strong autonomy from the central government to ensure that the bulk of oil profits are invested in local development. The new constitution will have to address these demands without rendering the central government irrelevant.
  • The Threat of Militias: The government has failed to disarm former anti-Qaddafi rebels, and only a strong national army and police can force the militias to integrate into the state security forces. But this process will take time, and there are real fears that growing tensions between heavily-armed and well-funded rival militias could trigger a fresh civil conflict.
  • Dismantling the Old Regime: Some Libyans are pushing for a wide-ranging ban that would bar Qaddafi-era officials from holding government office. The advocates of the law, which includes prominent militia commanders, say they want to prevent the remnants of Qaddafi’s regime from staging a comeback. But the law could easily be abused to target political opponents. Many leading politicians and experts could be banned from holding government jobs, which would raise political tension and affect the work of government ministries.
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Manfreda, Primoz. "Is Libya a Democracy Now?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Manfreda, Primoz. (2020, August 26). Is Libya a Democracy Now? Retrieved from Manfreda, Primoz. "Is Libya a Democracy Now?" ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).