Can Libya avoid copying Iraq's bad example?

As Libya looks towards a new government, it must beware the twin dangers of insurgency and corruption.

How do you construct a government for a country of 6.5 million people? A country which has been run for 40 years as a tyrannical kleptocracy? A country where more than 140 tribes and clans, and more subgroups, jealously guard what autonomy they retained under the dictator? A country of grinding poverty for millions? A country with almost none of the varied, valuable groups and institutions known as civil society?

These questions face Libya's Transition National Council (TNC) as the jubilation of victory ebbs away and the "stabilisation stage" begins.

The TNC starts with some advantages. It had its problems during the months of fighting, notably with cabinet formation, but has managed to hold together well enough to defeat Col Muammar Qaddafi and his men. The country's oil facilities seem to have been only lightly damaged. And the TNC has enthusiastic support from the outside world, which is beginning to transfer the foreign assets of the old regime to the TNC, starting with $1.5 billion (Dh5.5 bn) the US is about to hand over. The UN General Assembly could recognise the new government within weeks.

As the TNC's foreign friends meet today in Istanbul, more funds can be expected to flow. But before the Nato countries and others which backed the TNC write any cheques toward reconstruction, they will want to see progress toward a genuinely broad-based transitional government.

Here the best example recent history can offer is a negative one: Iraq. To be sure, the circumstances are not identical: Libyans fought hard to bring down the regime, with western military power provided from the air but not on the ground. Still, the parallel is striking: since Iraq set up a government the country's leading men have been chronically unable to overcome sectarian and partisan divisions and the lure of spoils. The government is still largely dysfunctional, with all sides treating high office as a cash cow and a tool for aiding their own factions, rather than an instrument of good governance for all Iraqis.

Old hatreds die hard, and so do old suspicions. Libya's TNC has many Qaddafi-era officials. They may be the only ones with any administrative capability at all, but they are not beloved. Compromises will be essential.

But compromise is always essential to good government. All factions in Libya need to learn how to get along together if the country is to live up to the aspirations of the revolution.

Published: August 25, 2011 04:00 AM

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