Huffpost WorldPost
Benjamin R. Barber Headshot

Why Libya Will Not Be Democratic

Posted: Updated:

I offer my views about Libya here not just as a democratic theorist and HuffPost regular, but as a member of the International Board of the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation until this morning, when I resigned. The only two questions worth speculating about in the absence of hard information from Libya about what is happening there today is to think about what might happen tomorrow: What are the possible scenarios if Gadhafi survives the tumult and violence? And what happens if he does not survive? And the one thing I am certain about is that, either way, the outcome is likely to be tragic rather than democratic.

IF HE GOES: If Gadhafi's resistance to the resistance fails, he is likely to die a martyr. No comfortable exile in Caracas for him. Remember, Gadhafi is no Mubarak or Bashar al-Assad, a second or third generation bureaucratic heir to once revolutionary dictatorships. He is a founding revolutionary cut from the same cloth as Nasser and Castro, and his revolutionary rhetoric, if seemingly incoherent and irrelevant to the modern world, is authentic, rooted in the (mostly) vanished world of colonialism, imperialism, socialism and people's democracy.

He is also a clan leader, and in tribal North Africa clans and tribes retain political significance. It was as a member of the Qadaffa clan that Saif Gadhafi pledged allegiance to his father on Sunday night, despite Saif's own genuine history as a reformer and human rights advocate in Libya. Blood trumps principle. While the other supposedly more complacent and pro-regime sons stood by, Saif stood up and martyred his six-year campaign to rescue Libya from autocracy in order to rescue his father from the consequences of autocracy -- embracing his father's struggle to the death. Cynics write Saif off as a hypocrite and reformist poseur, but the truth is quite different, the stuff of an epic tragedy for which the Libyan people are paying a terrible price.

If, then, Gadhafi loses the "revolutionary" struggle to maintain his Libyan Jamahiriya (people's democratic revolution) and his tribal struggle to uphold the "honor" of his clan, the Qadaffa, against rivals like the Zuwayya in the East or the Warfalla in the South, Libya may be in for -- if not the "civil war" and the "rivers of blood" predicted by Saif Gadhafi on Sunday night -- a long period of civil unrest and tribal turmoil. There is no coherent force like a Muslim Brotherhood or a Baathist Party or a professional military to step in either to rule or to pave the way to elections.

The only reform movement was the weak one headed by Saif Gadhafi (!), whose International Foundation for Development and Charity was doing human rights work, and which has now been disbanded (its international governing board on which I served has resigned and its honorable reformist executive director has stepped down in "dismay" over the violence. See my resignation letter at BenjaminBarber.org). But Saif has now aligned himself with his father's regime. If the father is deposed, there is little chance the son can go back to being a reformer and human rights advocate. And Oxford University Press, which contracted to publish the two extraordinary books Saif wrote on civil society and democratic reform in the developing world, will presumably now cancel publication.

The one thing that will not happen in the event of Gadhafi's removal from power is democracy; not now, and not for a long time. Nothing like the conditions that obtained in Cairo obtain in Libya. Rather, continued conflict and chaos and an eventual emergence of a new autocratic regime is likely. Probably not an Islamic regime, since Gadhafi's revolution has been secular and anti-Islamicist, and tribalism is more important than religion in the countryside. In any case, a revolution overthrowing the revolution is not a recipe for democracy. Keep in mind that even in Cairo, the two key members of the Supreme Council supposedly overseeing a transition to democracy are Mubarak's appointees and comrades-in-arms Field Marshall Tantawi and Prime Minister Shafiq.

IF HE SURVIVES: On the other hand, it is unlikely, but not impossible, that Gadhafi will survive, not just because he has access to overwhelming firepower (if he can control those who wield it), but because he has clan and tribal support and at least tacit consent from many Libyans who have depended on him over the years for their own survival. He is a crafty and intelligent survivalist. No autocrat endures for 42 years holding no formal political office because he is a bumbling buffoon totally out of touch (as the media have always treated him and are treating him now). Indeed, the current efforts at the UN to establish a "no fly zone over Libya" can only give credence to his and Saif's argument that the uprising will become an excuse for foreign "imperialist" intervention. It was no accident that Gadhafi stood today in front of his old residence, where his daughter died in the U.S. bombing during the Reagan era, to offer his rambling diatribe against foreigners.

Yet if he does survive, ironically, a genuine reform movement could just possibly be revived. Not by him, but by his son, Saif, who even as he was calling for a battle to the death, was also calling for the immediate convening of a constitutional assembly to debate reform and democracy, for which he had appealed often in the past. Most likely, the loss of credibility that came with Sunday's speech means a comeback as a reformer is unthinkable. Yet though most media people, caught up in the exuberance and horror of events on the ground in Benghazi and Tripoli, dismiss it out of hand, the scenario is not impossible. The survivor turns to his son the reformer and finally empowers him to do what he never let him do when it would have made a difference. Yes, far too little, far too late -- probably. But not altogether out of the question.

And my own guess about whether Gadhafi survives or is deposed? Given what has already transpired on the ground elsewhere in the Middle East, given the brutal and barbaric response to the protesters, and given the widespread revulsion against him outside of Libya, I would say he is likely to go. Chances are three or four to one that his revolution is over. But there is still a slim chance he could survive, and if he does, all those who cast him as nothing more than a monstrous buffoon will have to rethink their easy dismissal and deal with stark reality again. Monstrous maybe, buffoon not. And if he goes, we still we have to take the measure of what might have been, had Saif chosen his country over his clan.