The temptation to draw parallels between Libya and Iraq is proving irresistible for many analysts. After all, both are Arab countries sharing many aspects of the same culture, and they also share a legacy of tyranny and dictatorship inflicted on them by two of the worst despots in modern history.
There are other distinctive characteristics, though, that make them more different than similar. These are things like the depth of tribalism, sectarianism and ethnic divisions that influence the social and political fabric of Iraq. Libya has to deal with certain low levels of tribal tension, but tribalism is not and will not be a dominating factor either socially or politically.
But perhaps it’s the way the two countries rid themselves of their dictators that will have the greatest impact on how they handle their transitions. In Iraq, the U.S. as an occupying force ejected Saddam Hussain from power, and then managed the transition and set the priorities. In Libya, the movement started as a popular uprising, just as in Tunisia and Egypt, and this turned into full-scale revolution and armed rebellion after the Gaddafi regime used military force against the demonstrators. Yes, NATO through the UN played a supporting role, but on the ground it was an all-Libyan struggle.
Thus the transition in Iraq was imported from outside, led by the U.S. and the UK, whereas in Libya it’s the Libyans themselves who have been taking the lead. Libyans’ lack of political experience, and the decentralised way the revolution evolved has meant that in every city local communities were forced to develop their own councils and militias, with the result that a country once controlled by a central authority without central governance must now build central governance without central authority. Libyans are fearful of a return to centralised authority because Gaddafi used the marginalisation of some regions as a collective punishment tool. But this residual fear can only be overcome through negotiation and assurances.
Iraq’s militias have been either sectarian or ethnically based, while in Libya they formed geographically during the months of conflict, rather than for religious or ethnic reasons. But in Libya it is also true that these militias will probably try to cash in on their role in liberating the country by seeking to influence the country’s future.
Iraq’s “deBaathifaction” was meant to rid the country of the old regime, and was in the view of many, including my own, a spur to civil war because it weakened national unity and hindered the national reconciliation effort. Libyans are looking very closely at this example, and are trying to avoid making the same mistake of vilifying unnecessarily too wide a swathe of the population, or of creating a lose-lose situation for those whose support is needed to form a functioning new government.
Comparing the Libyan revolution with those of Egypt and Tunisia can be misleading, because in both of these cases the army sided with the people. In Egypt the uprising was hi-jacked by a military coup, while in Tunisia the more orderly transition being managed by civil bureaucrats and military leaders saw the military acting as stabiliser rather than leader.
Libya may either fail or go through hard times, but that won’t be because it resembles Iraq. It will be because of the unique legacy that Gaddafi left behind him. Prof. Mohamedou puts it well when he writes: “Muammar Gaddafi left a booby-trapped Libyan society with a security vacuum, competing factions and a non-functioning state apparatus.” As one Libyan civil servant put it to me recently: “Gaddafi isn’t dead, he’s still alive in everything around us.” The Libyan people now have to understand that re-building their country on this inherited legacy won’t be easy. They will need a lot of help from their friends to figure things out, but not the kind of help that was offered to Iraq.
Fadel M. Lamen is President of the American-Libyan Council. email@example.com.