Democratization From Above? In Libya? Unlikely.

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

February 21, 2011

Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, we can hope, will be the next government to fall as the wave of protests and calls for better governance sweep the Middle East.

One thing this wave is exposing is the hollowness of the attempts of regional autocrats to use the language of democratization to cement their power. In Egypt, Gamal Mubarak was careful to speak in terms of democracy and openness, but the Egyptian people never bought it.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this disjuncture, however, is Saif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the oldest son of Qaddafi’s second wife. Since the Libyan leader’s first marriage ended in divorce, Saif al-Islam is at the top of the family pyramid. He is Western educated, including a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He runs the Qaddafi Foundation, and in its name jets around the world to resolve disputes while promoting talk of human rights at home. In keeping with the times, Saif had a Facebook page (can his many “friends” access it now that Libya has tried to cut off the Internet to stop protesters from communicating?), and his rhetoric is loaded with proposals that make more sense to listeners in London or Washington than in Tripoli, such as a flat tax of 15 percent and projects dealing with climate change. His dissertation uses wonderful terms like “civil society,” “global governance” and “democratization” in its title. When asked about how much freedom Libyans should have, Saif told a Western reporter, “I am talking about the level of freedom like in Holland.”

We should be shocked, shocked, that this herald of democracy declared in a lengthy TV address on Sunday that the Qaddafi regime would “fight to the last bullet” against “seditious elements.” True democracy, of course, involves the people having a say in choosing their leaders. And as was clear in Egypt, in Libya, the people don’t particularly like corrupt and brutal autocrats, no matter what promises they may utter when speaking to Western reporters.

Libya’s and Egypt’s experiences illustrate the limits of top-down, gradual democratization. When pressure is eased and people have hope for better things, they do not become more satisfied but rather less patient. So while Saif’s proposed reforms were real in the context of over 40 years of Qaddafi the elder’s system, to most Libyans and many outsiders they look paltry. And if there is a chance for sweeping change, they will seize it. After all, Saif sought to modify a corrupt and bizarre system, not replace it. Libya does assist the United States on counterterrorism and is an important oil producer, but Qaddafi’s years of enmity and continued eccentricities made him at best a lukewarm ally overall. So burning bridges with Qaddafi does not involve the complex trade-offs that made Egypt (and make Bahrain) so difficult for the Obama administration.

U.S. influence in Tripoli is limited, however, and we cannot expect to persuade Qaddafi to go gently or otherwise influence events as the administration tried to do in Egypt and is attempting in Bahrain. The machine-gunning of Libyan crowds shows that, in Libya at least, Saif and other leaders’ deeds speak more loudly than words.