Wednesday, February 15, 2012

University of Oxford Study: Libyans Wary of Democracy

They hated Gaddafi, but learned no lessons from him. After suffering for decades under the rule of a tyrant strongman, an Oxford survey of over 2,000 Libyans points towards likely restoration of authoritarian rule.

Libya has never experienced democracy for any real length of time in its history. For much of the past 2,000 years, the region was merely a piece of a larger empire under the Romans, Ottomans, Arabs, and Italians. United States and British forces liberated Libya in 1943, but it remained a United Nations mandate until 1951.

Moammar Gaddafi seized power in 1969, touting his Third Universal ideology. This proposed a synthesis between Islam, tribal practices, and socialism that relied heavily upon oil revenues for financing. Gaddafi actively promoted his ideology as an answer to African woes and aspired to continental leadership. However, propaganda about "mass" government cloaked typical strongman rule.

The area has a history of trouble with the United States. Libya's capital, Tripoli, once constituted a semi-autonomous city-state nominally under Ottoman Turkish rule. Pirates under its flag exacted tribute from the United States as part of a large scale protection racket. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison both sent naval squadrons to successfully chastise Tripoli. Later, President Ronald Reagan used air power to get similar results when Gaddafi backed terrorists blew up a Berlin nightclub. George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq chastened Gaddafi who agreed to abandon weapons of mass destruction programs started in the 1980s. He remained ever abusive of his power over the people of Libya.

Libya experienced tyranny and international humiliation at the hands of their strongman. They used violence to rid themselves of him, and 16% still say that they would use violence again to achieve political ends. Only 29% of Libyans desire to live under a democratic government, according to the survey. A little over one-third would prefer a strongman over any other formulation.

The country, over two-thirds of it, agree that the people need some say in their government. This survey is not necessarily pessimistic. Libyans understand democracy as the European majority rule form, which does not protect the rights of minorities or establish strong checks and balances.

Oxford's numbers do indicate that Libya would be open to some modified form of the American republic style system. They mistrust (with good reason) the possibility of tyranny of the majority. After all, Gaddafi's dictatorship claimed to rest upon mass approval. A republic along Madisonian lines would satisfy Libya's desire for strong and coherent leadership while giving a say to the people. That country's population, still armed and obviously ready to fight for its rights, serves as the ultimate check on the power of any future Libyan president.

Will Libya take this path? Probably not. The United States has almost no track record after World War II of suggesting its own system to any nation emerging from tyranny, although it makes more sense than simple majority rule in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. People who have felt the persecution of government have every reason to fear that a system of one tyrant can evolve into one of hundreds of thousands of tyrants.

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