Libya’s strategic role in the region and its potential as a model to demonstrate that the “Arab Spring” can spawn democracy make it critical for the U.S. and other western nations to provide the technical support the country needs, according to experts.

Libya Experts Appeal for U.S., World to Support Potential Model
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Iason Foounten

A recent panel discussion at the Atlantic Council in Washington laid out Libya’s needs and the benefits of helping it meet such benchmarks. Libya is mainly asking for technical assistance, and has offered to cover the costs of aid efforts such as a plan in the works for NATO, the U.S., the U.K., France, Italy, and the United Nations to train and modernize the country’s army and upgrade border security, said Bill Taylor, USIP’s vice president for Middle East and Africa programs. 

“We need a successful Arab democracy,” Taylor, who recently completed two years as the State Department’s special coordinator for Middle East transitions, said during the Sept. 10 discussion. The event was co-sponsored with Freedom House and the Project on Middle East Democracy on behalf of the inter-organizational Libya Working Group, which includes USIP. Libya “does have the capacity, the potential, the resources to be a success,” Taylor said.

The Libya Working Group was organized earlier this year under the auspices of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Freedom House and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). The working group also includes business associations, academic institutions and Libyan individuals and groups.

Any assistance must be based on what the Libyan government and its people need and request, Taylor said. “Countries have to want what we are offering,” he said.

Libya is controlled more by a constellation of sometimes competing militias than by any police force or army; security problems pose a clear threat to the country’ development, said Manal Omar, USIP’s director of Iran, Iraq, and North Africa programs.

“Despite the challenges, of which there are many, we continue to see incremental movement forward,” Omar said. The relatively peaceful process of establishing certain government ministries after the fighting ended, and the extensive dialogue that has occurred in Libya are encouraging.

“The announcement of a national dialogue, I think, is very much key to everything, including security,” Omar said. “Over and over in conversations we’ve had, including with” tribal leaders and former revolutionaries now responsible for community security, they say security won’t be addressed “without trust and confidence in a government system.”

Civil society has stepped up in Libya, and both those leaders and government authorities have expressed interest in partnerships with foreign partners to help them advance, she said.

The international community needs to take a broad view of the dramatic shifts underway in the Middle East, beyond the crises of the day in Syria and Egypt, said Charles Dunne, director of Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House.

A group of 28 experts signed a Sept. 10 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, citing his March commitment to stand by Libyans during their transition. The letter urges the U.S. to increase its engagement with Libya and develop “an effective strategy for both the long-and short-term.”

“While security remains a top priority, it cannot be adequately addressed without also focusing on Libya’s political and economic challenges,” the experts said in the letter.

They recommended a range of steps, including encouraging a wide array of Libyans to participate in the national dialogue, providing expertise for the country’s drafting of a new constitution, and giving guidance for ways to ensure judicial independence.

Mustafa Abushagur, who served as Libya’s deputy prime minister in the early days of the transition, said he worries that the country’s latest timeline for drafting a constitution – four months – is far too short to produce a quality, representative document. The call for a national dialogue demonstrates an understanding of the need to consult widely, he said.

“This is democracy … we are learning how to do that,” said Abushagur, who is founder and chairman of the Libyan Policy Institute.

Karim Mezran, a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri center who signed the letter to Kerry and moderated the Sept. 10 discussion, expressed concern that Libya’s constitution drafting is occurring before major issues are resolved in dialogue.

“I am afraid that, without a national dialogue, the drafting of a constitution would just be divisive,” Mezran said.

USIP staff didn’t sign onto the letter because the Institute doesn’t advocate on public policy issues. USIP conducts extensive programs in Libya, including projects to advance rule of law, strengthen civil society, and facilitate dialogue on issues from the process for writing a constitution to regional security.

“Libya, with its small population and its large petro-chemical wealth, could and should become an influential and important success story in the tale of the Arab Spring,” Dunne said. “The consequences of failure are also significant. You’re looking at a potential failed state that could spread instability far beyond its own borders. Either way you look at it, it’s a country that has a major impact on stability in the region, and on U.S. policy in the Middle East.”

Viola Gienger is a senior writer at USIP.

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