By Khaled Diab
Gaddafi and his corrupt ‘jamahiriya’ may be gone, but Libyans should not give up on the dream of a direct democracy for the masses.
Monday 24 October 2011
Now that Gaddafi is dead, many Libyans are upbeat about the future, despite decades of autocratic rule and months of war.
“There is now an excellent opportunity to build a government from scratch and, after 42 years of one-man rule, Libyans want democracy,” Yusra Tekbali, a Libyan-American journalist who was in Libya during the early days of the uprising told me. “I think Libya can be the first real democracy in the region.”
Although Libyans dream of freedom and dignity, what the future actually has in store remains a very open question, with the National Transitional Council already facing allegations of torture and human rights abuses, and uncertainty regarding whether the Western powers who helped topple Gaddafi – and have already been lining up in an unseemly and opportunistic queue to demand that Libya grease their palsm with lucrative oil contracts – will ultimately choose self-interest or principle.
These worries aside, there’s the question of which model of democracy will work best in Libya. “Libyans have no experience in ruling themselves, so trial and error is to be expected,” Tekbali observes.
Of course, Gaddafi would say that Libyans already had decades of experience of bottom-up self-rule. The one-time “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution” would probably quote at length from his slim and surreal work, the Green Book, about the deficiencies of representative liberal democracies – stopping off on the way to discuss women’s menstrual cycles and the evils of sports clubs – and how the true answer lies in direct democracy.
In Gaddafi’s imagination, if not in practice, contemporary Libya was the living manifestation of the Green Book’s utopian “Third Universal Theory”, which he formulated as an alternative both to capitalism and Marxism. Transformed in the mid-1970s into a “jamahiriya” (a term Gaddafi coined to mean government by the masses), Libya was supposedly run directly by popular committees representing all parts of the country and all walks of life.
“The striking innovation in the Libyan political system since Gaddafi came to power resulted from his desire to replace subnational traditional leaders with administrators with the skills needed to modernise the country,” a US government study of Libya from the 1980s noted.
Although Gaddafi was supposed to hold no political positions of authority beyond the honorific “Leader of the Revolution”, his position as head of the General People’s Congress meant that he remained effectively in charge and the people’s committees were little more than a fig leaf designed to cover the naked brutality of his autocracy. Meanwhile, the revolutionary committees’ role to “supervise people power” was actually code for monitoring and suppression.
“It is ironic, then,” the American study concluded, “that the changes intended to enfranchise the citizenry have instead served primarily to bolster Gaddafi’s personal power by diminishing governmental checks and balances on his executive power and eliminating all other power bases.”
Given their bitter experience of living under Gaddafi’s “direct democracy”, Libyans may be excused if they desire never to embrace it again. Nevertheless, there is a powerful case to be made for governing Libya through direct democracy.
Although I do not share Gaddafi’s contempt for liberal and representative democracy – which, though imperfect, is among the best political systems we’ve ever had – importing the western model wholesale, as Libya’s interim government seems intent on doing, is perhaps not the best way forward.
Personally, I am convinced that direct democracy is the best option for Libya – and other Arab countries. This is partly because Libya does not possess the party political infrastructure for effective representative democracy, and the rush to create parties could be counterproductive.
Even in countries with political parties, like Egypt, the official opposition is unable to deliver on the people’s demands. In addition, the new parties that have been formed do not represent large swathes of the population, particularly the young people who risked everything in a bid to change their societies, and are likely to be too weak or too dominated by vested interests to bring about meaningful change.
In principle, too, direct democracy – the model that was practised in ancient Athens – is superior to its representative cousin which, through the “authoritarianism” of party politics, can sometimes exclude the majority and can lead to de facto oligarchies.
“[Parties] serve to organise faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community,” George Washington cautioned in his farewell address.
Though implementing direct democracy in the modern mass context might would have been seen as a pipe dream in Washington’s day, with the aid of modern technology, it is a feasible possibility.
Of course, direct democracy also suffers from its own drawbacks, such as the risk of majority “tyranny”, which could leave minorities and other vulnerable groups exposed. In addition, the sheer weight of constant participation could lead to political fatigue or apathy among the population and, hence, the hijacking of the political process by those on the political fringes who are more likely to be active.
A hybrid system could overcome these shortcomings. A parliament made up of elected representatives, but without political parties, could take care of the day-to-day business of government. This would provide individual politicians with the flexibility to vote according to their conscience and the will of their constituents, while organising informally around certain issues of the day. Important legislative issues would be decided through direct consultation with the population. In addition, every citizen would have the right to propose legislation and start motions.
With the right constitutional safeguards in place to protect all groups, there is no reason why every Libyan should not have both the right and duty to shape the future of their country directly and ensure that no new dictator emerges to fill Gaddafi’s shoes.
This column first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section. The related discussion is available here.