Nearly two years after NATO’s much-hailed intervention in Libya, observers fear that the country could become a failed state. Libya’s government has struggled to rebuild the country’s war-torn economy and cities. Many foreign donors, wary of a rise in Islamist terrorism, have pulled out. Militias have besieged government ministries to oust officials with ties to the old regime -- a worrying sign of adopting legislation at the point of a gun. In May, a violent clash between demonstrators and militias in Benghazi left over 30 dead, and in late July two powerful suitcase bombs exploded in the city. A headline warned that recent events were a “chronicle of a death foretold.”

Libyans themselves, though, tell a more nuanced story. In a national post-election survey that we conducted last May, Libyans offered their feelings about the country’s future. The results are overwhelmingly positive: 81 percent of Libyans say that they are “optimistic” or “very optimistic,” and only 19 percent describe their feelings as “pessimistic.”

Libyans are not only optimistic about their future but also strongly committed to achieving democracy. Of those surveyed, 83 percent agree with the assertion that “democracy may have its problems, but it is the best form of government.” This is not surprising, as democracy is popular throughout the Middle East. But Libya stands out in that over 80 percent of Libyans characterize their hopes for democracy specifically in terms of human rights, free elections, and political liberties. Tunisians and Egyptians, by contrast, tend to view democracy in terms of economic equality; 70 percent of Egyptians say that democracy’s primary role is to provide citizens with basic necessities or to reduce the gap between rich and poor. Only 12 percent of Libyans equate these economic issues with democracy.

Libyan support for democratic ideals translates into support for the country’s fledgling government institutions. Nearly two-thirds of Libyans hold generally positive views of Libya’s one-year-old parliamentary body, the General National Congress (GNC). And more than half of Libyans believe that political parties are essential to democracy.

That is not to say that Libyans have completely overcome Muammar al-Qaddafi’s legacy of gutting participatory institutions and demonizing political parties. But given that Qaddafi equated party members with traitors, it is remarkable that Libyans like the idea of political parties at all. At the same time, they have little trust in -- or even knowledge of -- the existing ones. Nearly 60 percent of Libyans say that their trust in political parties is “low” or “very low.” Moreover, most Libyans can identify only the two main parties in a field of more than 50. Asked if they have positive or negative feelings toward the parties, 70 percent felt one way or the other about the two main parties, while only 30–40 percent had feelings toward the rest. Similarly, Libyans support the GNC in theory, but disapprove of its record in practice: fewer than a third of Libyans believe that the body has taken appropriate steps to establish a constitutional committee, improve security, fight corruption, or move the country toward national reconciliation.

Libyans evidently have a great desire to build democratic institutions, but they face enormous roadblocks in their way. A majority of Libyans long for state institutions strong enough to maintain security and uphold the rule of law, but they also want to redress past wrongs, with most Libyans favoring punishment over amnesty. Roughly 70 percent of Libyans want officials who served in the Qaddafi regime to be subjected to political exclusion, and nearly 90 percent believe that collaborators who committed crimes should be put on trial.

Regional divisions have also created problems for the state. Many Libyans argue that regionalism is exaggerated, and a recent survey from the University of Benghazi found that a majority of Libyans support a unified state. But opinions diverge along regional lines. For example, Libyans in the southern region of Fezzan believe that disarming militias is more important than do Libyans in the east and the west; inhabitants of the eastern region of Cyrenaica are more focused on economic issues. Other regions have sought greater autonomy in hope of buffering a future wave of repression. In June, the council of the Benghazi-based Emirate of Cyrenaica declared independence, a move that publicly undermined the development of a strong central state. 

Nevertheless, Libyans have reason to be optimistic about their chances of achieving democracy. Libya has avoided deep ideological divides that have plagued neighbors like Egypt. Islamists and secularists are not fighting over the nature of the state. Indeed, our polls show broad agreement among different political factions in favor of a constitution based on Islam.

And there are a number of other promising signs. Libya successfully held its first GNC elections last July and just passed a law to elect a constitutional committee. The process of creating election laws has been fraught with tension, but drafters have worked hard to avoid escalating conflict. The election of Nuri Abu Sahmain as the country’s first Amazigh president provides strong evidence that the GNC is capable of compromise.

The good news is that despite the ongoing violence, politics and elected institutions still matter. Decades of repression have given way to popular demands for a democratic state marked by free elections, respect for human rights, and national security. And Libyans have shown an ability to compromise and make steady progress toward this goal. Despite widespread pessimism in the international community, Libyans’ optimism may be warranted after all.

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  • LINDSAY BENSTEAD is an assistant professor in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. ELLEN LUST is an associate professor in the political science department and founding director of the Program on Governance and Local Development at Yale University. JAKOB WICHMANN is the founding partner of JMW Consulting, a consultancy with expertise on countries in transition and social and political research.
  • The Libyan survey described was conducted in collaboration with the National Democratic Institute, JMW Consulting, Lindsay Benstead, Ellen Lust, and DIWAN Market Research. It was funded by the Danish government. The Tunisian survey was conducted by Lindsay Benstead, Ellen Lust, and Dhafer Malouche, with support from the National Science Foundation, Portland State University, Princeton University and Yale University. The Egyptian survey was conducted by the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and JMW consulting in collaboration with the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute.
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