Skip to main content
michael ignatieff

People celebrate at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli on Thursday following the death of Moammar Gadhafi.SUHAIB SALEM/Reuters

We like to think we made it happen. First in Kosovo, now in Libya, we believe our air power made it happen. The truth is we didn't make it happen any more than we made the Arab Spring happen. The air operation itself would never have been approved at the United Nations without the green light from the Arab League. The people of Libya, the peoples of the Middle East made it happen. We all need to understand how little this is about us. Otherwise we risk succumbing to the illusion that we can shape the future in the Middle East.

The power we exercised in the sky gives us little control over what happens next. This is not just because we don't have boots on the ground. Even when we had boots in the Balkans, we never controlled the way events rolled out after the air campaign was over. The people of the Balkans wrote their own history after the intervention there and the peoples of the Middle East will do the same.

We called Libya a civil war and intervened to help one side win, as we did in Kosovo. But Libya was not a civil war. The dictator didn't have deep enough support to turn it into one. It was a revolution, a people against a regime, rising up without any instigation from us, with nothing but rage, humiliation and hope to guide them. We gave them air cover and they made a revolution.

Let us not be romantic about revolutions, but let us also remember the hope they carry. The revolutionary moment – the discovery that "we the people" brought the dictator down – gives the Libyans a chance to come together and build something out of the ruins.

The people have discovered themselves. They have discovered their sovereignty and they will not willingly surrender it to gunmen or extremist Islamists, in Libya or in Tunisia or Egypt. In Syria, in Yemen, in Algeria too, the people will see what the sovereignty of the street looks like and long for it, too.

All revolutionary situations are poised between exhilaration and terror, and Libya is no exception. There are too many guns in the street, too many militias, too little authority and order.

Revenge will be taken. Scores will be settled. Theft and vandalism will be legitimized as justice. Revolution could topple into civil war unless an army and a monopoly over the means of force are re-established. But those crowds, men and women all waving the same flag, the kids with their hands on their hearts, singing the anthem perched on their parents' shoulders, are actually stronger than the men with guns, if they only could find the politics to express their power.

The future of Libya and the entire Middle East depends not on us, but on something momentous and unpredictable: whether people who have never had the chance to do politics before can learn to do it now.

Libyans have never been citizens, only subjects. They have never been allowed to develop the trust among strangers that makes politics possible. They are a people divided by city, region, tribe and education and by collusion with or opposition to the regime. They are divided as to whether their political future should be secular or religious.

Now all of these divisions spill out into the open. Those who did well under the dictator will have to turn chameleon and change colour to avoid revenge. Others went into exile and now rush home, hopefully not too late, to earn what they feel is their rightful place. Most just want the revolution to end and give them stability, order and a job.

The dictator would not have lasted 42 years if he had not understood these divisions and exploited them ruthlessly. He came from one of the weaker tribes and built tyranny on the politics of divide and rule. The tents, camels and robes were all a bravura show to manipulate and intimidate tribes into subjection.

But if this is all it took to divide a people, it can't be impossible to unite them. The hatred of the old order – across the Middle East – brought the people together for a time, so politicians will have to find a constitutional project to keep them together: building the alliances and institutions that give strangers rewards to co-operate in building a new state.

Some Libyans know exactly where they should be headed. Already in Benghazi this summer, one visitor noticed green Arabic graffiti on a wall that read: "We want institutions." And then, in case there was any doubt about what that might mean, the graffitist added: "Constitutional rule, elected President, 4 year non-renewable term limits."

We can't improve on this advice. Of course, we can help with governance: We discharged a responsibility to protect, and with that goes a responsibility to rebuild.

But let's remember that Libyans know what we will never know: their own history. They made their revolution happen. Now, they have to make the revolution into a government. They will have to learn to trust each other. No one can predict whether they will succeed, but no one should doubt the magnificence of what they are attempting.

The people with guns will have to sit down with people who have none. Force of argument will have to replace force of arms.

The transitional council has to hold together and then its leaders have to keep their word and bow out of presidential politics. A route to elections has to be mapped out. A constitution has to be written, laying out what the place of sharia law will be, how a structure of institutions – courts, free press and public administration – can be created in place of the void that the dictator left behind.

All of it will be difficult, but none of it is impossible. Libya has certain advantages. No one is trying to invade it. It has oil. Oil can be a curse if it fuels regional and tribal battles over the spoils, a blessing if its revenues are used to build schools and roads and hospitals for all, and give the Libyan state the resources to create enduring institutions. It will be easy to get the oil flowing, much less easy to diversify an economy so that young people with educations find the jobs and economic security that anchor democracy in a diversified economy.

All across the Middle East, people face the same challenge of building institutions where dictators have left a desert behind them. If Libya succeeds, it can become a fulcrum of change for the whole region. If it fails, it could become a source of instability, spreading chaos and extremism south through the weak states of Niger, Mali and Chad.

Certainly, American drones will soon be flying, if they are not already doing so, over al-Qaeda hideouts in the Maghreb.

The peoples of North Africa are living their most dramatic hours since national independence in the 1950s, Next door to Libya, Tunisia goes to the polls on Sunday. A whole people will vote as free citizens for the first time. Yes, Islamists may carry the day there, and in Egypt too. The risk is obvious: one vote, for one time only. But what, exactly, is the alternative? Why are we so afraid to trust Islam with democracy? What other choice is there?

Just like the Europeans, the peoples of the Middle East have seen all the political gods fail, one after another, from Gamal Abdel Nasser, through pan-Arabism, through Arab socialism and Baathism, through military dictatorship and finally the family kleptocracies of Gadhafi, Saleh and Assad. Only the monarchies cling on and their future will depend on making a deal with a people who are tired of promises.

The people of the Middle East, like people anywhere, learn from experience and they know they are not at the beginning of a new dawn, where anything is possible, but at the end of 60 years of failure that has blighted the hopes of each succeeding generation.

The peoples of the Middle East know this, and this may be the single most important reason why they will try to make democracy work. Everything else has failed them and this year, from Tripoli in Libya to Daraa in Syria, they have felt, for the first time, their own terrifying power.

Michael Ignatieff is a Senior Resident at Massey College, University of Toronto.