Skip to main content
opinion

The demise of Moammar Gadhafi is a great moment for Libyans, who are ending two generations of shame and degradation. And it's a small milestone for the world, as it will reduce the number of non-democratic states from 55 to 54.

Beyond that, we shouldn't pretend it has any larger world significance. Libya is unique. It's a wealthy oil state with a tiny, ethnically homogeneous population; its eight-month war was not a clash of ideas or sects or clans, but a low-intensity, conventional army struggle pitting most of a population against one ruling family.

As such, it offers few lessons for activists in other Arab states or autocracies. And the NATO air campaign, the first successful international military effort since Serbia in 1999, offers little by way of precedent: Libya's struggle was self-contained, highly unlikely to inflame a wider regional conflict or divide the Arab world. It was an unambiguous moral cause.

And it was an obligation, because the West (including Canada) had such large financial investments in Colonel Gadhafi's Libya. No, it was not a "war about oil," since the petroleum relationships will remain largely unchanged – but if we'd have stayed out of Libya, Col. Gadhafi would have conducted a mass slaughter in the name of our oil, financed with our payments.

Libya's uniqueness also makes it difficult to understand what might happen next. Many Libyans are insulted by the suggestion that they're destined to collapse into chaos. "We are not going to become another Somalia," rebel commander Ahmed Omar Bani told me. But they're not going to turn into Switzerland, either.

To understand what might happen, and what the stakes are, we need to look at what makes Libya unique.

The favourable view: Libyans have a number of reasons to seek stability and non-extremism. For one thing, their country is perhaps the most urbanized country in Africa. The United Nations Population Division estimates that 86 per cent of its citizens live in cities, a proportion higher than Canada's. From what I've seen, this urban life has done much to erase the old tribal and regional divides. People view each other by income and affiliation, while clan and village mean about as much as they do in, say, Ireland. And urbanization means that families are small, and women have rights.

More important, Libya has one of the highest rates of home ownership in the world: 92 per cent of dwellings are privately owned. This means that Libyans have a direct, personal financial stake in the stability and progress of their communities. They have a sense of ownership. They have one of the ingredients of a middle-class life, and thus a desire for functioning markets and democracy.

This leads to the other ingredient of middle-class life: income. Libya, as writer Max Fisher points out in The Atlantic, produces 0.27 barrels of oil per citizen per day, almost as much as the United Arab Emirates. But people in Dubai are wealthier than Americans – and they make three times as much money as those in Tripoli, who are poorer than Mexicans.

This difference has everything to do with Col. Gadhafi's closed, state-run economy (and something to do with his family's massive theft, too). Libyans have every reason to believe their income could triple if they can keep things stable and well-run.

The darker view: If Libyans have property ownership and hope to have high incomes, they are utterly lacking the third key ingredient of middle-class life: functioning institutions of economy and state. And this is where Libya's uniqueness is going to get them into trouble.

Col. Gadhafi destroyed everything that was professional and independent. He obliterated the army after several coup attempts, replacing it with cowboy militias. He sent education and medicine spiralling into the past by appointing incompetent cronies to run them. He erased any concept of a civil service, replacing it with a mafia-like web of kleptocracy and official paranoia.

One of the few things that remained stable and well-run was the mosque – and by associating the word "secular" with his rule, Col. Gadhafi enabled the Islamists to become a key political force.

And for the hundreds of thousands of Libyans who benefited from their small roles in his autocratic network – the 2000s were a prosperous time for Tripoli's elite – the shift into a world dominated by imams and angry 17-year-olds with assault rifles could prove infuriating. In this tension, uniqueness could prove Libya's undoing.