Power Vacuum: Prospects for Democracy in Tunisia and Libya


Beginning in Tunisia in December of 2010, the Arab world experienced uprisings and protests against authoritarian regimes during the Arab Spring. As a result of these protests, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia in January of 2011 after over twenty years in power. Similarly, in August of 2011, the dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown after over forty years of rule in Libya. Libyans and Tunisians, along with the rest of the world, celebrated these downfalls and hoped for a peaceful transition to a democratic system. Yet, today, Libya is far from a functioning liberal democracy; the country has been plagued by violence, and a stable government has failed to take hold. Tunisia, on the other hand, emerged from the Arab Spring with promising steps towards a peaceful democracy. Why has democracy failed in Libya thus far, in contrast to Tunisia’s success? How has Gaddafi’s legacy continued to affect Libyan politics and civil society today, hindering the transition to democracy? And lastly, how can policy makers work to assist Libya in achieving this transition to democracy and ending the violence? Scholars have long debated the conditions that allow a country to transition to democracy after a revolution. These answers can be broken down into four major schools of thought. The first school of thought argues that strong economies naturally lead to democracy. A second area of research asserts that cultural factors are most relevant to assuring the success of democracy. A third group of scholars, who focus on the role of international forces, emphasizes the effects that these actors can have on promoting or hindering democracy. Finally, a fourth school of thought claims that strong domestic institutions are the most important factor for a successful transition to democracy. This fourth school of thought is the most compelling argument in the cases of Libya and Tunisia: Tunisia’s crucial institutions are strong whereas Libya’s are practically nonexistent and thus impeded its transition.To test the idea that domestic institutions are most important to democratic success, Libya and Tunisia will be used in a comparative case study. In this way, Gaddafi’s legacy of creating an institutional power vacuum in Libya will be analyzed in comparison to Libya’s neighbor, Tunisia, which came out of the uprisings with more societal building blocks for democracy, despite the two countries having a similar economic and cultural makeup. The main domestic institutions of each country will be analyzed, in particular the roles of political parties, labor unions, and the military. Ultimately, this research indicates that Tunisia outperformed Libya in the strength of domestic institutions: political parties, labor unions,and the military. Additionally, Tunisia exhibited as lightly higher level of democracy than Libya, though Tunisia is still struggling to create a democratic system. Cultural disunity was a major contributing factor to the failure of these institutions and the consequent failure to achieve democracy in Libya.Therefore, while weak domestic institutions have certainly been a major factor in Libya’s difficult transition to democracy, they also reflect problems of cultural disunity in Libya. Policymakers will need to consider both of these issues moving forward in Libya,Tunisia, and other former authoritarian states as they continue to work towards democracy.

The Effects of Institutions on Transitioningto Democracy

The transition to democracy is mostly dependent upon the influence of certain types of domestic institutions. If a country lacks strong institutions due to the domination of a single leader,it will have a more difficult time in transitioning to democracy because there is no institutional base to use as a foundation for the new government after revolution. In the case of Libya, Gaddafi controlled every aspect of society and ruled the country for over forty years. There was no space for civil institutions to operate, which hindered the country’s transition to democracy. Tunisia, on the other hand, had stronger domestic institutions before the revolution.The type of existing domestic institutions in a country affects its ability of democratic transition after a revolution. If a country does not have certain types of domestic institutions, including political parties,labor unions, and a functioning military, then it is more difficult for a country to transition to democracy. In Libya, there were no domestic institutions to carry over into the new regime because of Gaddafi’s consolidation of power and control. Therefore, in the struggle to create a new, democratic country, there are no in-place structures to aid this process. Tunisia, conversely, had structures in place for political parties and national labor unions.

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