Worldview: What Libya can learn from Iraq

In Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, formerly Green Square, Libyans greeted one another Wednesday to mark the end of Ramadan and successes in the effort to topple Moammar Gadhafi.
In Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, formerly Green Square, Libyans greeted one another Wednesday to mark the end of Ramadan and successes in the effort to topple Moammar Gadhafi. (FRANCOIS MORI / Associated Press)
Posted: September 01, 2011

The week's most poignant foreign-news story was a report from a cafe in Baghdad: Ordinary Iraqis were asked to advise Libyans on how to use their new freedom.

"They have to learn from us," a mechanic named Abdul Khaliq told the New York Times, but the lessons he and his friends offered were bitter. They spoke of how liberation led to chaos and bloodshed, and a frightening level of insecurity that persists today.

If Libyans want to avoid this fate, they should heed these warnings. From the words of the cafe-goers, from my own trips to Iraq, and from the suggestions of other Iraqis, I've compiled five lessons Libyans should learn from Iraqi mistakes.

Before presenting the list, let me detail why the Iraqi and Libyan cases are so alike, despite very different circumstances. True, Libya is smaller than Iraq, and it has been spared Iraq's problematic neighbors and its sectarian divide (Libya's population is almost all Sunni Muslims). Moreover, Libya was liberated by its own fighters (with critical NATO air support), so it is not occupied by foreign troops.

But the parallels between the two countries are striking. "Iraq has the closest experience to Libya's," says Laith Kubba, an Iraqi-born senior adviser on the Middle East for the National Endowment for Democracy. "There's the issues of tribalism, regime brutality, and the desire for revenge. And there is the fact that so long as [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi and his sons are free, they have the resources with which they can make trouble."

Equally important, decades of despotic rule deprived Iraqis and Libyans of any experience with political compromise, or civic action. Politics was a zero-sum game, where winners took all and killed or tortured their opponents.

"Compromise?" asks Kubba. "It's not in the culture." This inability to trust has paralyzed Iraq's parliament; it will make it hard for a new Libyan government to succeed.

Given these hurdles, what Iraq lessons should the Libyans take to heart?

First, get the lights on in Libyan cities and towns and the looting will stop really quickly. The post-invasion chaos in Baghdad soured popular optimism very fast and encouraged troublemakers; lack of power in 100-degree heat infuriated the public. The Libyan transitional government should do whatever it takes - with international help - to avoid those early comparisons with Iraq.

Second, do NOT purge most members of the former ruling party as the Baghdad government did with Baath Party members. The intense de-Baathification program, backed by U.S. viceroy Paul Bremer in 2003, forced out a crucial layer of bureaucrats, academics, and technical experts whose knowledge was vital to keeping the Iraqi government going; they had been required to join the Baath Party to hold their jobs.

With its weak institutions, Libya can't afford to lose expertise in the name of vengeance. Sack top officials, yes, but not the middle layers. "You have to keep them in the government in order to avoid the struggle we had," said Firas Abdul Hadi, an engineer and one of those interviewed in the Baghdad cafe.

Third, retain as much of Gadhafi's police and army as possible, barring those from his special units and others with blood on their hands. Better to vet and retrain the rest than disband them wholesale, as Iraq did to Saddam Hussein's army, creating a security vacuum in which terrorists flourished.

Fourth, set up a governing system with a strong presidency. After their experience with Saddam, Iraqis feared to do that and created a parliamentary system with a weak, symbolic presidency. But the inept Iraqi parliament is paralyzed by sectarian rifts and lack of trust; it barely functions, leading many Iraqis to yearn for a new strongman.

Libya would be better off with a strong elected president who can make decisions; an elected parliament, as it gains experience, can act as a check.

Fifth, don't rush to privatize the state-run economy. Bush administration ideologues tried to do this in Iraq, destroying state-run factories that provided jobs to desperate Iraqis. Until Libya stabilizes and private job creation takes off, those state-run jobs are vital to keep young men employed; otherwise these youths may heed appeals from Islamists or revanchist militias, as happened in Iraq.

In sum, let's hope Libyans consult closely with smart Iraqis. "Libyans all . . . say, 'We don't want to do this like Iraq,' " says democracy expert Kubba. "My concern is whether they have the capacity to avoid Iraq's mistakes or construct an alternative."

That concern is justified, but at least Libya has a model of what not to do.


E-mail Trudy Rubin

at trubin@phillynews.com.

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