Monday, February 13, 2012

Machiavelli on Libya, or: Finding the New Prince

Bad news are coming out of Libya in the past month. The National Transitional Council (NTC) seems to be a transitional body itself, unable to give Libya any kind of stability and direction in the post Gaddafi era. Heavily armed militias - not signing up to a national agenda - have taken the law in their own hands, controlling territory here and fighting each other for influence there. There are reports from Libyan prisons talking of torture, and even killings of prisoners, something we were used to hear from Colonel Gaddafi. We had hoped - in vain, as it seems - that a new Libyan humanitarian culture would quickly emerge from the ruins of the war of 2011, outlawing and banishing these inhuman practices. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the dictator's principal son, is still held prisoner by a local militia in Zintan, holding him as a hostage in a pawn game for more political leverage in Tripoli. A fair trial in Libya, or better yet, in The Hague, appears to be a far fetched goal. It looks like, as Udo Steinbach argues, the former head of the Hamburg based German Orient Institute, that the Libyan people don't want to subjugate themselves to a higher national structure.

What is going on here? I went to my book shelf to consult my favorite book on politics, Niccolò Machiavelli's "Il Principe" (The Prince, in English), written in 1513. Contrary to the belief of many, Machiavelli's text is not about "by any means necessary", not about celebrating reckless dictators, but it is in fact a very accurate description of "realpolitik" - politics as it is, without the moralistic and idealistic baggage that good meaning activists the world over like to carry around. 

enter and hold: Niccolò Machiavelli

Browsing through the book, I soon found something that helped me out. Machiavelli discusses in length the question why some princes can control and hold a territory they have conquered and others cannot. Machiavelli compares his present day Turkey, with a very centralized government, to France, where a king is surrounded by many old principalities, acknowledged and revered by their subordinates. Now Turkey, so Machiavelli, is difficult to conquer, because everyone has sworn allegiance to (and is dependent on) the central government and will fight any possible invader trying to enter the Ottoman empire. But once an invader has established his control, and successfully destructed the powers in place, he can easily keep his prey because the people's allegiance will rapidly switch to his side. France, on the other hand, will be easy to enter, but difficult to hold. There will always be an unhappy prince who will open the gates to the land of cheese and wine. But once the invading party has walked into France, it will have an enormously difficult time to settle in. There will be other princes who either will fight the invader on behalf of their king or will try their own luck amid the chaos to gain a more prominent role in any new order that is to be formed. How familiar does this sound in regards to Libya?

We therefore have "top down regimes", as I call them, where the power flows from a central power structure down to the gutters of their populace. Germany until the end of World War II comes to mind, or China, with the all powerful communist party. And we have "bottom up regimes", where the power lies with clans, tribes or religious sects. And where a central leader is sitting in a perennial hot seat, always in fear of being unseated by a rebellious opponent, possibly supported by outside helpers. Afghanistan is a prime example of this concept, and so is Syria. And Libya.

politics is messy: Rumsfeld, Hussein (1983)

Many states in Africa and in the Arab world are artificial constructions, a result of colonial times. Borders were drawn randomly, ethnicities were separated or merged by drawing a line on a map in London or Paris. People were forced to live together, to share a common fate, that never had been living together, much like an arranged marriage in India or elsewhere. The results of this can the threefold: 1) you get to a super-federal political society where the central state delegates much power to the sub-level, with people nevertheless endorsing a national identity. That is the United States of America, for instance, or some states in Europe, but I don't see a single state in Africa or the Arab world where this model applies. 2) you have a tribal or clan based society, with a central government struggling to play a decisive role, much like the "live and let live" society of Lebanon where a national identity is only weakly developed. But should 3) one group have the ambition to rule all other groups gathered inside the country's borders and impose its will on them, things will get nasty and dangerous. You either have an iron fist - a security apparatus that stifles any manifestation of discontent - or civil wars, or both. For an outside party this is the ideal situation. Either the brutal methods of the tyrant give reasons to intervene ("protecting civilians", you may remember) or one of the oppressed groups invites the outsider in. The Benghazi rebels did it and the Syrian National Council (SNC) is flirting with this idea.

Where do we stand in Libya today? As in Iraq, after the forced fall of Saddam Hussein, the Libyan society is searching for a new equilibrium of power. "Freedom is messy", Donald Rumsfeld, the Machiavellian defense minister of the United States, used to answer when asked to explain the violence that beset Baghdad following the ouster of Saddam. It is not freedom that is messy, finding the new Principe is! Where will Libya stand in ten years? I am very skeptical about its democratic, peaceful future. Niccolò Machiavelli offers no consolation either: Have cities and countries been used, he writes, to live under a prince, and has the prince been taken from them and has his family been erased; are they thus accustomed to have a prince, but don't have an old one, they will not obey a new prince who has risen from their midst; but they can neither live freely.