BENGHAZI – Middle Eastern autocrats routinely warn their people of rivers of blood, Western occupation, poverty, chaos, and Al Qaeda if their regimes are toppled. Those threats were heard in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and – rendered in black-comedy style – in Libya. But there is a strong belief across the region that the costs of removing autocracies, as high as they might be, are low compared to the damage inflicted by the current rulers. In short, freedom is worth the price.
In Libya, four scenarios may negatively affect prospects for democratization: civil/tribal war, military rule, becoming “stuck in transition,” and partition. Given the high price Libyans have paid, those scenarios should be prevented rather than cured.
The civil/tribal war scenario is the worst risk. Egypt’s revolutionaries understood this. When sectarian violence erupted there following the removal of Hosni Mubarak, the revolutionary coalitions adopted the slogan, “You won’t gloat over this, Mubarak.” Repressive dictatorships cannot win free and fair elections. But they can use extreme violence to consolidate their control over the state, its people, and its institutions.
So, to win, Libya’s Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi has deliberately and successfully turned a civil-resistance campaign into an armed conflict. That will have ramifications in the post-authoritarian context. A study published by Columbia University on civil resistance has shown that the probability of a country relapsing into civil war following a successful anti-dictatorship armed campaign is 43%, versus 28% when the campaign is unarmed.