Rebuilding Libya: Transitions in Public Management


Gaddafi is gone, and Libya faces a new future. Of course, the fighting is not completely over and he and his scions are still at large, but few doubt the regime is no more.

The issues now are threefold:

Creating a working political system that enables differences to be handled in a peaceful and democratic manner;

Creating a civil society that functions independently of the state and is able to hold it to account;

Finally, and crucially, Libya needs a functioning and legitimate public administration.

It is this last feature I want to concentrate on. We have many experiences of transitions from varieties of autocratic regimes over the past 30-40 years. The ’third wave’ of democratization started when the southern European dictatorships were overthrown (Portugal, Spain, and Greece). It has continued through Latin America, eastern Europe, and parts of Africa. And now the ’Arab Spring’ opens a new chapter.

What have we learnt from these experiences? The problem is we haven’t learnt enough. Those who should have been studying these transitions have spent far too much time assessing relatively small changes in public management (NPM) in western countries and largely ignored much larger questions about transformations of autocratic to democratic public administration.

Most of the commentary about Libya is currently focused on comparisons with transitions within the Arab world (Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia) rather than comparisons other regions. This is a mistake. The lessons being drawn from Iraq, for example, is that it is a big mistake to dissolve the autocratic state apparatus and start from scratch. But this is a simplification. The countries that have done best in Eastern Europe – Lithuania, Latvia, east Germany, and especially Estonia -are those who had to ’start again’ with their public administrations. Those that are struggling most are those that had the least ’purge’ of the old regime, places like Bulgaria and Rumania.

So the lessons are not so simple. And in any case the Libyans have less choice than is often supposed. The old regime and institutions had been so thoroughly tied into the Gaddafi family that there is in reality little left to provide continuity now the regime has fallen.

Creating a functioning public administration from scratch may seem a daunting task, and it is, but in some ways it is easier than trying to transform a PA that had been used to an autocratic political regime.

The new government in Tripoli is right to call on the functionaries of the old regime to join the work if reconstruction – and probably many of them will. And they are right not to condemn those who had little choice but to ’cooperate’ with the old regime in order to ’do the right thing’.

When I was in Libya in 2008 as part of the LSE programme that caused such controversy, I was heartened by the people I met who clearly, genuinely, wanted to improve their country and (very privately) were critical of the Gaddafi regime.

Libya has oil, human capital (including the Libyan diaspora) and above all a national spirit that may yet confound the skeptics. There has been much comment about the divisions and potential conflicts within the ’rebel’ camp, most of which has ignored the reality that these diverse groups have successfully come together to overthrow Gaddafi. True, divisions will undoubtedly emerge – but that is a good thing, democracy thrives on honest debate and difference.

Libya represents a true revolution – one that will probably prove to be more profound than Egypt, or Tunisia, or Iraq, but which would not have happened without them. I also think that it may surprise us all in the rapidity of the establishment of a free, democractic and open society.

Those of us who ’engaged’ with the old regime, to the extent of trying to inject some reformist ideas, have (I hope) no regrets. At the time, that was the only way of trying to help the process of change along. Today, I welcome the victory of the Libyan revolution and look forward, if I can, to helping them build a democratic society and public administration.

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About Colin Talbot

Professor of Government at the University of Manchester, England.
This entry was posted in International, Politics, Public Management. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Rebuilding Libya: Transitions in Public Management

  1. keith fensom says:

    I am now retired but remember very well my visits to Libya, and also remember the really difficult task of trying to understand who was telling you the truth, the almost impossible task of avoiding corrupt practises, and the ruling of Libya with a very ruthless style by the Gaddafi regime. I truly welcome a more democratic society and believe that most Libyans also welcome a new democracy in their country where they can work hard and reap the benefits.

  2. Pingback: A grubby tax deal with the Swiss, a spike in female unemployment and the end of Gaddafi in Libya: : round up of political blogs for 20-26 August | British Politics and Policy at LSE

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