Libya and Tunisia: Not all revolutions are created equal

Three years after the revolutions in various Arab countries, many observers are still arguing about how to describe them. Some see it as the “Arab Spring” while others regard it as no more than a season that brought widespread misery and destruction.

However, it would not be fair to have a one-size-fits-all analysis of all the countries where people have removed their leaders. For example, there has been significantly different outcomes to the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya.

Same revolution, different outcomes

While Tunisia has achieved considerable progress and formed a technocrat government, Libya has been mired down by infighting, its ineffectual security forces, and the poor performance of its politicians.

Libya’s Committee of Sixty, responsible for drafting the country’s new constitution, held its first meeting on Monday without some of its members, which threatens to derail the entire process.

While Tunisia has had its fair share of challenges, the Islamists and secular moderates showed a high degree of political maturity with their power-sharing agreement.

The country’s constituent assembly has introduced a constitution forming a civil state, with independent and representative institutions, the commitment to protect the rights of all citizens, including women, and a clear divide between the state and religion. A new government has now been formed to replace the Ennahda party.

Perhaps it is too harsh to judge nations and their people as failures because creating new societies from the ash heaps of years of dysfunction, is a long and arduous process. As the saying goes, behind every success is a series of failures.

Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi

This is all the more remarkable because it took place in a poisonous environment of violence and incitement, and with political entities running vicious media campaigns against each other. It certainly appears that the Tunisians are among the region’s most educated and open-minded people. These qualities have protected the state from collapse.

Legitimate institutions

All revolutions, in their infancy, have teething problems. And there is always the danger that their growth and development could be stunted by circumstance or purely selfish decision-making by their custodians. This is now the agonizing condition of Libya.

The new Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thani stepped down after less than a month on duty claiming that gunmen attacked his family. His predecessor Ali Zeidan was recently forced out of parliament for allegedly failing to stem rising lawlessness in the country.

To be fair, the Libyan people have inherited a weak state, incompetent politicians, a tribal system and an almost total absence of institutions from the late Muammar Qaddafi’s years in power. This has been a heavy burden, almost too great to bear.
Unlike Libya, Tunisians can thank their previous president Habib Bourguiba for forming the Tunisian republic.

He built state institutions, improved education, and created a culture of openness that saw Tunisia rank high on the region’s human development index.

One cannot blame Libyans for holding Qaddafi responsible for this, or for not respecting state institutions that have failed abjectly in securing the country and preventing a series of abductions. Militias and gangs are operating with impunity and even kidnapped Zeidan, who was released only after negotiations with his captors.

Libya is going backward, to a dystopian place where there is no freedom, liberty and the rule of law. It is as if the revolution did not happen, and that thousands of young people have sacrificed their lives for nothing.

Overthrowing dictators

Getting rid of a dictatorship is only the first step on a long and hard road to a successful state. Post-revolutionary societies need strong, honest leaders who can take an inclusive approach to politics, drawing together disparate and antagonistic groupings. This is clearly lacking in Libya today.

Libyans now face hard choices. They are paying a high price for their dictatorship, with state fragmentation and growing tribalism. The Committee of Sixty, voted for by the Libyans, needs to rise to the challenge and play a leading role especially at a time where the National Transitional Council is weakened by severe political and ideological polarization.

The experiences of Libya and Tunisia provide important lessons for all countries seeking new leadership. The most important of which is the absolute necessity to create a strong constitutional state with independent institutions, an emphasis on education, a healthy civil society, primacy of the rule of law, and a free media.

Perhaps it is too harsh to judge nations and their people as failures because creating new societies from the ash heaps of years of dysfunction, is a long and arduous process. As the saying goes, behind every success is a series of failures.


This article was first published in Arab News on April 23, 2014.


Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi is the editor-in-chief of Sayidaty and al-Jamila magazines. A prominent journalist who worked with Asharq al-Awsat in London and Arab News in KSA, al-Harthi later moved on to establish al-Eqtisadiah newspaper in KSA, in which he rose the position of Editorial Manager. He was appointed editor-in-chief for Arajol magazine in 1997. He won the Gulf Excellence award in 1992.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:43 - GMT 06:43
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