Qaddafi is Dead. Does it Matter for Libya’s Future?

The NY Times is reporting that Muammar Qaddafi is dead. While there will undoubtedly be many short term questions to answer (how was he killed? will this be the end of fighting in Libya?), it raises an interesting big picture theoretical question: does the death of the leader of a non-democratic regime increase the likelihood of a successful transition to democracy? Or, to lower the standard a bit, does the death of a leader of a non-democratic regime increase the chance of a country avoiding a prolonged armed insurgency or even a civil war in the future? I’m sure there must be academic research on this topic, and invite people with knowledge of this literature to contribute to the discussion in the comments section or, if you have conducted such research yourself, feel free to email me directly about a guest post. In the meantime, let me at least sketch out two sides of this argument.

On the “it matters a lot” side, one would have to expect that of all the people who could possibly unify opposition to a new regime – be it democratic or non-democratic – the ex-leader would have to be included in the discussion, if only for his or her ability to serve as a convenient focal point for opposition coordination. Thus we might expect that the death of Qaddafi, simply by virtue of creating uncertainty regarding around whom an opposition to Libya’s new regime should unify, should weaken the opposition compared to what it could have been. From a legal standpoint, I suppose that as long as a leader who had once been recognized internationally as the leader of a particular country is still alive and claiming that the new regime is illegitimate, it might be a way to give cover to other countries that for whatever reason do not want to recognize the new authorities in that country. We might also think that an outgoing leader may have built up a network of personal contacts over the years that could provide financial and military support to an opposition movement into which new opposition leaders might not have the possibility to tap.

On the “it probably doesn’t matter all that much” side, the elephant in the room is Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was captured in 2003 and executed in 2006, but where opposition to the regime hardly ceased following his capture and his death. More generally, one could argue that leaders ultimately are expendable, and that if opposition is strong enough (e.g., rooted in inter-ethnic conflict like Sunni vs. Shia in Iraq or sustained by huge economic incentives such as control of oil fields or diamond mines), then conflict can persist long beyond the life of any one individual. Indeed, one might even suppose that in some circumstances an old leader would become “damaged goods”, and replacing the leader could even increase the likelihood that an opposition can attract support.

Thoughts? Comments? Relevant research?

4 Responses to Qaddafi is Dead. Does it Matter for Libya’s Future?

  1. Masha October 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    Considering that there was little chance that Qaddafi would’ve compromised with the opposition, this was perhaps a logical way of removing him. However, I wonder if a more peaceful transition wouldn’t have given them a better chance at democratization.

    Though this probably wasn’t feasible for Libya (as Qaddafi was a hardliner and brutally opposed to protest) his death also means they no longer have a common enemy to rally around, as the article explains.

    Consequently, even if the opposition does succeed in installing a new leader and a new regime, there’s no guarantee that they won’t turn inward and start fighting one another. Since extremist groups are sometimes better organized than their secular counterparts, it’s not clear which of the internal groups in the opposition will better consolidate and come into power with Qaddafi gone.

    On the one hand, though, Libya does have the external support to democratize. If the US and other outside democracies can better incentivize the transition to a (secular) democracy, things could go more smoothly.

    • idiot October 21, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

      “On the one hand, though, Libya does have the external support to democratize. If the US and other outside democracies can better incentivize the transition to a (secular) democracy, things could go more smoothly.”

      Military occupation or a civil war may however may be fatal to democratization. And I don’t mean that it will reduce the odds of democratization, I mean it will kill it.

      The reason is how the Polity IV* database works. It does not code if a country is a democracy or not if it is is either in transition, in an “interregnum” (lack of central government, civil war), or if there is an “interruption” (military occupation). So if the NATO stays in Libya, then there cannot be a democracy at all, just a military occupation by NATO, therefore democratization does not (and cannot) occur.

      So if NATO does want democracy, it has to be VERY careful to ensure that its future presence does not get considered a military occupation by Polity IV, lest its external support is what actually PREVENTS democratization.

      *Polity IV is generally used in political science research, hence why I mention it. Freedom House will rate all countries regardless of the status of government, but it will provide different results from that of Polity IV…so your mileage may vary.

      • Masha October 23, 2011 at 2:42 pm #

        Agreed. I was never suggesting a continued military occupation of Libya by NATO. However, it’s difficult to propose a concrete solution. We’ve seen that Western democracies that meddle in foreign affairs so often end up leaving non-democratic countries worse off than they were before.

        I think you’re right and that military occupation wouldn’t work and might even reek faintly of neo-colonialism to the rest of the world. But some pledge of moral or monetary aid could go a long way (despite the US’s double standards concerning countries with dictators). Hey, if our interests actually align with the people trying to democratize, for once, then why not lend a helping hand?

        The problem would be avoiding our past mistakes in our quests to democratize the world: trying not to look like bullies by overstepping our boundaries and alienating Libyans, while also helping the right people (in other words, NOT the non-democratic extremist groups that tend to consolidate more effectively).

  2. Hume's Bastard October 21, 2011 at 1:46 am #

    With just a quick run through Google Scholar, I found this dataset – Archigos – which seems to support your research needs ( Also, another abstract recommended Juan Linz’s typology in “Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes” as still the go-to guide for these sorts of questions, as well as asking some supplemental questions ( “Beyond Electoral Authoritarianism: The Spectrum of Non-Democratic Regimes” )