“BBC keen on paternalistic analysis of Libyan governance”

Editor’s Note: I don’t think the BBC is actually keen on paternalistic analyses of Libyan governance.  The title of this post is a riff on the title of the BBC article that it’s based on.

From what I could tell on the BBC News Africa landing page, Libyans are not interested in democracy and want a new dictator.  While the politics, cultural assumptions and click-through value of the BBC’s article today on Libya could be parsed and argued, what I found interesting about it was the fact that the statistics didn’t seem to match up with the story the article, and the Oxford researcher they quoted, wanted to tell.  This is how the article starts:

“Many Libyans prefer strong leadership to democracy despite four decades spent under the rule of Muammar Gaddafi, a national survey suggests.”

It then includes these two pieces of data collected by researchers from Oxford and Benghazi Universities:

“Just 15% of 2,000 people polled by academics from Benghazi and Oxford universities said democracy should be installed in the next year….

….More than 40% backed strong leadership from one person or a group.”

There are two big issues that come through here.  The first is the qualifier at the end of the first quote.  The majority people polled don’t want a democracy “installed” in the next year.  I wouldn’t want a democracy “installed” either; I’d prefer it to grow out of a coalescing sense of governance within the population.  How the world helps Libya achieve that is a complex topic for a different post, but to go back to the headline this doesn’t make me think they’re not keen on democracy generally.

The second sentence was curious too; as an American I back strong leadership from a person or group.  I’m registered with a political party and vote for a president that I think can best lead the country.  Individually strong, charismatic leaders have a notable history in Western, democratic politics; Churchill, Mandela, Clinton, Reagan, the list goes on.  What ever their party politics were, they were successful because they were strong leaders.  Strong leadership didn’t impinge on democracy in those cases…I sense there is a judgment coming.  It’ll probably be ham-fisted and tinged with Western superiority…

“Oxford University’s Dr Christoph Sahm said the survey suggested Libyans lacked the knowledge of how democracy works.”

There it is!  Those Libyans don’t understand democracy.  It couldn’t be that they might not want to rush into some partially born, foreign-produced version of democracy.  The article even points out later on that they actually do feel like they want a representative government and 80% of Libyans have developed an increased interest in politics since the fall of Gaddafi.  Maybe, just maybe, the people of Libya want a strong leader because they don’t want their government to devolve into the internal bickering and stonewalling that was emblematic of the Iraqi parliament after the U.S. invasion.  It seems a bit paternalistic to assume that “strong leader” is synonymous with “wanting a dictator”.

Clearly Libya has challenges ahead and it may fall apart in the end.  But I think it’s incumbent on the West to recognize that Libya could very well find its way to stability and inclusion for its citizens, and to be aware of the paternalism and assumptions we might have when we analyze the politics of a country recovering from conflict.  Maybe with a little reflection we could even be a better partner to the people of Libya as they make their way forward.