In Libya, many are rejoicing as it appears the Gaddafi regime is about to fall. There are high hopes of an end to dictatorship and a new era of democracy. If this is the beginning of a time of peace and freedom for the Libyan people, it will also be a huge boost to other pro-democracy movements.
It is possible that a few hardline pro-Gaddafi soldiers unwilling to admit defeat, or infighting among the rebels, could derail a smooth transition to democracy. But one of the greatest risks, ironically, comes from overseas governments which have backed the rebels, such as those of the USA and UK.
An incoming government in oil-rich Libya will be heavily reliant on such governments. They may be tempted to push for a range of measures to be introduced to enable Western companies to benefit heavily from the opportunities available, gaining control over much of the nation’s economy and mineral wealth.
This might mean that, despite the trappings of democracy, Libyans could come to feel once again that they had little real control over their destiny. It might also result in plummeting living standards, in a comparatively prosperous and healthy country.
At present, people get on average 7.3 years of schooling – higher than in much of Africa. Life expectancy at birth is 74.5 years. If this falls and infant mortality rises as people find themselves struggling to survive, unrest may grow again. It would be tragic if, in a few years, many Libyans yearned for the days of the Gaddafi regime when at least their children got enough to eat and healthcare when they were sick, and police once again rounded up dissidents and quelled protest.
There will probably be debates over the next few weeks about how much mercy should be shown to former functionaries of the regime. Even more important will the issue of how merciful and just the new rulers, and their Western allies, will be to the Libyan people.
To the West, it might seem fair that a financial investment in regime change should reap rich dividends. But ordinary Libyans risked their lives to bring about change, and it is right that they should be allowed to benefit.
© Savi Hensman is a respected Christian commentator on social, political and church affairs. She is an Ekklesia associate.