After 40 years of a culture of tyranny, what hope for Libya’s future?
Plato describes how the tyrant comes to power: he is smiling, affable and promises much. Some enemies he does away with, others he conciliates. The courageous, intelligent and wealthy he eliminates, and appoints a cabinet of creeps. Aristotle pinpoints the general strategy from there on: keep the people demoralised, mistrustful and weak. In that condition they lack the spirit of enterprise, the confidence to put their faith in each other and the sheer manpower needed to force a tyrant out.
The problem is that, from that position, the tyrant leaves himself no alternative but to continue. As Pericles argued before the Athenian assembly, Athens had to maintain a stranglehold over her empire ‘because of the danger from those whose hatred you have incurred in gaining your empire … which you now possess like a tyranny. It may be thought wrong to have acquired it, but to let it go would be extremely dangerous.’
When the first Roman emperor Augustus defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra in 31 bc, he did not bring about a revolution: senate, consuls, praetors etc remained. Rather, he changed the terms of the game: power, which in the republic had been up for grabs between the great Roman families, would now reside in one man: himself. The day of his death, therefore, was a key moment: what next? Would there be a succession? Or would the system collapse? When his stepson Tiberius took over, the answer was given. Imperialism was now ‘legally established’ and would soon become ‘ancestral’. Farewell, freedom, unless someone was prepared to strike the emperor down. But would that change the system or merely lodge power somewhere else?
There was a further problem. Under the tyrant-emperor, only the obedient could climb the political ladder. This culture became so ingrained that bodies like the senate effectively gave up their authority. So when e.g. Caligula was murdered in ad 41, the senate flapped, and the army imposed Uncle C-C-C-Claudius.
None of this bodes well for Libya.