Can Libya Rebuild Itself After 40 Years of Gaddafi?

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Libyans pray while demonstrating for the removal of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on February 25, 2011 in Benghazi, Libya. John Moore / Getty Images

Libya was on the brink of tectonic change as NEWSWEEK went to press, with the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in a state of dramatic fulmination and ruin. As we watch that country become a patchwork of liberated zones and violently defended redoubts of the regime, we should be concerned about what a post-Gaddafi transition will mean, given the fact that the man has hollowed out the Libyan state, eviscerated all opposition in Libyan society, and, in effect, created a political tabula rasa on which a newly free people will now have to scratch out a future.

Libya will begin afresh after Gaddafi, in a comprehensive reconstruction of everything civic, political, legal, and moral that makes up a society and its government. But it remains dauntingly unclear where new leadership will come from. Perhaps some of the tribal chieftains will unite behind one of their own; perhaps some of the regime’s overseas opposition figures will return, not so much as saviors but as masons who might lay a new foundation over the rubble. Or perhaps some younger Libyans, with overseas degrees under their belt, or young entrepreneurs, will rise to the occasion. There are even rumors that the heir to the country’s monarchy may want to throw his hat in the ring.

Events in the eastern city of Benghazi, where the local population has spontaneously started to clean up the debris left by recent battles, give one hope that this traumatized country can still pull together while avoiding worse bloodshed. Getting Libya back on its feet will be an unwieldy, and probably fractious, process in which many scores are settled against those who once supported the Gaddafi regime. But the problem is, of course, that much like in the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, virtually everyone at one point or another had to deal with the regime to survive. Unless political authority can be restored quickly, the sorting out of claims will undoubtedly be a bloody affair in light of the pent-up frustration that is now being released. Libya has no fireproof options, and comparisons with Tunisia and Egypt—whose uprisings so energized the Libyan people—offer no road map to a Libyan civic reconstruction. Libya is truly a case apart. But how did Libya get to this state? How did its people come to be so shorn of political structure and experience? All answers, it would seem, begin and end with Gaddafi.

There was, for all the usual showmanship, something touching about Gaddafi’s last visit to Italy a few months ago. Dressed in his singular combination of Arab cloak and Western-style white business suit, he had pinned a grainy black-and-white picture to his lapel—which Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi studiously avoided looking at. The picture was of a shackled Omar al-Mukhtar, a Cyrenaican tribal leader and Libya’s national hero, who was taken prisoner in 1931 after resisting the Italian colonial invasion for several years. He was hanged by the Italians before an assembly of Libyan prisoners—his cloak and glasses remain a central exhibit in Libya’s national museum on Green Square in Tripoli.

It was Gaddafi’s way of paying homage to a man he believed represents the ideal of a true Libyan: a tribal warrior, brave, uncompromising, willing to take on insurmountable odds. Gaddafi wanted to remind Berlusconi of the horrors of the Italian occupation—during which as much as half the population of Cyrenaica, Libya’s eastern province, may have died. It was no surprise that Gaddafi, in his first speech after the uprising against him spread across Libya, invoked these same qualities to explain that he would fight to the end and was willing to die as a (self-proclaimed) martyr.

History, particularly the disastrous Italian legacy in Libya, has been a constant element in Gaddafi’s speeches since he took power in a bloodless coup in 1969. He was barely 27 years old at the time, inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser, neighboring Egypt’s president, whose ideas of Arab nationalism and of the possibility of restoring glory to the Arab world, would fuel the first decade of Gaddafi’s revolution. And while it was also clear from the start that he was unimpressed with the niceties of international diplomacy, no one could have predicted in 1969 how confrontational his path would be, both to his own citizens and to the world.

With a zeal that bordered on obsession, Gaddafi set about reforming Libya, trying to confect a tribal community writ large in a country that had been ruled since its independence in 1951 by a lackluster monarchy with close ties to the West. What Gaddafi wanted to institute was what he called a Jamahiriya, a political system that is run directly by tribesmen without the intermediation of state institutions—a sort of grand conclave akin, on a national scale, to the Afghan loya jirga. When it turned out that Libya, which was still a decentralized society in 1969, had little appetite for his centralizing political vision and remained largely indifferent to his proposals, the young idealist quickly turned activist.

In the Green Book, a set of slim volumes published in the mid-1970s that contain Gaddafi’s political philosophy, a blueprint is offered for a dramatic restructuring of Libya’s economy, politics, and society. In principle, Libya would become an experiment in democracy. In reality, it became a police state where every move of its citizens was carefully watched by a growing number of security apparatuses and revolutionary committees that owed loyalty directly to Gaddafi. And a darker element now started to appear in his speeches, harking back once more to the colonial period: the notion that a group of Libyan traitors inside Cyrenaica had made the capture of Omar al-Mukhtar and the defeat of the Libyan mujahedin possible. This notion of a fifth column that would allow Libya’s enemies—the United States, Islamic radicals, and, conveniently, internal opposition—to infiltrate the Jamahiriya became a justification to destroy anyone who stood in Gaddafi’s path. Even those who had left Libya and gone into exile were not safe, pursued by hit squads tasked to shoot down what Gaddafi called “stray dogs.” In an ugly echo, those fighting in the streets against his revolution were also labeled dogs (and cockroaches)—fit only, Gaddafi thundered, for obliteration.

The impact on Libya of the Green Book’s directives was calamitous. Having crushed all opposition by the mid-1970s, the regime systematically snuffed out any group that could potentially oppose it—any activity that could be construed as political opposition was punishable by death, which is one reason why a post-Gaddafi Libya, unlike a post-Mubarak Egypt, can have no ready-made opposition in a position to fill the vacuum. Nowhere was Gaddafi’s inclination to root out opposition more tested than in his dance with the country’s tribes. The tribes—the Warfalla, the Awlad Busayf, the Magharha, the Zuwaya, the Barasa, and the smallest of them all, the Gadafa, to which he belonged—offered a natural form of political affiliation, a tribal ethos that could be tapped into for support. And perhaps, in the aftermath of Gaddafi, they could serve as a nucleus around which to build a new political system.

For this quality—this institutional potential—Gaddafi feared they might coalesce into groups opposing his rule. So, during the first two decades after the 1969 coup, he tried to erase their influence, arguing that they were an archaic element in a modern society. But as their power proved enduring, and as the challenges to his rule grew in the 1980s and ’90s, he gradually and willy-nilly brought them back into his fold. In a brilliant move that co-opted tribal elders, many of whom were also military commanders, he created the Social Leadership People’s Committee, through which he could simultaneously control the tribes and segments of the country’s military.

The late 1970s and ’80s were the period of Gaddafi’s rule imprinted most vividly in people’s minds: the terrorist incidents; the confrontation with President Reagan, who bombed Libya in April 1986; and the growing isolation of Libya as international sanctions were imposed. Lockerbie was the logical endpoint for a regime that had lost all international legitimacy. In the aftermath of the bombing, Gaddafi attempted to rally Libyans into massive demonstrations, but they had become largely apathetic—neutered by their own predicament—and none rose to the call for another wave of political activism. The revolution was dying rapidly, and the Libyan ruler, surrounded, as all dictators are, by sycophants who ward off any contrary advice, simply went on as if nothing had changed.

But the sanctions bit fiercely, and while the regime still had the coercive power to put down any uprisings that took place in the 1990s, it became clear to Gaddafi’s closest advisers that the potential for unrest had reached unprecedented levels. The way out was to come to an agreement with the West that would end the sanctions, allow Libya to refurbish an aging oil infrastructure, and provide a safety valve by permitting Libyans to travel abroad once more.

When Libya announced its intent to renounce weapons of mass destruction in December 2003—after a long process of behind-the-scenes diplomacy initially spearheaded by Britain—Libyans hoped that it would mark the reintegration of their country with a world from which they had so long been shut out. Their hope came, in part, to be focused on Saif al-Islam, one of Gaddafi’s sons who, as a self-styled reformer, pontificated on the need to open up Libya’s political system. Always impeccably dressed in Western suits (in contrast to his father’s outlandish wrap-arounds), Saif—with a shaved head and coruscating smile—embodied the new Libya everyone wanted to see.

Saif also became, almost overnight, the darling of the Western press, enthralled by the spectacle of a young modernist with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics bringing reform to his father’s foul dictatorship. It was seemingly lost on the pundits that this apostle of reform possessed no real credentials beyond being the son of Gaddafi and the author of a couple of execrable books on economic development. The pundits, crucially, also failed to detect the potential severity of the opposition to him inside Libya.

Libya’s love affair with Saif al-Islam and his reformist ideas ended very abruptly after the uprising against the Gaddafi regime, when he went on Libyan national television in a last-ditch attempt to assuage the demonstrators. Under his father, Libyans had become inured to rambling, incoherent speeches that made Fidel Castro seem like Cicero. But even by those standards, the son’s speech was surreal and Orwellian: surreal because Saif, much like his father, seemed unable to grasp what the revolt in Benghazi and Cyrenaica meant for the regime; also surreal because the suggestion he made to start a national dialogue in the wake of the extensive killing and violence was no longer even remotely realistic; and Orwellian because the once likely heir apparent to the Libyan regime used precisely the kind of apocalyptic language his father had used for 40 years to justify his rule.

Muammar Gaddafi never envisioned that his rule would come to an end. “The Revolution Everlasting” was one of the enduring slogans of his Libya, inscribed everywhere from bridges to water bottles. But the uprising in Benghazi was fueled with enough political energy and uncorked fury to spread across the eastern part of the country—a spontaneous defiance of a regime that had, for four decades, mismanaged the country’s economy and humiliated its citizens. Within a few days the country was split in half, with eastern Cyrenaica and its main city Benghazi effectively independent—a demonstration of the kind of people’s power Gaddafi had always advocated. Reality, in effect, outgrew the caricature. Undoubtedly the irony was lost on Gaddafi and his supporters, who fought on with rabid ferocity and utter disregard for life in Tripolitania, the northwestern part of the country.

As the confrontation between Gaddafi’s old revolution and the new, popular one intensified, a question that had hovered over the country in recent years assumed great urgency: what would a post-Gaddafi Libya look like? For all those long years of his rule, Gaddafi had ruthlessly used a set of divide-and-rule policies that not only kept his opponents sundered from each other, but had also completely enfeebled any social or political institution in the country.

Beyond Gaddafi, there exists only a great political emptiness, a void that Libya somehow will need to fill. What will now be required of Libya will be something Gaddafi deliberately avoided for 42 years: the creation of a modern state where Libyans become true citizens, with all the rights and duties this entails. The obstacles will be formidable. After systematically destroying local society, after using the tribes to cancel each other out, after aborting methodically the emergence of a younger generation that could take over Libya’s political life—all compounded by the general incoherence of the country’s administrative and bureaucratic institutions—Gaddafi will have left a new Libya with severe and longstanding challenges. It is not yet clear where new leadership will come from, and how institutions can rapidly be built to prevent groups from pursuing their self-interest at the expense of what will remain a very weak state for a considerable amount of time.

A characteristic of many oil exporters is that since their revenues flow straight into state coffers, where they can be used without accountability by those in power, they produce regimes that pay scant attention to issues of political representation. Regimes can use oil revenues strategically to provide patronage that effectively keeps them in power. Nowhere has this been orchestrated better than in Libya under Gaddafi. After him, Libya’s new rulers will need to find ways to bring together a large number of groups throughout society that until now have shared very little except the oil riches of the country and whose interests were deliberately played off against each other by the divide-and-rule tactics of the regime. Unfortunately, there are very few models for Libya to follow, except perhaps those outside the region. The likelihood of a number of disparate groups demanding greater accountability and representation as the country finds its way suggests the Balkans rather than neighboring Egypt or Tunisia as likely precursors for state building in Libya. And as with the Balkans, the international community could have a large and positive role to play by providing expertise and, temporarily, security forces.

For all his buffoonery, if Gaddafi understood one thing clearly about Libya, it was that its history could be a powerful force, and could be harnessed—as he did in his invocations of Omar al-Mukhtar and the resistance against colonialism—for a remorseless political project. That project, in fact, devastated Libya at every level. Whoever Libya’s new rulers turn out to be, their challenge will be to learn from the lessons of its recent sad history, and then to move resolutely forward with compromise and wisdom—qualities that the Gaddafi regime came to lack so abjectly.

Vandewalle, a professor at Dartmouth College, is the author of A History of Modern Libya, published by Cambridge University Press.

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