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Books on Libya

Update No: 098 - (26/02/12)

Signs of Hope amid the Madness
On February 17, ‘the Day of Rage’, Libyans celebrated the first anniversary of their revolution against the regime of Muammar al-Qadhafi. Regardless of the challenges that remain, the revolt itself was a remarkable event that nobody had expected; the regime actually released more than a thousand political prisoners, largely Islamists originally from Benghazi, from the notorious Abu-Salim prison in Tripoli barely two months before the start of the revolt. Most had been arrested in 1995-1996, two of the toughest years for the Qadhafi regime, and the ones who were released had survived a massacre in which more than a thousand prisoners are believed to have been killed. The released prisoners had the opposite effect intended by the regime, which had always faced its toughest opposition in Benghazi. A lawyer, Fathi Terbil, was arrested for his demands of justice for those killed at the infamous Abu-Salim prison, prompting a wave of protests that led to the start of the revolt. Libyans have faced a tremendous struggle since then; the country’s infrastructure was destroyed during the war while Qadhafi’s idiosyncratic political governance system as outlined in his ‘Third Universal Theory’ and the ‘Green Book’, has barely left the shell of a State.

This shell is devoid of any institution – with the sole exception of the oil industry- or foundation upon which to build the future Libya. Libya now remains dominated by armed gangs and militias organized around a variety of claims from tribal to political to opportunist and territorial, while the National Transition Council (NTC), the temporary government that aims to take Libya to elections next June, struggles to exercise authority. Indeed, even as Libyans, many of them claiming their lives had improved thanks to a new sense of freedom, celebrated their revolution, the country appears to be far from delivering a democratic transition. The NTC itself appeared to recognize its own ‘impotence’ by not planning any special events at the national level to mark the anniversary. Such occasions offer the chance for reflection and evaluation and while it may still be too early to gather and produce an accurate assessment, the first anniversary of the Day of Rage prompts us to ponder what has actually changed in Libya.

Qadhafi is dead, the Jamahiriya and its odd governance system have also died, leaving nothing upon which to build a new State. However, Qadhafi’s regime of fear, in which citizens were afraid to express their political opinions to strangers and family members alike, managed to keep some kind of cohesion in the country, albeit one lubricated by the country’s enormous oil wealth and very small population. The first noticeable aspect of post-Qadhafi Libya is that the country has become a very loose structure broken up into a series of clans and gangs, that have little chance of leading to the formation of political parties. Atop of the frail mountain sits the NTC, which would appear to be unable to confront the challenge of reconstruction even if oil production has been recovering, reaching some 70% of pre-revolt levels. Libya under Qadhafi was characterized by a State without institutions and without governance, its only legitimacy resting on the regime’s ability to dispense oil funded largesse in the form of government employment and government funded services from healthcare to education. Nevertheless, the Qadhafi regime also offered security; crime rates were relatively low and the government had an almost exclusive control of weapons and authority in the country.

Both of these crucial aspects, weapons and authority, have now become fractionalised to the extent that there are hundreds of armed militias controlling the territory, making a mockery of the NTC’s ability to lead the transition to elections, which are supposed to be taking place next June.

The former rebels continue to patrol the streets in the cities and villages refusing to give up their guns and armored trucks, which is a necessary step to enable the NTC to establish a national army. With Qadhafi gone and key members of his family killed, arrested or in exile, the militias are turning their attention on themselves in a quest for territorial control. Libya has become a sort of 1930’s Chicago; it risks collapsing in a condition similar to present day Somalia or post-Soviet Afghanistan. The militias of Misratah and Zintan (where Saif ul-Islam Qadhafi was arrested), both demand a leadership role in the government. Amnesty International has recently published a report, outlining the disturbing reality that violence and torture have not ended with the Qadhafi regime; they have merely switched sides. The report paints a damning picture of the former rebel militias, which appear to be far less interested in building a country and its institutions than in seeking revenge against presumed and actual Qadhafi loyalists. The quest for revenge has led to another disturbing phenomenon of racism.

The militias target Black Libyans – many of whom for historical reasons owing to the slave trade reside in the town of Tawarga. All Blacks are suspected of having backed the Qadhafi regime. Similarly, migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa or the Sahel such as Niger, Chad, Sudan or Somalia, of whom many remained in Libya, are also subjected to torture and violence by the militias, which until not long ago appeared to be fighting for freedom in Libya. Amnesty International, in its report, claims that the former rebels have imprisoned hundreds of people during and after the conflict, who remain in jails without formal charges; several other human rights organizations have also indicated abuses by the militias while the government appears to lack any authority to enforce the rule of law. The climate of impunity merely encourages the militias to continue to operate according to their own laws, dispensing revenge and, ultimately, perpetuating the climate of fear that existed in the previous regime. The militias have such power that they have been able to drive out singlehandedly entire communities, such as, for instance, the 30,000 residents of the aforementioned Tawarga. The Misratah militias were the ones responsible in this case and they burned their homes and property accusing them of having collaborated with the Qadhafi regime simply because of their skin color. A similar fate has been met by members of the Mashaya tribe at the hand of the Zintan militias.

The picture that emerges is one of judicial chaos, which does not inspire optimism for the outcome of the forthcoming June legislative elections. It is also evident that the methods of the new authority in Libya, which is only officially in the hands of the NTC, are no better than are those of the previous regime. As for the elections, the weak governance and even weaker justice situation are not allowing the government to educate Libyans about the vote. Indeed, Libyans have not had political parties for 40 years and the NTC needs to raise awareness among the population, as the new Assembly will have the task of drafting a Constitution; Libya has not had a ‘Constitution’ since the period of the monarchy. Insofar as the situation is today, most Libyans will shun the polls altogether, because either they do not understand what is at stake or they will sell their vote to the party that has the most money – or militia strength. As in other Arab countries that have experienced the ‘spring’, in Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood, or its equivalent has the most organized network. Given the lack of official opposition channels, Islamist organizations, operating clandestinely during the Qadhafi period, represented the main opposition force. Nevertheless, unlike in the other Arab countries, in Libya, there has been political dynamism; one characterized by a greater variety of political thought. Apart from the inevitable Islamists, there are nationalists, free market proponents, Marxists and Nasser style nationalists.

There is also an emerging coalition of former members – defecting early in the revolt - of the Qadhafi regime, who have joined forces with leading figures in civil society, to establish a secular and centrist political party able to challenge the Muslim Brotherhood. This new Alliance of National Forces includes former prime ministers such as Mahmoud Jibril, who led the NTC until prime minister al-Keeb took over, and Abdel Rahman Shalgham, who served as Libya’s minister of foreign affairs in the early part of the last decade. The secular coalition includes support from 30 parties and almost as many political currents and groups and, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, it envisages a democratic state in which Islam is respected but one where Islam is not the only, or even the main, source of legislation. The new party, to be announced toward the end of February, has its evident rival in the Islamic party known as the Reform and Development party, established by the Ulema last January in Benghazi. The party is led by a member of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, Khaled al-Werchefani, who envisages a state centered on the Sharia as the sole source of legislation. In Libya, unlike in Egypt or even in Tunisia, the secular coalition is convinced that the Islamists can be defeated – that is, if the government manages to secure the territory in order for the elections to proceed. 

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