Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Qaddafi’s Long Shadow

ANTALYA – The recent coup attempt in Libya, led by General Khalifa Hiftar, has finally pierced the illusion that the country’s dysfunctional central government, whose power is limited to the capital, Tripoli, can rule effectively. But determining how to bring peace and stability to Libya’s deeply fragmented society will require more than an assessment of this government’s mistakes; it will demand careful consideration of former leader Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s failures – and his successes.

Hiftar believes that the key to solving Libya’s myriad crises lies in establishing a strong national army capable of subduing the Islamists who are destabilizing the country. Others continue to advocate for national reconciliation. But neither solution addresses what is really driving events in Libya: the legacy of Qaddafism.

Given that Qaddafi ruled Libya for more than four decades, his is a legacy that cannot simply be ignored. That means not only recognizing the vital link between his policies and today’s problems, but also ensuring that what should be preserved is not sacrificed in the rush to efface his memory.

Qaddafi used strong security services and paramilitary revolutionary committees to safeguard his rule, leaving state institutions dysfunctional and fragmented. Indeed, Qaddafi’s belief that the bureaucracy impeded the transmission of his message to the masses spurred him to dismantle ministries periodically and place privileged personal relationships above institutional hierarchies. Lacking unified leadership, Libyans reverted to tribal and regional allegiances, at the expense of a shared national identity.

This atomization of the state and society continues to impede Libya’s ability to establish effective and credible government. With the right approach, however, there is hope. The problem is that Libya’s leaders have so far done more to perpetuate fragmentation and dysfunction than to ameliorate it.

In its two years in power, the parliament, known as the General National Congress (GNC), has empowered non-state actors, with ministries bypassing the army to task militias with security operations. Hiftar recognizes the problem with this approach – indeed, it spurred him to initiate the coup; but his proposed solution is equally flawed. After all, Libya’s security forces have already proved to be more likely to facilitate than fight cronyism.

Moreover, instead of eliminating Qaddafi’s highly politicized judicial system – for example, separate courts, administered by the revolutionary committees, could try any Libyan without due process – his successors have embraced it. In 2012, a United Nations report revealed that “the vast majority” of an estimated 8,000 conflict-related detainees were being held outside of the state’s purview.

Militias have taken advantage of this system to strong-arm prosecutors into issuing arrest warrants. And militias based in the city of Zintan continue to refuse to hand over Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, to the central authorities.

Finally, the corruption that was endemic in Qaddafi’s regime endures, with ministry officials accepting bribes, for example, in exchange for contracts. For their part, the militias that overthrew Qaddafi have released prisoners in exchange for ransom payments.

If Libya is to escape its current predicament, its leaders must transform the governance structures that Qaddafi built to create a fair and credible system based on the rule of law. That requires, first and foremost, efforts to strengthen and modernize institutions, guided by Western examples.

At the same time, Libya’s leaders must recognize and build upon the few positive aspects of Qaddafism. For starters, Qaddafi managed to unify a country that, since the Greek invasion in the seventh century BC, had been divided between a coastal strip linked to the larger Mediterranean basin and an isolated hinterland that even Benito Mussolini’s brutal regime could not secure.

Qaddafi thus took the first step – intentional or not – toward creating a modern nation-state. The challenge now is to overcome the divisions that remain within the population – no easy task in a vast country with a sparsely inhabited interior populated mostly by ethnic minorities and reclusive tribes.

The most important positive component of Qaddafi’s legacy, however, was the partial emancipation of women. As a modernizer seeking to mobilize his entire population, Qaddafi promoted women’s social and economic inclusion by expanding education for girls, granting women the right to divorce, and appointing female judges and ministers. Though Qaddafi’s female guards were mocked as the trappings of his eccentricity, they actually represented his desire to liberate women.

Here, too, Qaddafi’s successors have failed. Back in 2012, for example, the head of the interim government, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, declared his intention to lift restrictions against polygamy. Later, he ordered Sarah Elmesallati, the host of the ceremony at which power was transferred to the GNC, to leave the stage halfway through her presentation because she was not wearing a headscarf.

Ordinary Libyans have also advocated keeping women on a short leash. A college-age Libyan woman’s father recently denied her the opportunity to accept a scholarship from the US State Department to attend a training workshop in Washington, DC, because he could not accompany her overseas.

Libya’s leaders – and their Western benefactors – have no choice but to consider and address the effects of Qaddafi’s legacy on public attitudes and official behavior. But they must also accept that only modernization of Libya’s state and society – the agenda that Qaddafi pursued, albeit in a perverted form – will ensure the country’s survival.

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  1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Barak Barfi is trying to explain the crisis that befalls Libya with the "legacy of Qaddafism". Indeed the news of Muammar Qaddafi's death on October 20, 2011 sparked wild celebrations across Libya, when nearly 42 years of rule and misrule had truly come to an end. He exercised total control, and was ruthless in dealing with anyone who opposed him. So it came as no surprise that many Libyans tried to efface his memory.
    Three years after his overthrow Libya remains highly unstable. It has had five governments ever since, with each struggling to exercise control. Large swathes of the country are controlled by militias, who have little understanding of democracy. They are also ideologically divided - some are Islamists, others are secessionists and yet others are liberals. Furthermore, the militias are split along ethnic and regional lines - a combustible mix. Before the revolution they were united in their hatred for Qaddafi - but nothing more and he had "managed to unify a country", albeit with an iron fist.
    The "atomization of the state and society" in Libya is a "legacy of Qaddafism". It was a system called Jumhuriyya, implying "rule by the masses", which Qaddafi illustrated in his "Green Book". Like his soulmate, Hugo Chavez, they professed their belief in democracy. Qaddafi set up popular congresses and people's committees to run all aspects of life. His idea of Libya was a Jamahiriyya, a republic "ruled by the people".
    The Green Book, whose objective was to break the shackles imposed by the vested interests dominating political systems, but it was used instead to subjugate an entire population. Libya was an ultra-hierarchical society with Qaddafi's family and cronies at the top, protected by a brutal security apparatus.
    Libya is a "a vast country with a sparsely inhabited interior populated mostly by ethnic minorities and reclusive tribes". In theory the federalisation of Libya would be a good form of governance. Yet the central government in Tripoli fears the devolution of power would encourage secessionism. Due to "tribal and regional allegiances, at the expense of a shared national identity", power-holders are unable to forge compromises and build a new state based on the rule of law.
    After nearly four decades of indoctrination, it takes time for Liyans to build the country from the scratch. Qaddafi's philosophy - homegrown socialism and capitalism, combined with aspects of Islam can't be put into practice. But the "partial emancipation of women" is a "positive component" of his legacy and should be carried on. No doubt future theorists may take a look into his rule blended Arab nationalism with a socialist welfare state and popular democracy. Nevertheless his warning against chaos before he died, still comes back to haunt the world today.

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