As Libya holds its first post-revolutionary elections, the Brother Leader's legacy is proving hard to overcome.
On the eve of the Libyan elections, it is easy to forget that just one year ago parts of the country were still in the grip of one of the most unusual dictators of the contemporary era. Yet while the giant portraits and revolutionary slogans have been torn down, the specter of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s four decades at the helm still hangs heavy over the country.
On July 7, Libyans will go to the polls to elect members of a General National Congress, which will replace the National Transitional Council that has ruled since Qaddafi’s overthrow. The congress will not only be charged with ruling the country — it will form the body that will draft Libya’s new constitution. But the poll will be held under the colonel’s long shadow: Libya’s post-Qaddafi existence has been bedeviled by regional divisions, out-of-control militias, and inexperienced political leaders. Indeed, the new congress is likely to turn out to be a bizarre mishmash of tribal chiefs, nascent political parties, militia leaders, Islamists, and former jihadists. It is difficult to imagine how such a mixed bunch will be able to reach a consensus, let alone run the country.
The self-styled Brother Leader’s legacy may have stripped Libya of its political consciousness, but in truth, the country’s politics were not particularly developed under the monarchy that preceded him. Libya had an elected parliament after independence in 1951, but political activism was confined largely to the urban elite and the monarchy, which ensured that the palace held the keys to power. In any case, the country’s experiment with democracy was cut short by Qaddafi’s 1969 coup.
After coming to power, Qaddafi sought to shake the country out of its political apathy — to rouse an entire nation to a political and cultural awakening. This mass mobilization, however, was to be harnessed completely to the evolving and peculiar vision enunciated in his Green Book. When Libyans proved reluctant to engage in his new "state of the masses" — what he termed the Jamahiriya — the colonel declared in 1971 that he would "take the people to paradise in chains."
Qaddafi made good, at least, on the latter part of that promise. His mass mobilization became synonymous with mass repression: All opportunities for political and economic advancement outside the framework of his rule were prohibited. Political parties were banned, and setting up or joining any organization was made punishable by death. Although neighboring regimes in Egypt and Tunisia were authoritarian, they at least allowed some space for opposition parties. Qaddafi’s Libya was the enemy of any genuinely independent civil society or professional organizations — the entire public arena became an outward manifestation of his bizarre political vision.
The results are clear for all to see. Post-Qaddafi Libya is a land where suspicions of the democratic process, of political parties, and of liberalism more widely still linger. Although some Libyans have rushed to form political parties, the population at large tends to view such institutions with distrust — a senior Muslim Brotherhood member told me recently that Libyans will vote for personalities over parties. As one Libyan political activist explained, "A large section of the Libyan population is still under the influence of Qaddafi’s ideological legacy and his hostility to anything related to political organization."
The most likely result from Libya’s upcoming election is political fragmentation, but Qaddafi’s long rule has engendered fears that one party might control the new political arena. As a result, the new election law rules that only 80 of the 200 seats in the National General Congress can be allocated to parties, with the rest being reserved for individual candidates. It is for this reason that, while the Islamists are likely to do well in the polls, they will not be in a position to dominate in the same way they have done next door in Tunisia and Egypt.
Even as Libya’s new rulers do everything possible to prevent the rise of another Qaddafi, the sad irony is that the colonel’s legacy makes this ever more difficult. Qaddafi’s refusal to allow any genuine political engagement means that only a few figures — generally former exiles or those with links to reformists in the former regime — have achieved national stature. As a result, aside from the Muslim Brotherhood, many of Libya’s new parties are focused primarily around one or two personalities. The National Centrist Party, a project of former acting Prime Minister Ali Tarhouni, and Islamist leader Abdelhakim Belhaj’s Al-Watan Party are examples of this phenomenon.
Furthermore, many of these parties are firmly anchored in a specific region, with some having to form coalitions in order to extend their reach to the national level. The new Libya has splintered into a collection of local power centers, all jostling to secure the interests of their immediate area — a backlash against the excessive centralization and rigid control of the Qaddafi era.
The other reason for Libya’s intense localism is that Qaddafi was the center — and when he collapsed, the center collapsed with him. Aside from the energy sector, the colonel failed to create any meaningful institutions that could outlive him. Even the army, kept deliberately weak by Qaddafi, has been unable to survive the crisis and is struggling in the face of the militias, whose legitimacy is drawn from their revolutionary achievements. Despite the complex political system Qaddafi created, the state was really little more than a facade — a smokescreen behind which Qaddafi and his coterie of close advisors retained complete control.
The intense localism that has emerged is also symptomatic of Qaddafi’s failure to stamp a sense of "Libyanness" on the country. His long rule only served to intensify, rather than reduce, regional divisions. Always wary of the east given its links to the former monarchy, the colonel clamped down heavily on the region after it became the focus of an Islamist rebellion in the mid-1990s. The east’s grievances would provide the spark that lit last year’s revolt, but Qaddafi’s punishment of the region has still left a bitter legacy. The east, it seems, has been unable to shake off a perceived sense of marginalization. In its most extreme form, this resentment has manifested itself in a movement for semiautonomy and a refusal to participate in the election.
There is also a wider sense in the east that Libya’s new rulers are continuing to treat the region as Tripoli’s poor cousin. The eastern city of Benghazi was quick to protest what it deemed to be the unfair distribution of seats in the National General Congress, claiming that it had been underrepresented. That’s not to say these regional divisions are hopeless: In what must be one of the most extraordinary developments of the election campaign, the elders of Zawiya, a city near Tripoli, offered this month to give their seats to Benghazi as a gesture of kindness.
Even as cities and localities that suffered under the former regime demand their rights, the areas from which Qaddafi drew loyalists to buttress his regime have faced harsh repression from the country’s new rulers. Cities such as Sirte and Bani Walid, which were strongly associated with Qaddafi’s rule, have been ravaged as neighboring militias have carried out purges of "Qaddafi’s men." In February, for example, the revolutionary May Brigade placed Bani Walid under siege, surrounding the city and cutting off its supplies. The brigade then reportedly looted shops, opened fire on buildings, and took away scores of young men.
These areas have also found themselves on the margins of political life in the new Libya. The election law stipulates that all candidates for the upcoming polls must meet a set of "integrity regulations" that prohibit those with even the most cursory links to the former regime from standing for office. For example, the regulation bars anyone who glorified Qaddafi in the media or in any other public arena, anyone who had a commercial partnership with Qaddafi’s sons or senior figures in his regime, any exiled opposition figure who made their peace with the Qaddafi regime, and even anyone who undertook higher studies in the Green Book. It is as if the scars of the past run so deep that the country wants to erase whole areas from the map as well as from the collective memory.
As Libya’s fractious politics make clear, the country’s efforts to move beyond Qaddafi will not be completed in a single election cycle. This should come as no surprise: The Brother Leader ravaged Libya for more than four decades, and the radical nature of the challenges facing the country today are a reflection of his disastrous rule. The colonel may be dead and gone, but his legacy will continue to haunt Libya for years to come.