The days of euphoria are long gone. Can Libyans reboot the revolution?
- By Chris StephenChristopher Stephen is a Tripoli correspondent for The Guardian.
TRIPOLI — This month, Libya marks the second anniversary of the liberation of Tripoli and the fall of the regime of Muammar Qaddafi with the country mired in chaos: Militia violence stalks the land, strikes threaten to cripple the oil industry, jihadist violence is on the rise in the east and economic stagnation is everywhere. The promised constitution, the cornerstone of the reform process, has failed to materialize, with politicians deadlocked both over the role of Sharia law and bitter regional rivalries. It is a picture that few in this oil-rich nation would have predicted in the heady days of revolutionary euphoria.
In August 2011, Libya’s newly liberated capital was awash with tricolor flags, emblems of the uprising. The tricolor was the original Libyan flag, adopted on independence in 1951, and replaced by Qaddafi with a plain green flag, detested by most Libyans. Qaddafi was still alive at the time, to be captured and killed two months later in Sirte, but the revolution already seemed won. In that heady atmosphere, the rebels’ interim government, the National Transitional Council, sounded a surprising note of caution. The war had been long and damaging, the wounds deep, so the council members issued a constitutional declaration, otherwise known as the Road Map, which envisaged a lengthy, 18-month transition to full democracy. Stage One was the election of a transitional parliament; Stage Two, parliament’s supervision of a new constitution. Once that was adopted, by referendum, Libya would be ready to take its place among the world’s democracies.
In the post-war euphoria, Libya seemed to have everything going for it. The country boasts the largest oil reserves in Africa, plus huge deposits of natural gas and $168 billion in foreign assets — all for a population of a mere 6 million. Surely, now that the dictator was gone, Libyans could finally enjoy their birthright. The future looked rosy.
The Road Map made a bright start when Libya held its first free elections for more than half a century, more or less on schedule, in July 2012. Turnout was high and violence low; election observers lined-up to pronounce it free and fair. The voting took place amid scenes of euphoria. Those tricolor flags once again filled the streets.
The elections also brought a surprise defeat for the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been victorious in Libya’s neighbors and fellow Arab Spring participants, Egypt and Tunisia. The Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party polled only ten percent of the votes, beaten into second place by the National Forces Alliance (NFA), an unlikely coupling of former rebels and former Qaddafi supporters, united in their determination to keep the Brotherhood out. The Brotherhood suffered from the lack of a tribal base, and because in this conservative Islamic country, there is suspicion towards any party claiming a monopoly on interpreting the faith.
On election night, NFA leader Mahmoud Jibril offered himself as a man to heal the wounds of war. As former rebel prime minister, he would guarantee that the promise of revolution would be fulfilled, and as a former economic advisor to Qaddafi, he would ensure that representatives of the old order would be protected against possible witch hunts (which, so far at least, have not materialized).
But by the time the GNC met in September to elect a prime minister, Jibril’s alliance had fractured, with liberals and civil rights groups accusing him of siding with the apparatus of the former regime. On September 12, with the country distracted by the killing of the U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi the day before, he narrowly lost the contest for prime minister to Mustafa Abushagur, a U.S.-educated former dissident more popular with the former rebels.
But Abushagur never tasted life in office. Partly he was a victim of the structure of Libya’s transitional parliament, the General National Congress (GNC). Keen to ensure all groups in a tribal society were represented, the architects of the new congress, with much prodding from a United Nations support team, contrived to keep parties weak and independents strong. Just 80 seats were allocated to the parties, with 120 to independents. It is a structure that is highly representative, but also problematic for coalition building; the NFA has 39 seats, the Justice and Construction Party 17, with the balance made up of an alphabet soup of small parties and individuals creating ever-changing alliances.
Those individuals turned against Abushagur when he presented a cabinet of technocrats to congress for approval, grumbling that parties were not represented in the cabinet. He was dumped without ever taking office. Another former dissident, Ali Zeidan, was elected in his place.
Zeidan, who worked before the revolution as a lawyer in Geneva, had similar dissident credentials to Abushagur’s. He also had a close alliance with congress’s new speaker, Mohamed al-Magariaf. Both men defected together while serving in Qaddafi’s embassy to India in 1980, Zeidan a diplomat, Magariaf as ambassador. They went on to form the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the most influential of the dissident groups. Together, they seemed to be a team ready to do the job of guiding Libya through Stage Two of the Road Map, the making of a constitution.
Well-built and studious, Zeidan followed Abushagur’s example in offering to congress a cabinet of technocrats, daring congress to reject a second prime minister.
Zeidan’s strategy worked, but it was mid-November before the last of his cabinet took office, after a grueling series of investigations by a commission appointed to weed out former Qaddafi officials from positions of power. His problem — Libya’s problem — is that anyone who is anyone worked in some capacity for the old regime.
The prime minister’s problems began once he entered office. Foreign diplomats urged him to avoid the mistake the Americans made in Iraq, where de-Baathification created a large and powerful force outside government. Instead, Zeidan co-opted former members of the Qaddafi regime, keeping most bureaucrats in their places. The price of this policy was to sow distrust among the rebels.
Libya’s revolution was one of the periphery against the center. It was led by the militias of Benghazi, Misrata, and Zintan, and ended not with Tripoli rising up, but with the city being captured by those militias, hugely aided by NATO bombings. Those militias and the communities that spawned them, continue to resist attempts to create a national army and police.
"It is important to understand a basic problem," wrote Umar Khan in the English-language Libya Herald newspaper. "The government blames the militias for still clinging to their weapons whilst the militias accuse Congress and the government of allowing former regime figures to get back into power."
This mutual suspicion complicated Zeidan’s efforts to tackle Libya’s two problems: Militia violence and a moribund economy.
Libya’s violence has different dynamics in each of its two main provinces. In western Tripolitania, where most people live, the guns never properly fell silent. The divisions of war continued on into the time of peace, with score settling between those militias and tribes who backed the rebellion, and those who opposed it. Last November the former rebels of Misrata, the most powerful army in Libya, launched a full-scale offensive, backed by the government, to smash former-Qaddafi elements clustered in the desert town of Bani Walid. Elsewhere in the province, it is smuggling rather than politics that causes the violence. Militia gangs battle for the trade in petrol and weapons heading out of the country and immigrants and drugs heading into it.
Cyrenaica, in the east, has violence from a different source, in the shape of Islamist militias. Benghazi, its capital, was the cradle of the revolution, with the whole province joining the rebels within 100 hours. Among the rebels that swept to power two years ago were Islamists who had been suppressed by Qaddafi. They played an important part in the revolutionary war, and since then have battled government forces intermittently to keep their own vision of an Islamic state alive. Islamists don’t merely an Islamic state — Libya is already almost 100 percent Sunni Muslim — but one where imams, rather than a secular parliament, hold sway. For many of them, those best qualified to steer the country along the right path are the most learned — the Islamic scholars and imams. Relying on the less schooled population to choose their leaders through elections seems to some Islamists rather like the sheep leading the shepherd.
The most obvious weapon to get the militias off the streets was to offer them jobs, but Zeidan faced a herculean task in sorting out the chaos left by Qaddafi.
Qaddafi came to power in a coup in 1969, displacing King Idris — who oversaw Libya’s independence, and came to see Libya almost as his own personal fiefdom. Libyans will often tell you that the dictator commanded his sons, "What is below the ground (oil and gas) is mine, what is above it is yours." True, or apocryphal, that dictum was the reality for more than four decades. While Qaddafi kept control of the oil and gas earnings, his seven sons were given carte blanche to carve out their own business empires. One son had a monopoly on mobile phones, a second on cement production, while a third, Hannibal, commissioned a massive 4,000-bed super liner that was never completed. Each of them collected a group of like-minded businessmen, thugs, and party hacks who enriched themselves in the process. Nowhere in this process was there room for the normal structures of commerce, law, regulation, or the free market.
An insight into the bizarre nature of Qaddafi’s Libya came with the WikiLeaks publication of U.S. embassy cables detailing the tussle for the Tripoli franchise of British clothing store Marks and Spencer. In 2008 the franchise was bought by Husni Bey, one of Libya’s most prominent tycoons. The cable recorded Bey’s rivals complaining to Qaddafi that the store had "Zionist" ownership back in Britain, and should be shut down. Qaddafi’s figurehead Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi then ordered it closed, according to the cable, unless Bey agreed that Mahmoudi’s allies got a slice of the business. In the end, it stayed open after British diplomats assured the Libyan government that there was no "Zionist" ownership of the store.
All of this left the economy on its knees. Few government ministries have reception desks or press offices. Obtaining information from, for instance, the Justice Ministry, requires turning up in person at the gate and hoping a guard has the phone number for a minister’s aide. Libya has no railway, no public bus service, no postal system, and weak or non-existent commercial law.
An added complication for Zeidan is that he has inherited a bureaucracy with neither the skills nor the inclination to embrace modernization. Corruption under Qaddafi was the norm. Trying to introduce a new set of values was an uphill battle. Zeidan, who was elected as an independent, doesn’t have a core constituency to count on other than the support of three National Front seats.
As a new year dawned, the twin ills of violence and stagnation became intertwined. The violence, in particular the killing of Ambassador Stevens, deterred foreign investors with the skills and expertise Libya desperately needed. Stagnation is everywhere. Libya faces an acute housing shortage, but work abandoned in the revolution has yet to restart on vast apartment projects in the suburbs of Benghazi and Tripoli. With no agreement on where to dump the capital’s rubbish, it has gathered in a tide across the great lawns of Qaddafi’s sprawling Bab al-Azaziya compound in the city centre.
The logjam in payments for reconstruction, salaries, and pensions saw waves of protests outside congress, which sits in a conference centre adjacent to Tripoli’s luxurious Rixos hotel. (Qaddafi demolished the capital’s parliament building years before.)
Inside congress, lawmakers had gotten bogged-down over how to structure a 60-member-strong commission that was to write the constitution. The Road Map called for the commission to design a constitution to be approved by referendum, but there was no consensus on two key issues: (1) how to reconcile Islamists and liberals regarding the place of Sharia law and rights for individuals, and (2) how much autonomy to give the regions.
It was the issue of the regions which doomed the Road Map. While all Libyans consider themselves patriots, the gulf between the three provinces, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan is wide. Tripolitania has two thirds of the population, but this fuels resentment in the other two provinces that they are being neglected. When it came to designing a constitution, members of Fezzan and Cyrenaica demanded the constitutional commission be split 20-20-20. Tripolitanians in turn complained this left them under-represented.
The three provinces were created by the Ottoman Empire and united as a single entity only in 1934, by their Italian occupiers. Indeed, the current name of the country comes from the Italians, taken from an ancient Greek name for North Africa. It doesn’t help that the populations in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania are widely separated by hundreds of miles of desert with only a single road linking them.
The mutual suspicion that divides the regions is overlaid by distrust breaking along tribal lines. Libya’s tribes are not political entities, in the sense that they have no overarching leaders, but they operate as an extended family, with obligations to help fellow members and a consequent distrust of other tribes. It is the instinct that might see a Kansan in New York give a job to a fellow Kansan, multiplied a hundred-fold.
In February, in the face of daily protests and eviction from its chamber by wounded former-rebels claiming they had not been given benefits, Congress threw in the towel on the Road Map, announcing that the constitutional commission would be elected directly.
When those elections will happen remains unclear, because the same deadlock over regional representation that stalled Congress threatens to torpedo efforts to agree on how the new commission is to be elected.
In late March, the issue was eclipsed by a new crisis. Revolutionaries demanded that the government be purged of former-Qaddafi officials. Congress had by now evolved into something similar to the parliaments of Egypt and Tunisia, with the Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party facing off against former Qaddafi elements of the NFA, leaving liberals sandwiched uneasily in the middle. The comparison is not exact: The NFA is also anchored in Cyrenaica, who are proud rebels, while distrust of the NFA has seen many in Misrata, besieged in the revolution and the most pro-business city in Libya, align with the Brotherhood.
Seeking to force the issue, pro-purge rebel militias blockaded the prime minister’s office, the foreign and justice ministries and stormed parliament. Congress got the message, and in May passed the Political Isolation law, with some members claiming they were intimidated into doing so. The law is draconian, banning all former-management-level Qaddafi officials from politics, government and the security forces for ten years. Magariaf was the first to fall on his sword. Despite a long career as a dissident, his former ambassador job disqualified him from politics, so he resigned.
Supporters of the law argue that the revolution is incomplete if Libya is left in the hands of the people who ran it under Qaddafi. Critics say the Brotherhood, having failed at the ballot box, wants to use the law to move its supporters into newly vacant positions of power.
Before the purge law could be enacted, events took a new twist when Egypt’s army overthrew its Muslim Brotherhood government. In Libya, anti-Brotherhood forces sensed a change in the balance of power. Crowds stormed and burned Brotherhood offices, and for good measure smashed the NFA’s Tripoli headquarters too, blaming both parties for Libya’s chaos. Rivalries between security forces and Islamists exploded into open war, and in the chaos there was a new bout of score settling among rival militias. Brotherhood politicians, sensing the national mood, backed-off on demands for the Isolation Law to be enacted. As bombings and assassinations mounted, Zeidan announced a pared-down "emergency cabinet," declaring Libya was in a "state of crisis."
Almost unnoticed, Congress formally agreed an outline plan for elections for a constitutional commission. But it left the details of the election — and the blame should the provinces rebel against it — to a group of unhappy officials.
The picture for Libya is not universally bleak. On February 17, the country saw unprecedented celebrations to mark the second anniversary of the start of the revolution. Tens of thousands of milling crowds filled the streets across the land, waving their tricolors. It’s a unique paradox of post-revolutionary Libya; division at the top is countered by a broad consensus among the population that a united, democratic Libya is the way forward.