Only in his death is the Libyan leader’s radical vision of a decentralized republic becoming a reality.
Muammar al-Qaddafi is dead, dragged out of a sewer like a rodent by revolutionaries he had once derided as "rats."
In so doing, Libyans have finally closed a chapter in their history that began on Sept. 1, 1969, when the late strongman took power in a military coup, proclaiming a Nasserite republic dedicated to "Freedom, Socialism, and [Arab] Unity."
In the end, for all Qaddafi’s pretensions of ideological revolution and professed commitment to ruling on behalf of a people who loved him, his regime had become an old-fashioned family dictatorship, with key security posts doled out to his sons and trusted loyalists. Now that he’s dead, Libyans have been given a double-edged sword: a chance to create a new political order from scratch.
Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where remnants of the old system still cling to power, the power bases of the former Libyan regime have been totally eroded. Don’t be fooled by the fact that many of the transitional government’s top officials filled ministerial positions under Qaddafi. The old social forces they used to serve have been entirely decimated by eight months of conflict.
Interestingly, it’s hardly the first time Libya has gone through such a radical transformation. Although it had its origins in a standard military coup d’etat, Qaddafi’s 1969 Libyan "revolution" actually represented a social upheaval in ways that Tunisian independence from France or Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 coup in Egypt did not. Going back further still, Libya’s experience with Italian settler colonialism was far more invasive and destructive than anything other Arab states experienced in the 20th century. Even the settler colonialisms in Algeria and Palestine pale in comparison to the fascist policies that successfully uprooted the preexisting civil society and divided Libyans against each other.
For all these reasons, functioning national bureaucratic and civil institutions simply do not exist in Libya. Tunisians and Egyptians have their armies, labor unions, and a strong sense of national identity that supersedes local identities. In Libya, truly national institutions and a truly national discourse have never arisen — Libyans see themselves as Tripolitans, Misratans, Benghazians, or Zintanis first. Yet, paradoxically, Libyans desperately crave national unity, as the fervent embrace of the pre-Qaddafi Senussi flag — even outside of its original home in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) — amply demonstrates. Libya’s revolution, with the exception of the regime’s tribal strongholds like Bani Walid and Sirte, was a truly nationwide grassroots movement.
This mixed legacy is evident as one walks the streets of Tripoli today. Local militias from Misrata, Zintan, and Jadu — each with its own command structures — police the streets. Even though each has formally given its allegiance to the National Transitional Council (NTC), these fighters’ first loyalty is to their local units and leadership, which arose spontaneously over the last six months and have developed a surprising degree of cohesion and emotional ties. The NTC claims that it promoted the formation of neighborhood-based militias because these trusted local and tribal networks could not be infiltrated by Qaddafi’s loyalists. In reality, the Libyan revolution was a series of local uprisings that the NTC claims to have stitched together to form a quilt.
Let’s hope the new Libyan government has been taking some sewing lessons, because what comes next — building a nation — may be more difficult than ousting one of the world’s most resilient dictators. Each region has its own local myths about its role in the revolution. Benghazians boast about how they were the first to throw off Qaddafi’s yoke. Misratans speak about how they endured greater hardships and fought with greater military cohesion than other Libyans — and now they can claim Qaddafi’s scalp. Berbers from the Nafusa mountains complain of how their ethnic identity was suppressed by Qaddafi and how their rugged mountain warrior ethos was essential to the rebel’s victory.
Each of these groups is in the process of creating mythical histories about how they had always resisted Qaddafi. In Gharyan, a photocopied single page daily "newspaper" serialized the dubious tale of how the strategic crossroads town was home in the 1980s to the first full-scale anti-Qaddafi street protests. In Benghazi, inhabitants cite a more factual claim of how many of their inhabitants waged a low-scale guerrilla war against the regime (with Islamist help) in the mid-1990s. In Tripoli, the new Tripoli Military Council links itself to the jihadi efforts to assassinate the late colonel.
What united all of these disparate localities was their distaste for Qaddafi and his centralism. Qaddafi’s face was seen everywhere throughout the country, but most Libyans were many degrees removed from people who could bring their complaints before the colonel’s family. The opposite is true for the current local power arrangements. Within Misrata’s merchant community, for instance, the average citizen is now only one degree removed from the local political and militia figures. The same holds true for Berber tribesmen in the mountains. They feel a closeness and a trust for their local leaders, both those of a traditional tribal variety and the new spontaneous military leadership that arose with the revolution.
What this seems to mean is that Libyans will embark on a bold new experiment in governance that their Egyptian and Tunisian brethren are unlikely to embrace. Under Qaddafi, the center held all economic and political power. Today’s Libyan revolutionaries want locally accountable power and institutions that govern them according to the rule of law, but not in a Western way. Rather, many of them hope to reinvigorate traditional kinship and local networks to create a social web connecting all Libyans to the state and to each other.
The great irony of the 2011 Libyan revolution is that this spontaneous formation of local committees, drawing on traditional bonds of solidarity, is what Qaddafi preached in his Green Book but never implemented. His quote "Committees Everywhere" can still be seen on billboards across the country. However, the Brother Leader never envisioned that a true people’s democracy would have come about not as a result of his hypocritical exhortations but rather in determined opposition to them. Time will tell if the Libyans can keep it.