The Middle East Channel
The Libyan Rorschach
Using a bright blue pen, the young man behind the cash register in the kebab shop on the outskirts of Tripoli began to methodically scratch out the face of Muammar al-Qaddafi from his stack of one-dinar notes. About halfway through the pile, he greeted a bill that had already been defaced with a happy nod ...
Using a bright blue pen, the young man behind the cash register in the kebab shop on the outskirts of Tripoli began to methodically scratch out the face of Muammar al-Qaddafi from his stack of one-dinar notes. About halfway through the pile, he greeted a bill that had already been defaced with a happy nod and smile of satisfaction. After exhausting the one-dinar notes he turned to the 20s, and began surgically excising a miniature Brother Leader from a summit group photo.
Prior to February 17, 2011 everything in Qaddafi’s Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya was physically painted a shade of light green to symbolize the political system of stateless government laid out in the Brother Leader’s Green Book. (The term jamahiriya was coined by Qaddafi and is usually loosely translated as “state of the masses” or “peopledom.”) Today, the country is awash in the red, green and black tricolor scheme of the pre-Qaddafi era Libyan flag, which has been adopted by the revolutionaries as their standard. In Tripoli, where several neighborhoods had loyalist rather than revolutionary reputations, these coats of fresh paint and the common practice of doctoring car license plates to cover the word jamahiriya might raise an eyebrow. But what of the kebab seller’s currency handiwork, which appeared to be a private act of conviction?
From the outside, the picture in Libya looks unremittingly bleak. A near daily chronicle of rampaging militias, conflict and chaos headlines coverage by the wire services. But perhaps a casualty of the closure of foreign bureaus and the lesser interest that exists when no U.S. boots are on the ground, some perspective is lacking from the often barebones news reports.
Eight months after the brutal death of Qaddafi marked the end of the civil conflict that followed Libya’s popular uprising, support for the regime change appears to have if anything grown. Even if some of this backing falls into the “everyone loves a winner” category, a full 97 percent of Libyans surveyed by Oxford Research International in January thought the revolution was absolutely or somewhat right.
But is the mere fact of the revolution being broadly popular enough to make it right? Is it a sufficient platform to produce a secure and brighter future for Libya?
In spite of this deep and abiding popularity of its popular uprising, Libya finds itself in the midst of a national quarrel over its revolutionary narrative and new founding myth.
In Benghazi, the city where the uprising against Qaddafi began, the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Libyan revolution is wet and windy. In the downtown of the former rebel capital and the country’s second city, the large, almost all male crowd is celebrating enthusiastically by dancing to a catchy ballad entitled “O Benghazi.” During breaks in the music they chant “Benghazi is the mother” and stomp “whether you like it or not, Benghazi was the spark” as if trying to win an argument. But whom are they trying to convince of Benghazi’s status as the Libyan revolution’s primus inter pares?
Benghazi claims precedence as the cradle of the revolution, and risked all by being the first to rise. Moving westward, the strategic port city of Misrata saw the most intense urban combat and damage. Its ability to hold out against a siege commanded by Qaddafi’s seventh son Khamis perhaps kept the country from being partitioned into east and west. Meanwhile, the flyspeck town of Zintan along the border with Tunisia became the revolution’s military hub in western Libya. It was from this dusty mountain redoubt that fighters swept into Tripoli in September 2011 to deliver a knockout blow to the regime.
These assertions of revolutionary credentials are about more than just honor and glory. It is also about who holds the greatest lien on its success. Convinced that not enough has changed in Libya since they launched the revolution, Benghazi has recently birthed a proto-federalism movement advocating for its own autonomous region. Misrata meanwhile holds the ministry of interior. It is sometimes characterized by its critics as a virtual city-state and its brigades police large swathes of the center of the country. Zintan’s revolutionary prize was the ministry of defense. Its fighters are deployed around the country at key infrastructure sites such as oil fields in the south and even famously controlled Tripoli’s lucrative international airport for several months.
During a visit to Libya’s western mountains in early spring, a young Zintani activist put a pointed (if mistaken) question to me that seems to capture the new order’s operating assumption: “Doesn’t the American constitution give the states that supported your revolution more rights?”
This lack of state institutions, and above all, a national identity, is perhaps the most lasting and pernicious legacy of the Qaddafi jamahiriya. In fact, Qaddafi’s spasmodic state of perpetual change was a deliberate construction. His populace was kept perpetually off kilter by the near constant reshuffling of cabinets, provincial boundaries and systems of administration. Street names, place names, universities, and even the names of the months were always in flux, creating an almost physical feeling of disorientation. This pious Muslim country even started fasting for the holy month of Ramadan on a different day from the rest of the Middle East.
There was a method to this madness. Throughout all the chaos, the only fixed point for the Libyan people to take a bearing from was the unchanging axis of Qaddafi himself. And on a certain level this anti-system made sense. Qaddafi hailed from the remote desert town of Sirte in central Libya. He had no connection to the country’s western economic elites in Tripoli or the prominent families in the east that made up the court of the Libyan monarchy that he overthrew. His own tribe, the Qadadfa, is small and holds little sway. Since Qaddafi had no natural allies among the Libya’s elite networks, he set out to unmake and unmoor them.
A country simply cannot emerge from over four decades of scrambling in this Green blender without shellshock. Following the deliberate subversion of state institutions, Libyans retreated into identities and safety nets based on religion, kin, and geography. Confidence in government disappeared. Broader social trust bottomed out. Polls now remarkably find that fewer than one in five Libyans believe that other people can be trusted. Qaddafi bequeathed Libya, as one of the architects of landmark elections scheduled for later this month describes it, “a state of ashes.”
This misshapen inheritance provides some perspective on Libya’s current troubles. In keeping with the overall fragmentation of its society, neither the rivalries among the new powers that be nor the pockets of fighting that have sprung up around Libya are surprising. What is noteworthy that these disputes are locally driven rather than motivated by challenges to the new state or its territorial integrity. Because Qaddafi’s erratic rule inspired feelings of shame and embarrassment rather than any sense of national belonging, the ideological basis for an armed counterrevolutionary movement is simply not present.
Libya’s ongoing skirmishes are thus a distinct phenomenon from the poisonous nationwide insurgencies that engulfed Iraq and Afghanistan during the last decade. Instead of clearing areas of insurgents and building islands of stability, the new Libyan authorities face the less daunting task of quarantining largely unconnected outbreaks of violence. Even where formerly pro-regime towns or tribes have become part of the clashes, it has generally been with the aim of asserting a position in the new order rather than dreaming of overthrowing it.
Consider Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown and final refuge in last year’s fighting. Situated in the middle of central Libya’s vast desert basin, Sirte was historically the midway point of the thousand-mile plus journey between Tripoli and Benghazi. Over the past few decades it has benefited from lavish largesse and now incongruously boasts an international airport and a mammoth convention center that once played host to all of Africa and the Arab World’s leaders. The town even has academic centers devoted to the study of Qaddafi’s Green book. If one were looking for tendrils of opposition you would expect to find them here.
Sirtawis instead seem resigned to the reality that there is no going back to the way things were and generally want to be left alone. Their political grievances include resentment that Misrati transplants dominate Sirte’s new local government and complaints that people from the town go missing at the checkpoints of Misrati fighters that now ring Sirte. But this appears to be as far as their political horizon extends. Sirtawis seem largely apathetic toward the country’s new leaders and talk little of national politics. Instead they are pushing to have an elected local town council in order to lessen Misrati influence in the city. A local intellectual summed up their very everyday centered political vision to me as: Sirte “does not want to see Misrata to become the policeman of Libya.”
Sirte may be quiet, but it sometimes feels as if the rest of Libya is submerged in fights among rival tribes or between neighboring towns on opposing sides of the revolution. The critical larger picture though is that so far this violence remains intermittent and locally driven and contained. The fighting has a complex set of triggers, but is mainly stimulated by local grievances. Disputes over representation in local government, contested property claims, quarrels for control of smuggling revenue and even car jackings gone wrong speak to Libya’s social unraveling under Qaddafi. They collectively contribute to a troubling sense of chaos in the country that will only be solved through painstaking institution building.
But they are still less menacing than an ideologically organized insurgency. What data exists backs this notion that Libya’s violence is different from an armed insurrection bent on terrorizing the citizenry to depriving the governing authorities of legitimacy. While there is no comprehensive record, a rough guess based on news reports suggest that about 300 – 400 people have been killed in fighting since the death of Qadaffi last October. Most of the victims are part of Libya’s legions of armed brigades rather than civilians. Mercifully the country has not been subject to car bombs or grisly suicide attacks. In contrast, at the nadir of Iraq’s civil conflict, over 100 civilians were being killed by insurgents on a daily basis.
In Libya’s urban centers of Tripoli and Benghazi, the skirmishes play out almost as a ritualized form of combat. The script typically involves young men firing bursts of increasingly heavier caliber weapons into the air and setting off homemade explosives usually used in dynamite fishing. Like Native Americans counting coup, the purpose seems to be winning prestige or claim to a street rather than hurting your opposite number, which would initiate a chain reaction of tribal and family revenge.
The most vivid example of this phenomenon that I witnessed was in Benghazi in late March. The central actor in the drama was a memorably named revolutionary militia called Purifying the Tyrant’s Rats Brigade that attempted to “liberate” 300 cars from a farm outside of the city. Under post-revolutionary Libya’s permissive understanding of freedom, a rumor that a prominent former Qaddafi official owned the farm made the brand new cars the property of the “Libyan people.” The farm’s actual owner, an import export-businessman, understandably had different ideas.
A rolling car chase around town ensued between the Rat Purifiers and other revolutionary brigades that now make up Benghazi police. The show lasted from late afternoon until the early morning hours and was punctuated by frequent and escalating salvos of shooting, including the use of heavy caliber anti-aircraft guns. The net result of all this sturm und drang was exactly two persons injured…by stab wounds. Benghazi’s revolutionaries either have preposterous aim or were not actually trying to hit each other.
Most of the grave violence that has occurred in Libya has instead been in its far-off, sparsely populated and chronically overlooked desert south, a region known since Ottoman times as Fezzan. Over the past century, none of the Libya’s rulers, from Libya’s fascist-era colonialists through Qaddafi, have been able to fully control Libya’s slice of the Sahara. Today an engrained vacuum of state authority strikes the visitor to this marginalized region. Post-revolution there is a near free flow of people and weapons across southern Libya’s now un-policed borders and it is unwise to travel without local escorts.
On my own late March trip to southwest Libya to attend a gathering of the nomadic Tuareg people, the roads were filled with excited and heavily armed tribe members. Sometimes known as the shy people, the Tuareg presented a dramatic picture garbed in their traditional flowing robes topped by colorful and intricate headgear that covers their entire faces except for the eyes. The convoy that I joined up with somewhat disconcertingly kept exchanging greetings of loud bursts of celebratory gunfire with checkpoint guards as we sped on our way through the desert.
In late 2011, following the success of the revolution, Libya’s new rulers inherited the challenges posed by Fezzan. The biggest post-revolutionary toll of violence in the entire country has been in the southeastern town of Kufra. Here a series of battles between the rival tribes of the Arab Zway and black African desert farmers called the Tebou have left over a 150 dead. Separate clashes between the Tebou and another Arab tribe in the Fezzanian capital of Sabha caused 50 more to lose their lives in late March. Living conditions in the neighborhood of Tayuri where much of the latter fighting occurred are basic; many residents lack citizenship papers and live only in flimsy tin shacks. Having been hosted in Tayuri for the night on my trip to the south, reports in the Libyan media of the firing of mortars into this rickety locality are hard to absorb.
Further southwest, along the old trans-Sahara caravan route, the ancient town of Ghadames is known as “the pearl of the desert” and was named a world heritage site by the United Nations. Today multiple skirmishes between the Tuareg and sedentary town residents over control of the local governing council have sadly damaged one of the Sahara’s oldest medinas. There have also been ramifications beyond Libya’s borders. In neighboring Mali, surplus Libyan weapons have fueled the declaration of a breakaway Tuareg region called Azawad and indirectly contributed to a coup by Malian Army officers frustrated with their democratically elected government’s incompetent handling of the Tuareg rebellion.
It is tempting to lay responsibility for this bedlam at the feet of the Libyan revolution. In Kufra, the town that has been the locus of post-revolutionary Libya’s most deadly violence, one side backed the revolution from the start (the Tebou) while the other supported Qaddafi (the Zway). But the animosity between these tribes predates the revolution. In 2009, Qaddafi even deployed helicopter gunships to Kufra in a show of force to end fighting between these same two communities. Likewise in recent decades the Brother Leader armed the Tuareg as an internal proxy force and sponsored Tuareg insurgencies in neighboring countries. It’s just that few were paying attention to what was happening in these mostly forgotten corners of the Sahara then.
For all the reported (and very often real) chaos in Libya, security along the country’s more developed Mediterranean coast that is home to some nine-tenths of its population is actually surprisingly good. Residents in Tripoli and Benghazi remark that on the streets there are far more guns, far less police, ubiquitous protests, and anarchic traffic. But despite all this, most agree that day-to-day security remains much the same and that violence is sporadic rather than targeted.
In the absence of state security forces, social relations and interknit tribal networks provide a precarious balance of power where everybody watches everyone else. In many neighborhoods, brigades of revolutionary fighters are appreciated as the only security providers on offer. Some, like the Purifiers of the Tyrant’s Rats have been bad actors. Others have run unofficial detention centers where alleged mercenaries and Qaddafi loyalists are subject to abuse. But many brigades have also positively contributed to the patchwork system of stability by brokering and enforcing local ceasefires.
The greatest votes of confidence in the security situation may be the actions of Libyans themselves. New expensive shop displays and shiny plate glass windows in restaurants are seen not just in the relatively unscathed cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, but also in Misrata and Sirte, where the scars of extended urban warfare are fresh. These investments indicate little fear of a return to full-scale combat. Most striking though were the celebrations of the revolution’s one-year anniversary. In Tripoli, several hundred thousand packed into Martyr’s Square adjacent to the capital city’s old town to release thousands of faerie-like colored floating lanterns in commemoration of the struggle. The Haqqani network in Afghanistan or al Qaeda in Iraq would have seized upon such a large gathering to attempt a spectacular mass casualty attack. In New York’s Times Square, the security would have been smothering. In Tripoli, on that night, there were only perfunctory safety measures. And in a country where both explosives and knowledge of how to use them are widespread, the celebration went off without a tremor of trouble.
Social networks and a balance of arms may be just enough to maintain an unorthodox version of stability in much of Libya. A sense of justice however has proved more elusive.
Demands for political participation, basic freedoms and transparency were at the heart of the Libyan revolution, but there is also an intense desire to see an accounting for the 42 years of Qaddafi’s capricious rule. In this environment the lack of a functioning court system is a severe problem after a conflict in which there were not just winners and losers, but victors and vanquished. It may even be a more insidious threat to Libya’s future than the more attention grabbing proliferation of weapons.
In Libya’s rough and tumble environment, disarmament feels far off. Kalashnikovs provide the only empowerment that young and previously idle revolutionary fighters have ever known. It makes little sense to them to give this up, especially when government always has been and remains something to be distrusted. In a social environment in which advancement and wealth is about who you know, there is deep suspicion that reconciliation is code for giving well-connected Qaddafi officials a free pass to appropriate the revolution. On the street, these perceived opportunists who only abandoned the regime in its final hours even have a name. They are denigrated as the algae, known as such because they are green, parasitic, and grow in swamps.
A common sentiment expressed by prominent revolutionary activist who is now a senior human rights official in Libya’s interim government is that there was no civil war in Libya. There was a revolution in which some fought for freedom and others supported a tyrant. Having backed the wrong side, the losers need to bend to the will of the winners. With few police, prosecutors, or judges working, this line of thinking has led the new powers that be to take matters into their own hands.
The darkest facet of the Libyan revolution is an actual physical place.
Motoring east from Misrata along the country’s main transport artery, it is unnerving to pass through a town of 30,000 that has been deported of its people and denuded of all moveable items of value. Even the highway signs speak to the erasure of Tawergha, with the name of the town either spray painted over or shot out using automatic weapons.
Earth embankments have been constructed on the turn-offs to Tawergha to discourage both returnees and curious passers-by. But it is possible to get around them to view this relic of a town. Most buildings in Tawergha have been burned from the inside to make them uninhabitable and are empty of all material things. The streets are similarly apocalyptic, with scattered handfuls of torched cars and telephone and electricity poles stripped of their wires. There is extensive graffiti scrawled on the walls of the structures still standing, much of it virulently racist or renaming the town misrata jadeeda (“New Misrata”).
Tawergha had a difficult history even prior to the revolution. Originally inhabited by black African cast-offs from the 19th century slave trade, Tawerghis were kept as owned slaves in Misrata until Libyan King Idris al-Sannoussi reportedlyput a stop to the practice in the 1960s. During recent times, Misratis describe Tawergha as dependent upon Misrata for everything from education to livelihoods. Qaddafi reportedly sought to capitalize on this indentured form of symbiosis by promising Tawerghi leaders land in Misrata if they would help to put down the uprising there.
Whether by force or acquiescence, Tawergha became one of the key staging points for Qaddafi troops in the unsuccessful siege of Misrata upon which the fate of the Libyan revolution turned. It is now a social fact in Misrata that Tawerghis did not stop at fighting with Qaddafi, or even looting and killing in Misrata’s outlying neighborhoods. In Libya’s conservative society, Misratis accuse Tawerghi fighters of the unforgiveable: committing widespread rape. In Misrata’s eyes this is a crime so unspeakable that it is no longer possible for the two communities to live side by side. Man, woman, and child alike, Tawergha is treated as collectively guilty of war crimes.
As a Misrati military commander told a western newspaper after breaking the siege of his city and preparing to oust Qaddafi troops from Tawhergha, residents of the latter should prepare to flee since “Tawergha no longer exists, only Misrata.”
Tawergha is an extreme case, but illustrative of the Hobbesian state of nature that develops without the mainstay of courts to enforce laws. Utterly subordinated, Tawerghis lack the political or military recourse to challenge the brutal conditions imposed upon them.
Other loyalist towns or tribes in Libya possess greater military assets and the possibility of political alliances. They have some wherewithal to push back when their now ascendant pro-February 17th neighbors overstep in using the front of revolutionary credentials to settle old feuds or infringe on their municipal rights. In most of these cases, mass deportations have been avoided. But instead the armed clashes that litter the news headlines on Libya have bloomed.
In Misrata, respected tribal elders and religious sheikhs who have tried to promote reconciliation with Tawergha have been turned away. This is in large part because Misratis view themselves as victims of war crimes in need of justice. They do not want reconciliation plans but activation of mechanisms for the prosecution and punishment of alleged Tawerghi malfeasance. Misrata’s community leaders claim that only once trials start will it become possible to begin talking about reconciliation. Likewise, in the host of other more symmetrical local conflicts around Libya, warring parties claim that there must be a clear reckoning for their opponents’ crimes in order to halt the cycle of violence and revenge.
To be sure, the tighter control of weapons and armed groups is vital to the future of Libya. But it also may not yet be realistic in a highly unsettled landscape. In the meantime, reconciliation is indeed about more than just prosecutions. But in Libya, getting the police and judicial machinery running is not only about safeguarding the most vulnerable. It might also be the precursor to the powerful entertaining thoughts of reconciliation.
In the chaotic environment of the new Libya it is quite an assertion to make, but politics might just be the most opaque and confused arena. Qaddafi’s philosophy on government rejected the idea of a nation state in favor of purported direct rule by the people. His Green Book described parliaments as the “contemporary model of dictatorship” that rob the public of their right to govern themselves. Political parties also did not come in for an easy time. The Brother Leader described them as the “abortion of democracy” and instruments to divide the community by ensuring “the rule of the part over the whole.”
Other Arab autocrats may have subverted elections and ignored their constitutions, but in most places there was at least experience with the motions of voting and shells of legislatures. Libya toiled in another universe altogether, one in which an array of local popular councils, communes, and revolutionary committees “governed.” In practice, membership in these bodies was mandatory and their primary purpose to demonstrate loyalty to the person of the Brother Leader and Revolutionary Guide.
As Libya’s first plebiscite in 42 years approaches the popular mood is a mix of fulfillment, confusion, and even a little apprehension. Ordinary people are excited to vote as the culmination of the revolution and have flocked in the millions to register. They feel a genuine burden to select the right people for building a modern state but are not sure how to cast their ballot or what they are voting for (a constitutional assembly rather than president). Participants at workshops on elections that my former organization held across Libya repeat straightforward but profound questions that are difficult to answer: What is the purpose of political parties? How do I decide who to vote for? And, most earnestly, how can I be sure they will do a good job once elected? If only we knew.
The most likely outcome from the historic polls is a fragmented polity that mirrors the state of Libyan society. A sense of Libyan nationalism and even geographic regional identities do exist. This is especially the case in the traditional and socially cohesive east of the country. But the most salient level of political and military organization in Libya remains its sea of tribes, towns, and even city neighborhoods. The map of the country’s electoral districts reflects this hodgepodge and was seemingly drawn by the transitional authorities to ensure that these local powerbrokers have seats to represent their specific interests. Political parties meanwhile remain in their infancy, meaning that many will vote for candidates they personally know or are socially connected to rather than based on ideology or political conviction.
Regardless of the electoral outcome, one guarantee is that Islam will be an integral part of Libya’s social and political path. It is a deeply devout country where Islam is almost universally seen to play a positive and unifying role among other more centrifugal forces. Libyans describe themselves as conservative when it comes to their beliefs, but are steadfastly opposed to extremism. In Libya’s eastern Green Mountains, an elderly religious sheikh who has twice completed the hadj pilgrimage to Mecca summed this up by stating his hope that “you and the world understand that Libyans are not obsessed with anything, including religion.”
There is also a clear distinction in Libyans’ minds between personal observance, modesty and piety on the one hand and political Islam on the other. As one young, educated, English-speaking medical student in Benghazi explained, “Islam is part of our nature and society, it is a pure thing built into our souls and habits.” He was adamant that Libyans did not need anyone, least of all a political party or the government, to tell them how to be proper Muslims.
These two sentiments help to explain a paradox of Libya’s elections: no one wants to be identified as a secularist. But no one wants to be identified as an Islamist either.
Secularism is understood in the Libyan context as being against religion, a political death sentence when Libyans expect Islam to naturally play a role in guiding public and political life. Islam is seen as wholesome and perhaps the only feature of society that was impermeable to corruption under Qaddafi’s rule. Many think its social principles are now one of the few safety pins holding the country together during its fragile transition. The organizational head of the Libya’s largest coalition of liberal parties went as far as to tell me that you would have to be majnoon (Crazy!) to present a secular platform in Libya. He drolly compared it to walking into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and shouting that the Vatican should be governed secularly.
At the same time, Libyans sometimes seem to have a stereotypical Middle American’s understanding of Islamist movements. They often bracket the Islamists’ leading political force, the Muslim Brotherhood, with militant extremists. I have had several absurd feeling conversations arguing with Libyans that, no, actually the Brotherhood is not the same thing as al Qaeda. And, no, its moderate Tunisian offshoot Ennahda, which won the elections there, is not trying to recreate Taliban rule on the Mediterranean.
Perhaps taken aback by this reception, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood has endeavored to present itself as a national party with an Islamic reference rather than as Islamist first. Its electoral vehicle, the Justice and Building Party, is well organized and will likely win a significant share of the upcoming vote, but faces problems even beyond the extremist label.
In a society in which an Islamic reference for the society already exists to a significant degree, this has little to do with the Brothers’ substantive positions. Instead, having been banished into exile during the Qaddafi years, there are widespread suspicions about whether the secretive organization will put Libya or the broader international Brotherhood movement and especially Egyptian interests first in its decision-making. These concerns and even conspiracies are based on Libya’s small and oil-rich constitution in comparison to neighboring Egypt being large but poor. Given Egypt’s status as the birthplace and headquarters of the Brotherhood, some Libyans suspect that their own branch of the movement may just be a Trojan horse to funnel lucrative contracts and jobs to Cairo.
Thus at the inauguration ceremony of the Libyan Brotherhood’s Justice and Building party at a fancy Tripoli hotel ballroom in late May, only passing reference was made to the movement’s belief that the state should have an Islamic identity. The word sharia was not even mentioned and there was likewise no explicit call for regional Islamic solidarity. Party leaders’ speeches instead were almost entirely devoted to how the party prioritized the project of activating the “prestige” of the state and building the “beloved Libyan homeland.”
The net result is little difference between the public positions of both Islamist and liberal parties, with a shared consensus on Libyan nationalism and a moderate Islamic state far from extremism. Defining what moderate Islam exactly means is a thornier question and will surely be a subject of debate when it comes time to write Libya’s constitution. But at present, it is fascinating to observe the unusual juxtaposition of clashing political labels with the seemingly minimal divergences in the personal beliefs of Libyan liberals and Islamists.
As an official in a formerly exiled opposition party that now has a mild Islamist label described it, “We’re all the same. Libya is an Islamic country full stop. We do not have something like Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 Muslims.”
Libya is astonishingly variegated for such a small and relatively homogenous country. Concisely and cogently summarizing the state of its revolutionary transition is like grasping at smoke. Do you focus on the guns and unaccountable militias, absence of courts and other bedrock institutions, and overall dearth of social trust? Or do you instead give weight to the intense popular underpinning for the revolution, seeming faculty to contain violence despite weak governance, and a brand of politics that is not polarized by either ideology or identity? Even Libyans seem to believe that their transition is too complicated to be cast as moving along the right or wrong path and that reality lies somewhere in between.
It is possible, though, to make a make two early suppositions. The first is that the picture in Libya is brighter than the conventional exposition of a country teetering on the edge of the abyss. After years spent toiling in seemingly intractable war zones, it has been refreshing to work in a place where positive outcomes remain attainable. The second is that many of the serious problems that Libya faces are not of the revolution’s making. They rather appear rooted in the country’s unique immediate past of Qaddafi’s grandiose ambitions and governance of Libya as the antithesis to the modern nation state.
The spate of local violence and fragmented landscape of the new Libya certainly cannot be ignored. Likewise the plight of Tawergha and other now relegated loyalist communities should not fade from the attention of those international powers that back the new Libya. (As a contribution to political reconciliation, international friends of Libya should consider prioritizing technical support to help restart the country’s justice system.) Using a wider-angle lens, the direct impact of the Libya revolution’s fallout on its immediate neighbors and Mali in particular need also be weighed.
However, the fragmentation of Libyan into town and tribe long preceded last year’s uprising. And in Fezzan, the current setting of Libya’s worst post-revolutionary fighting has a troubled and violently restive history. And, Qaddafi was not exactly a force for stability in his own backyard. To cite only two examples, in an attempt to spread the model of his jamahiriya, Qaddafi launched a pointless war with Chad in the 1980s that spilled into Darfur and helped ignite a genocidal conflict. Meanwhile his notorious World Revolutionary Center near Benghazi provided support and training to such luminaries as ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor, recently convicted by the International Criminal Court of some of the “most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.”
Any evaluation of the messy aftermath of Libya’s revolution must therefore be made against the baseline of the uninviting features of Qaddafi’s jamahiriya. It is also worthwhile to consider what the alternative to the clear triumph of the revolutionary opposition over Qaddafi might have looked like. Without the NATO intervention that helped bring a decisive end to last year’s conflict, there is little reason to believe that Libya would have escaped becoming enmeshed in a Syria-like slow motion immolation. Moreover Libya’s comparative religiosity suggests that in a protracted conflict it would have only been a matter of time before foreign jihadi extremists descended in number and stolen the possibility of a moderate future for the country.
Instead, for all its myriad traumas, Libya escaped this fate and still has hope. The new Libya and especially the Libyan people even remain capable of moments of grace. Without virtually any international advice and using their own funds, Misrata and Benghazi pulled together near world-class local elections this spring that were more akin to town-wide wedding feasts than dry exercises of civic duty. These votes set important precedents where former revolutionaries willingly stood down in democratic transitions of power. Political activists now seem to mean it when they say that the most important thing about the upcoming national vote is not who wins, but that people participate fully. A spirit of volunteerism still flourishes at the popular level that seems to cut through the chaos and somehow make things work at the very last minute.
A clear-eyed local official in Benghazi did not downplay the challenges his country faces saying, “Qaddafi kept us separated from the world for 42 years. It will not be easy, but we need to make up for all of this lost time.” Thanks to their own courage and well calibrated outside backing, Libyans now have that opportunity. What they make of this chance remains to be seen, but after surviving the singular reign of the world’s longest ruling non-royal leader their fate is at last in their own hands.
Sean Kane is a Truman Security Fellow. He spent the last half-year in Libya working on conflict resolution and promoting dialogue among Libyans on their political transition.