Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tripoli University, Libya
Libya remained under Gaddafi’s authoritarian rule for over four decades. Gaddafi took advantage of the massive power provided by the money from rent generated by oil, the inherent weakness in the basic constituents of the Libyan society, the fragility of civil society traditions, and the vulnerability of democratic culture.
But the Libyan people were right on schedule. Once the Arab Uprising set off in Tunisia at the end of 2010, the Libyans began a large popular uprising that soon spread over the entire country. After eight months of internal war and direct external support, this uprising eventually managed to end the regime and enter a new and decisive phase in Libyan history.
How did things turn out the way they did?
The Libyan people entered the new phase without any prior experience in politics and civil society organizations and with no past experience with mass movements. The aftermath of the regime’s collapse in August 2011 clearly showed the extensive negative impact of these factors. The violence perpetrated during the anti-Gaddafi revolution on both sides reflected the lack of even the slightest state-nation relationship and coherence.
State policies had the greatest impact on the country’s divide, which was further deepened by foreign intervention. On the one hand, the militarization of the revolution and the external intervention played a critical role in the removal of Gaddafi. On the other hand, this has resulted in a new climate which posed significant threats to stability, national unity, and peace in Libya.
One of the first negative effects of this was the polarization in the country which resulted in areas that did not take part in the uprising to be denied access to adequate representation and to be made subject to insults, humiliation, aggression, and forced displacement by other regions. Tribes, which were exploited by both the regime and the transitional authorities, had become a source of unrest, narrowing the chances for reconciliation, despite the historical role they had been playing in promoting national unity and peace in the society.
The people and the revolution cannot, of course, be held responsible for what happened and is still happening. Just as we cannot simply say that this is merely the result of Gaddafi’s policies and dictatorship, particularly ten years after his death.
There are massive challenges facing Libya within this context of harmful foreign interference, an almost complete state collapse, and institutions straddled East and West that lack legitimacy. These challenges are mainly attributed to the failure of both the opposing parties and the reluctant international community, which is supposed to support the democratic system in Libya, in developing and adopting a shared vision for Libya and to help the country to successfully overcome Gaddafi’s shadow and the consequences of the post-2011 conflict.
The most serious of these factors, however, is the failure of the political elite, the current leaders, and the transitional authorities to play a constructive national role that transcends narrow individual, regional, and partisan interests.
In my view, these people do not care about the respect of law and do not mind messing with legislations and using them for their political, partisan, and purposes under the pretext of the new revolutionary legitimacy or simply in order to serve their political, regional, or personal interests. These elements have had profound and serious implications on national reconciliation and State-building. This later had become an elusive goal particularly with the escalation of foreign interference which, since April 2019, has threatened to transform Libya into the battlefield of a full-fledged regional war.
The democratic transition in Libya is still facing numerous challenges. The chances for a successful democratization process certainly involves the ability to effectively respond to these challenges. In the midst of the ongoing political debate and the multi-leveled rivalry, largely absent from the conversation have been the important issues related to the economy, development, civil democratic culture, and public good. Only arguments and conflicts over resources and wealth come to the surface on various pretexts covering a country deeply-stricken by widespread corruption.
United Nations-led efforts, including those of its Support Mission in Libya, did not manage to overcome the crux of the Libyan crisis. They only succeeded in developing visions and road-maps for power sharing. Most recent of these is what is known as “the Libyan Political Agreement” which was signed in Skhirat, Morocco on December 17, 2015. These arrangements have only managed to increase the number of the components or actors of the political crisis.
The authority stemming from such arrangements (the Government of National Accord) was unable to achieve the objectives that were set out for it when it was first established. Quite the reverse, this has led to more divide and conflict.
The Government of National Accord did not enjoy broad acceptance and legitimacy from many parties, including from the West of Libya. The result was the institutionalization of the conflict following the accumulation of disputes between the authorities or the different actors in the East and West. Corruption and distribution of employment quotas have also contributed in draining the country’s resources and threatening its unity. This had been evident in the attacks by Major General Khalifa Haftar-led armed forces on Tripoli and in the recent angry protests over low living standards in certain cities in the West and South.
The events Libya faces are taking place in a climate and a context that may be described as ‘the Second Arab Cold War’. This was the product of the Arab Spring which divided the region into countries that are revolutionary, others that are reformist, and a third group of countries that are stronger but anti-change or ‘counter-revolutionary’. This regional context cannot be a catalyst for accelerating the democratic transition process, and in particular the reforms of security, judicial, and human rights systems and institutions and the founding of a new culture that is based on democratic values.
A large part of the internal Libyan conflict is linked to external actors. This is evident in the illegal practices of political forces, thus casting doubts on the State legitimacy and that of its institutions. This certainly has raised critical questions regarding the extent to which it will be possible to establish productive interaction between Libya’s different fractions as a society, economy, culture, history, ambitions, and hopes for change and for a new State.
Despite the country’s access to the democratic transition phase, holding three elections, and signing an UN-sponsored political agreement in the Moroccan city of Skhirat, the situation remained fragile at all levels. Power-sharing arrangements have proven to be ineffective as power cannot be shared before it is first established. Successive governments compromised State’s institutions and legitimacy and allocated resources to serve the interests of militias and corrupted circles. These later have become the true authority in the country and have led to the ongoing cycles of civil war and the fragmentation of the official authority.
Instead of focusing on the divisions and disputes, the experience of past years, the coexistence and harmony that the country has enjoyed throughout history, and the apparent components of unity, should all shed light, in full force, on the urgent need for a comprehensive strategy for the country. At the same time, working towards facilitating the creation of a national consensus or a new and broad social contract must be highlighted. A comprehensive reconciliation and an inclusive peace agreement, which must exclude no party or component, is the only way forward to face the challenges and overcome the absurdism and ineffectiveness of power-sharing approaches and the so-called consensual democracy or quotas.