Youssef Mohammad Sawani is Professor of Politics & International Relations, University of Tripoli, Libya
The recent U.N.-sponsored meetings of the various Libyan factions held in Geneva, Morocco and Tunisia may bring a spark of hope that this conflict-ridden country may at last see some peace.
However, Libya’s conflict, which has been raging since 2011, seems to defy resolution despite U.N. mediation efforts. Politically divided, Libya lacks nationally effective, legitimate state institutions that have the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence and are able to serve their citizens.
Libya shares with other modern Arab nations a contradiction that has existed since their creation. Their instability reflects a contradiction between the traditional Arab-Islamic model and the modern western model of the nation state. Both the monarchy, which lasted from 1951 to 1969, and the Gaddafi regime failed to transcend the contradiction.
Therefore, the old, traditional local roots of the state, including those of tribalism and the contest between the centre and the periphery, tend to resurface at every possible opportunity. This is particularly obvious whenever there is a weak state or authority, employing different, interacting elements of society (especially identities subsumed to the all-encompassing national identity), and the economy, which further expose the state and its fragility.
The current Libyan conflict is not merely a political one only involving the alliance built around the internationally recognized, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, and the alliance of the Tobruk-based House of the Representatives and the Libyan National Army.
Its deeper roots can also be found in the inherent weakness of civic and democratic culture, in the oil-dependent rentier economy, in the lack of institutionalism, and in the increasing influence of the geographic peripheries at the expense of the centre.
In particular, the lack of efficient and functioning institutions reveals a long process of politicization of public administration, exclusion and mistrust between individual components of society and between these components and the state – for example, the vague and sweeping exclusion of large segments of the population who ever worked for the government and public sector during the 42 years of Gaddafi’s rule, under the infamous Political and Administrative Isolation Law, enacted in 2013 by the now-disbanded General National Congress.
The exclusion of the peripheries, a common practice during the monarchical and Gaddafi eras, actually goes back to the history of Ottoman foreign occupation and European colonialism, which mostly confined the “state” to the coastal regions. Inhabitants of the desert and the mountains frequently revolted against these forms of authority, seeking their share of wealth or, in many instances, denying the central authorities legitimacy by refusing to pay taxes.
Any serious analysis needs to link today’s conflict to the struggle for the acquisition of centrally controlled resources. The legal framework governing the management of the state’s financial resources dates back to the beginnings of the modern Libyan state, after the discovery of oil in 1956 and the subsequent export trade, and especially after adoption of the constitutional amendment, in 1963, that ended a short period of federalism.
Its fiscal rules solidified the rentier economy and led to the strengthening of centralization during the Gaddafi era, despite the attempt to ease popular dissatisfaction through local administration arrangements adopted during the 1990s. Once Gaddafi was gone, this centralization became more consolidated despite some efforts at installing a new local-governance system.
The policies that Gaddafi adopted rested upon the continuous change and shaking of state institutions and an abject contempt for the culture of institutionalism and rule of law. The political ideology of the regime and its practices adopted the objective of building a unique political community that shared little with political polity as commonly understood.
The whole mark of the “Jamahiriya model” that Gaddafi sought to establish was a negation of all forms of political activity and rendered politics obsolete in favour of a system of aggregation in which the “Brother Leader” occupies the centre.
This unique system made use of some historical incidents of tribal animosities to divide and rule a society that lacked experience as a nation-state and identified central authority with foreign rule.
Moreover, repressive and manipulative practices further undermined civil society and trade unions, while enhancing the role of traditional structures such as the tribal system, thus strengthening their influence in favour of Gaddafi’s eccentric model. Gaddafi’s attempt to engineer values and attitudes most conducive to his ideas disrupted the evolutionary process of a Libyan political community and a modern civic national culture.
In addition to promoting a culture of dependency, the state under Gaddafi became the sole employer and made the private sector fully dependent on its spending on public projects, as indicated by the experience of the 1990s until 2000, when the regime, faced with international sanctions and growing popular discontent, was compelled to adopt Infitah, or openness. Moreover, corruption became widespread, sustained through state contracts and spending that benefited elements of the regime and business circles associated with it.
For decades, senior officials and ministers, as well as private business owners, sometimes were tried in court and then jailed on charges of corruption, only to be pardoned by Gaddafi and either returned to their official roles or promoted to even higher positions, or granted lucrative state contracts.
The bitter experience of the Gaddafi era led to an almost complete erosion of the notion of the public good. He manipulated public attitudes to generate disrespect for state institutions and the rule of law. Therefore, Libyans became comfortable with their lack of interest in institutional processes, producing a culture that despises institutions. There was also little respect for the state, equating it with executive government, which was perceived to be void of the values of transparency and accountability and rife with corruption.
Once the regime fell in 2011, institutions – including the army and security forces – became both tools and a manifestation of conflict rather than participants in reconciling the needs and demands of the parties for state-building. Many new arrangements and institutions were established, alongside the remnants of previous ones, to serve the interests of particular factions.
They were harnessed for partisan, political, tribal and regional interests, creating more sources of conflict. Such practices were instrumental in establishing the power of the new elites, thus making sure they had no rivals, at the expense of the country’s stability.
This has gravely hindered national reconciliation and much-needed state building. Nevertheless, Libyans are hopeful that the ongoing talks sponsored by the U.N. Support Mission in Libya may actually lay a foundation stone for a more inclusive, peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Photo caption: This picture taken on November 2, 2020 shows a view of the aircraft of the UN’s acting envoy to Libya at the airport in Ghadames, a desert oasis some 465 kilometres (290 miles) southwest of the capital Tripoli. – Rival Libyan military officers began talks on November 2 on home soil for the first time following a ceasefire agreement last month, discussing implementation of the deal. The three-day meeting of the joint military commission is taking place at a remote area near Libya’s borders with both Algeria and Tunisia, far from the power bases of either side. The military commission had been dubbed “5+5”, because it is made up of five officers from each camp. (Photo by – / AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)