Qaddafi’s Legacy

What is left in Libya after Qaddafi goes? In any country, new regimes build on the institutions of old ones even as they create their own. For Tunisia and Egypt (and maybe for Bahrain, Yemen, and other countries being hit by the wave of unrest that is sweeping the Arab world), the new governments must contend with armies, judicial systems, and even political parties that began their life under the old order. But in Libya, these institutions are difficult to understand and their possible legacies even more difficult to anticipate. One of the (many) peculiarities of the Leader, as the Libyan dictator styled himself, is that he established a political system as bizarre as he is.

The confusion begins at the top. Qaddafi, though the Leader, does not have a formal position in government. Unlike Mubarak, he can’t resign, as he has nothing to resign from. Similarly, his powerful sons do not have government titles to match their actual authority.  So everyone knows Qaddafi makes the key decisions, but there are no formal institutions through which he makes them.  Rather, he works in parallel with the nominal ministries and their officials and, at the same time, has tried to establish a web of personal and patronage networks to ensure loyalty and carry out his program.

The bottom-up view is just as confusing. Qaddafi set up “People’s Congresses” to handle local decisions.  This may seem like direct democracy, but the local organizations of course did not deviate from the guidance they got from Qaddafi and his henchmen, as much as they were able to interpret their views. Moreover, the local congresses often functioned without bureaucratic support apparatuses. So they made decisions, but implementation was always chancy.

Important institutions like the military are also in disarray. Qaddafi politicized the military, as did other Arab dictators, to make sure that key figures were loyal to him. But the military itself was relatively small, poorly trained, and not always well armed. Fighting power often lay with paramilitary forces linked to the country’s shadowy intelligence services and Qaddafi’s sons. So, again, informal ties and a lack of institutions are what matters most.

Qaddafi justified his rule in the name of a unique ideology that blended Islam, Arab nationalism, socialism, and Qaddafi’s own idiosyncratic view of the world (here’s a look at his famous Green Book).  This ideology holds little sway with ordinary Libyans, so he also sought to systematically crush or discredit opposing political forces, especially Islamists, and prevent an independent civil society from taking hold.

The resulting disarray at all levels suited Qaddafi.  By having competing structures, informal networks, and a weak opposition he was able to impose his will and confound would-be rivals.

Should Qaddafi go, Libya’s political structure must be rebuilt from scratch. It is not just a case of putting in a new regime, but instead of creating a new system from top to bottom. However, civil wars, as Libya is now in, are not known for creating an environment for that sort of restructuring.

The international community and Libyans abroad should be encouraged to think about the best system for a post-Qaddafi era. It will be hard for them to influence events on the ground today, but they can help ensure that any new regime puts in place a system that rewards the Libyan people for the sacrifices they are now making.