The Libyan Revolution at Two

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Arriving in the Libyan capital Tripoli, it is immediately (and dispiritingly) clear just how much needs to be done before the country can experience any sort of secure and just order. During my January research trip to Libya, the city seemed to have been overtaken by a paramilitary culture. The streets of Tripoli are thronged with Libyans in military uniform; not members of a national army, but rather of an expanding constellation of independent revolutionary and military councils. The city regularly rings out with automatic gunfire, particularly at night. Its walls, meanwhile, are papered with posters of the 2011 revolution’s “martyrs,” some of which couple a professional studio portrait with a later, amateur picture of the same man’s corpse. Surrounded on all sides by headshots of the Libyan revolution’s dead, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine how Libya can achieve national reconciliation and become a stable, functioning country.

Post-revolutionary Libya’s accomplishments to date, of course, should not be minimized. The country saw a smooth handover of power in August 2012 from the National Transitional Council to an elected and representative parliament, the General National Congress. The previous month’s parliamentary elections to the National Congress, held in a country with no history of electoral politics, were considered generally free and fair by local and international observers. This is a very strong start for Libya’s transition process. Libya has witnessed political party formation, another novelty. The country now has functioning political parties — with offices, staff, and publications — that work to represent their respective constituencies and took part in last year’s elections. Political parties were banned under the ousted ruler Muammar al-Qaddafi. The parliament has also passed a law that governs the drafting of the new Libyan constitution. It sets out how the constitutional committee’s 60 members, split evenly among Libya’s three districts, will be elected.

Outside the realm of formal politics, Libya has seen a proliferation of civil society organizations, including women’s and youth organizations. The women’s organizations include those pushing for greater political empowerment and participation for women; in particular, they are advocating the application of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325, which emphasizes the importance of women’s political participation in post-conflict societies. And in a reflection of Libyans’ hunger to speak freely (and to criticize their government), the country has also seen a flood of new media voices. The blossoming of private television channels and newspapers has created a vibrant media scene you might think has existed for decades, not just two years.

Libya also has some cultural factors working in its favor as it struggles to rebuild. It has managed to avoid some of the issues that have dominated transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, notably the ideological divide between Islamists and liberals. There is an irony in the fact that many pointed to the National Congress elections as a success for liberals. “Liberals’” majority share of the vote can be explained in that the Islamist and non-Islamist divide essentially does not exist in Libya, thanks to the deep religious and social conservatism of almost all Libyans. Supposedly liberal factions like that of former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril are closer to Islamism than to the sort of “West-leaning liberalism” on display in Egypt. As some like to put it, Libya’s liberals are the equivalent of Tunisia’s Islamists. Insofar as this neutralizes the electoral advantage Islamists have enjoyed in other Arab countries, it has also helped to avoid the majority-minority and Islamist-secular dynamics that have proven so divisive and poisonous elsewhere.

Still, it is clear that other basic questions of Libyan identity remain disputed and unanswered, and, in the aftermath of its 2011 revolution, the country has in many ways become a blank slate. Libyans reject the Qaddafi-era system and its legacy, and symbols of the old regime have been removed or defaced. There is little certainty, however, on what should take their place, particularly among symbols of the country’s past. Omar al-Mokhtar, a hero of the resistance to Italian colonialism, has become a sort of new unifying figure for the Libyan people. (Former King Idris barely figures into the country’s political narrative.) Al-Mokhtar, though, is probably the only personality in the country’s past and present on whom there is a Libyan consensus; everyone else in Libya today is the subject of disagreement.

These issues are part of a broader effort by Libyans to deal with their national past, reconstructing their history and piecing together a shared narrative of their experience under Qaddafi’s rule. Among the problems they face is ambiguity and disagreement over how far they should look back. How much history must be exhumed before the new Libya can move forward? Some argue that it is only necessary to go as far back as the beginning of Qaddafi’s “Popular Revolution” in 1973. A consensus seems to be forming, however, on the need to begin from Qaddafi’s arrival to power in 1969. This effort to deal with the past is not simply a philosophical exercise. It is crucial to the functioning of the state and the prospects for reconciling different Libyan factions. Qaddafi’s Ownership Laws of 1978, under which all properties not in use by their owner were confiscated, present one problematic example. Libyans have been drawn into complicated — and often violent — struggles for ownership as some try to reclaim properties taken under these large-scale redistribution policies. The Libyan state must struggle to fairly adjudicate these disputes, which have their roots in decades-old practices of the Qaddafi regime.

The issue of how to deal with members of the former regime is one of the most high-stakes and controversial challenges to realizing Libyan national reconciliation. The National Congress has agreed in principle to a Law of Political Exclusion that will prohibit old-regime figures from participating in politics or occupying leadership roles in the new Libya. The criteria for defining a “member of the former regime,” however, have yet to be determined — and raise difficult questions. There seems to be overwhelming support from revolutionaries and militia members for the exclusion of anyone who was part of the Qaddafi regime. That could include up to 80 percent of the current National Congress, however, if the law is implemented in the broadest sense. There is not even consensus on whether regime defectors should be integrated into the new order. Some say only those who defected in the first four days of the revolution should qualify, others that it should be anyone who joined the rebels before NATO strikes began.

Many are pushing for purging the judiciary in particular of all Qaddafi-era authorities. If such a step is taken, however, there will be almost no remaining judges to try members of the former regime. (Some have advocated bringing in other Arab or Muslim judges from abroad.) Former dissident Saami al-Saadi, a prominent Salafi figure, demonstrates the thorniness of this issue when he notes that the judge who had ordered his execution in a Qaddafi-era court is still working today. “How can I accept him as a valid authority?” he asks.

Libya’s new institutions, meanwhile, are hamstrung by the strength of revolutionary groups and militias. It is these groups that represent the real centers of power in the country today. At least two Libyan states, but arguably many more, exist in parallel. The “official state,” led by civil authorities and represented by the General National Congress and the government, is relatively weak. The “unofficial state,” led by the Supreme Security Committee (SSC, al-Lajna al-Amniya al-Ulia) and other military councils in the country, hold the real power. While the SSC receives funding from the state, it is still outside the official structure of the state. Beyond this body, there is an array of revolutionary unions and organizations in each town that effectively run their own mini-states. Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi is, for example, being held in a Zintan prison and will likely be tried in a Zintan court. Libya has repeatedly refused to surrender him to the ICC for trial in The Hague. These rebels’ arsenals are one source of their strength — of a declared 200,000 rebels, only 10,000 have signed up for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs and surrendered their arms to state control.

The revolutionaries, meanwhile, are themselves divided. Mr. Haidar, a prominent leader in the Misurata rebels, is keen to point out that the real anti-Qaddafi rebel forces are only about 40,000-strong in all of Libya. The remaining 160,000 “rebels” are in fact just power-seeking opportunists, he says.

What unites the revolutionaries, though, is a “culture of the victor” that poses a real obstacle to post-conflict reconciliation. This culture has divided Libya into victorious towns and cities like Misurata, Zintan, and Benghazi and defeated ones like Bani Walid and Sirte. The victorious have taken ownership of the revolution and indulge in self-glorification, while the defeated undergo a process of shaming and marginalization. As resentment grows among the revolution’s “losers,” there is no real sign of the deep divisions between the two camps being bridged.

One former “Qaddafi town,” Tawergha, has been entirely emptied of its citizens. When Tawerghan men attacked Misurata during the war, Misuratans say, they systematically raped Misurata’s women. Now Tawergha’s 35,000 residents are either refugees or internally displaced. The majority of Tawergha is now being housed in three camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) from where most young men have fled. The Libyan judiciary is at a loss for how to deal with a “town accused of rape,” and no one has the weight or nerve to convince the rebels of Misurata to allow these people to return to their homes. “We do not have, in our legal system or in our tradition, a way to deal with systematic rape,” says Minister of Justice Salah Margani. “We just look at it, acknowledge the suffering of the victims of rape and the IDP camps, and feel powerless about doing anything about it, simply because we don’t know how.”

The debate over transitional justice has become a central feature of the Libyan transition. A formal transitional justice mechanism is seen by almost all revolutionary factions as a prerequisite to any form of national reconciliation. There is currently no forum in which rival Libyan factions can sit down together, making clear the need for a national dialogue of sorts. There is a general unwillingness, however, to meet with any members of the former regime, foreclosing the possibility of an inclusive transition that could actually resolve the country’s security challenges.

Libyans have begun to establish some processes of national reconciliation, but little has actually been achieved thus far. They have set up an independent truth and reconciliation commission led by a judge who served in Qaddafi’s Supreme Court but defected before the revolution. Almost a year after its launch, however, the commission has yet to begin its work. A major part of the problem is a lack of technical expertise. The commission’s members have sought external advice, but, in the absence of more hands-on cooperation and assistance, they are struggling to make use of it.

If the Libyan people are to restore order to the country and begin to build the modern society Qaddafi denied them, they have a number of key priorities. First and foremost, the establishment of security is an absolute necessity. The lack of security can be seen and felt throughout Libya, whether in raids on Benghazi police stations in the East or the brazen and aggressive smuggling enterprise in Southern city of Sebha. Libya has no future without the return of security and the end of the parallel security-militia state that effectively governs much of the country.

The reintegration of militants into society will require an effective DDR process. Ex-combatants have legitimate grievances and concerns that the state must listen to and address. This will require a state-revolutionary dialogue that, as of now, does not exist. There must also be an end to the culture of victor and vanquished. To whatever extent possible, the state must try to resist the classification of whole tribes and towns as defeated elements of the old regime. As towns like Bani Walid and Sirte and tribes like the Warfella are excluded from the process of rebuilding the country, divisions within society are being deepened. IDPs and refugees have likewise been ignored, which threatens to produce a generation that feels excluded, frustrated, and angry. To the extent that all these segments of Libyan society feel marginalized and abandoned, this situation has dangerous implications for the country’s stability. They must be included in the country’s rebuilding to avoid the return of violence and civil conflict. For the state to absorb these actors, of course, this process must be coupled with the reform of Libyan state institutions. Libya has made very slow progress in institutional reform, but it can start with its judiciary.

The international community also has a role in the rebuilding of Libya. On border security and the care of refugees (of whom there are approximately one million), Egypt and Tunisia are seen as key partners. Technical support is needed, meanwhile, in initiating a national dialogue, starting the work of the truth commission, and rehabilitating revolutionaries. While the European Union is widely cited as a natural partner for this sort of support, many Libyans have concerns about blurring the line between assistance and intervention. The only real international presence in the country at the moment is the United Nations, which has limitations to what it can achieve. One key message stressed by Margani, moreover, is that whatever assistance is given to the country should not come with conditions that might conflict with “Libyan sovereignty and cultural sensitivities.”

Libyans face a long process of rebuilding their country — or in some respects, building it for the first time. The impoverished state in which Qaddafi left Libyan society has only made Libyans’ accomplishments to date all the more impressive. Now is the time, though, to push even harder for a real and comprehensive political transition and to realize Libyan national reconciliation. If not, the forces of revenge and militia violence threaten to overtake everything else.