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By Ronald Bruce St John


The Montréal Review, April 2011




The rebellion in Libya stands apart from those in Egypt and Tunisia in that the Libyan rebels are calling not for political reform but for political change. Intent on throwing out both the authoritarian Qaddafi regime and its hybrid form of direct democracy, the rebels plan to replace it with a new and yet undefined political system of their own making. With no consensus among them as to the makeup of this future state, the creation of a post-Qaddafi political system will be a prolonged and messy process.

Over the last 41 years, the Qaddafi regime has systematically destroyed civil society in Libya. There are no political parties, independent labor unions, Lions clubs, or PTAs. Concerned such bodies could become centers of opposition, the regime allowed only those civil organizations it officially approved. The last one approved was the Qaddafi International Development and Charity Foundation which was created two decades ago by the Libyan leader's second son, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi.

Denied civil organizations, Libyans turned to familial and tribal ties for individual and group support. Early on, Qaddafi tried to destroy the power of the tribes, rightly fearing traditional tribal leaders would oppose his radical reform agenda, but when those efforts failed, he turned to them for support. As early as the late 1970s, members of his own tribe, the Qadhadhfa, together with affiliated tribes, notably the Maqarha and Warfalla, were increasing appointed to important military and political posts.

In post-Qaddafi Libya, the role of its approximately 140 tribes will be substantial. After 1993, the Qaddafi regime created a nationwide system of People's Social Leadership Committees (PSLC) made up of tribal leaders and other influential persons. Granted some power in the distribution of state largess, like student grants and subsidized housing, the PSLCs were also tasked with ensuring social stability and containing tribal opposition. Qaddafi called for tribal leaders to denounce tribal members who opposed his rule and promised collective punishment for any tribe that failed to do so.

The creation of the PSLCs marked the first time in history that the Libyan tribes have been grouped into even a loose organization. The structure of the PSLC system should give the tribes a stronger say in the creation of a new government. Tribal leaders are included in the governing committees formed in the eastern part of the country, and given the strong tribal feeling throughout Libya, this process will surely continue as the remainder of the country is liberated.

Regionalism has long characterized a country in which Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan, the three regions of Libya, are separated by vast, empty sand seas. Today, regional identities remain strong, but a growing sense of national identity has marked Libya since independence in 1951. The strength of this national feeling is apparent in the signs the rebels have displayed in recent days, signs that read "Benghazi is with Tripoli," "Libya is one Nation," and "One Libya Undivided." Spokespersons for the Qaddafi regime, notably Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, have warned that the fall of the regime will lead to civil war, but this is more a scare tactic than a realistic prospect.

With the dissolution of the central government, liberated cities and towns have formed committees to manage local government functions like traffic control and the supply of electricity and water. These committees are an offshoot of the countrywide system of congresses and committees established by the Qaddafi regime. While most Libyans were reluctant participants in the latter, they did gain valuable experience in local governing structures which they are now putting to good use. Judges, educators, lawyers, and other middle class opponents to the regime are leading this effort in liberated areas, and persons with similar socioeconomic backgrounds can be expected to do the same elsewhere as the rebel-controlled area expands.

On the other hand, there is only a limited prospect for significant Islamist or Al-Qaeda involvement in post-Qaddafi Libya. In the mid-1990s, the regime defeated a determined challenge from a number of separate Islamist forces, notably the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, centered in eastern Libya and largely comprised of mujahideen who returned to Libya after the Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan. Since that time, there has been little evidence of organized Islamist activity in Libya. Overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, the Libyan people are conservative in outlook and practice, but they have never shown any real appetite for the radical Islam advocated by Al-Qaeda or its North African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Libyan nationals made up the second largest group of foreign fighters in Iraq after the Saudis; however, their opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq does not in itself foretell an immediate Islamist threat in Libya. That said, if the rebellion deteriorates into a prolonged civil war or international military forces intervene in Libya, the potential for Islamist influence would increase.

One thing for certain is that Libya will need a new constitution. The Qaddafi regime replaced the 1951 constitution, the only one the country has known, with a constitutional proclamation in 1969. The latter document, which assigned all powers to Qaddafi and his fellow army officers, will be of no help. There is support in some circles for bringing back the 1951 constitution, but it was a flawed document which helped create the conditions leading to Qaddafi's 1969 coup d'état. It called for a hereditary monarchy with a federal form of government and joint capitals in Benghazi and Tripoli. As Libyan politics evolved into a form of benign despotism, political parties were outlawed, demonstrations banned, newspapers censored, and organized opposition suppressed. While a unitary format later replaced the federal government, the graft and corruption continued. Libyans need to create an entirely new constitution, and this will take some time as there is little in their 60 years of independent life to guide them.

The creation of an Interim National Council (INC) is a good first step. It is an umbrella organization designed both to reduce factional differences and to provide the rebellion with recognizable leaders. The INC members identified to date are a mix of former regime officials and long-time regime opponents. Former members of the regime, especially from the armed forces, have an important role to play early on in giving the rebellion a public face, establishing security, and building an effective fighting force. Longer term, the last thing the rebels want is the Qaddafi regime without Qaddafi.

The overthrow of the Qaddafi regime, as painful and bloody as it is, will likely prove the easy part. Inheriting a country with no viable, effective governing structure, Libyans are starting from scratch in deciding what form of government they want, drafting a constitution to codify it, and then moving forward to free elections. For a people inexperienced in self-rule, the road ahead will be filled with potholes, detours, and dead-ends, but there is every reason to believe the Libyan people are up to the task.


Ronald Bruce St John is the author of several books on Libya, including Libya: Continuity and Change (Routledge, 2011).


This book examines the socioeconomic and political development of Libya from earliest times to the present, concentrating in particular on the four decades of revolutionary rule which began in 1969. Focusing on the twin themes of continuity and change, Ronald Bruce St John emphasises the full extent to which the revolutionary government has distorted the depth and breadth of the post-1969 revolution by stressing policy change at the expense of policy continuity.

Following a brief look at pre-independence Libya, the author explores the way in which the fragility of the post-independence state, unable to contain rising Arab nationalist struggles and growing economic expectations, opened the way for the Free Unionist Officers led by Muammar al-Qaddafi to seize power. He then traces the progressive development of the revolutionary state through four stages:

  • the consolidation of power to 1973
  • the projection of power to 1986
  • withdrawal and retrenchment to 1999
  • the redefinition of the state after 1999

Highlighting the issues facing the contemporary state and providing possible solutions, this book will be an important text for students of current affairs, history, North Africa and the Middle East.

-- Taylor & Francis Ltd.


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