Middle East / Libya

An Arab Summer: The Struggle to Create a New Libya

October 20, 2011: The world watched, transfixed, as Libyan rebels violently ended the life of Muammar Qadhafi, dictator of 42 years, whose reign of censorship and oppression drove the Libyan people to civil war and revolution. Violence and bloodshed aside, there is something irrationally romantic about Libya’s revolution and those others that materialized throughout the Arab world in 2011: a Tunisian fruit vendor immolated himself in protest of his unjust government, Egyptians rallied to take Cairo back from the hands of corrupt officials. The narrative of people rising up to throw off their oppressor is one that we universally respond to – it speaks to the indomitable human spirit, the ability of people to stand up for their fundamental human rights and to triumph. There is an optimism inherent to nearly all revolutions – and Libya’s is no exception – that once the revolution is won, once the dictator vanquished and the nation freed from his iron fist, the hard work is done and the country can finally be the paradise it would have been sans autocrat.

Global media coverage echoes this pattern. The outside world is fed minute-by-minute updates until the revolutionary overthrow, at which point the media’s happy ending has been achieved and the public eye turns elsewhere to find its headlines. This “happily ever after,” however, is rarely a reality, and in Libya, rebels and citizens alike came to realize that Qadhafi’s death marked only the beginning of a long, difficult, and painful chapter in Libyan history. Libya’s transitional government was left with a blood-soaked country lacking political structure, a nearly non-existent military and police force with questionable, shifting allegiances, and a population waiting hopefully and expectantly for the post-Qadhafi utopia.

After weeks of waiting became months, and months have become years, it this utopia not been forthcoming. Libya’s current governing body, the General National Congress (GNC) still struggles to organize the complex multitude of conflicting opinions and rival camps that comprise it into the decisive leadership necessary to pave a positive path forward for the country. The newly elected Council of 60 has yet to begin writing the constitution that will replace the flawed constitutional declaration issued by the transitional government in August 2011, and the state still lacks an effective army or police force to maintain security. Qadhafi provided Libya’s disparate local rebels, tribal groups, and militants with a common enemy, uniting them, and giving the revolution its tremendous momentum. With their common enemy defeated and no unified government security mechanism to keep order, political chaos reigns and violence has picked up across the country.

Libya’s current situation is dominated by an acute security problem. The attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi in September 2012 that killed American Ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens and three of his staff members was followed in October 2013 by armed militants’ brief abduction of former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. Further violence has included the January 2014 assassination of the Deputy Industry Minister and abduction of five Egyptian Embassy officials, and in March 2014, the storming of parliament and a tense showdown over the fate of a North Korean oil tanker.

Anti-Western, or even anti-foreign sentiment is not necessarily to blame. As U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Deborah Jones, states, “I’m not sure growing ‘anti-Americanism’ is the issue – most Libyans have a great deal of hope in our ability to ‘make things right’ here.” Despite these hopes, outside governments’ early efforts to provide assistance in Libya were hindered soon after the revolution when NATO’s Operation Unified Protector, which had helped arm and organize the Libyan rebels, ended just a week after Qadhafi’s death, and the transitional government rejected the presence of United Nations support troops. The U.S. and several EU nations have offered their assistance in organizing the security sector and maintaining order in Libya, but any attempts are hamstrung by the lack of decision-making power at the heart of Libya’s governing structure. Government efforts to create a national army drawing from the variety of rebel militias that fought during the revolution have largely failed, leading to an amalgamation of murky, shifting allegiances and confusion over who the perpetrators of violence are actually working for.

Although it is unclear how effective outside help could actually be in Libya, under the present circumstances, the GNC has become vulnerable to both fallback into Qadhafi-era patterns of political thought and organization, and governance through reactionary, revenge policies. So far, the political landscape in Libya has mirrored the Qadhafi regime’s inefficient configuration of local, direct people’s congresses with little actual bearing on political decisions. Even revenge policies meant to distance the new administration from the old regime’s patterns have echoed Qadhafi-era authoritarianism.

In May 2013, the GNC passed a law banning anyone with connection to the old regime from office for 10 years. Though later annulled, the GNC initially also made passage for a censorship stipulation prohibiting criticism of the revolution, the Libyan state, or Islam, or any expressed nostalgia for the old regime. These efforts reflect, as Ambassador Jones states, that “[the Libyans] have a lot of work to do to change ingrained patterns of thought and behavior following 42 years of Qadhafi. And they will have to find a formula that works for them, not necessarily our way of doing business.” The Ambassador’s words also highlight the limits on how much outside states can actually do to help Libya resolve its internal struggles, especially at a time when Middle Eastern governments are particularly sensitive to being perceived or labeled as “puppets of the West.”

With public service provision still faulty and functional infrastructure lacking, tensions rising among militias, and persisting political inefficiency, the ability of the Libyans to construct a new, post-revolutionary state without further civil conflict is increasingly uncertain. It appears that Libyans are reaching the limit to their patience with the GNC’s inefficiencies and failure to implement a functioning security apparatus. The host of conflicting opinions and rival militia groups vying for military and political influence make consensus nearly impossible and violent confrontations common. In eastern Libya, whispers of a Federalist movement are spreading, and all the while, Libyan civilians suffer the consequences of diminished oil exports and a struggling economy.

Libya’s experience reveals the multitude of complex challenges a nation faces after the initial excitement and momentum driving a revolution has worn off. The reality of revolutionary success is far less romantic and far more short-lived than the common narrative, and should thus be seen less as an everlasting triumph and more as the first step on a long and difficult road to a new state and a new way of life.