By Mary Fitzgerald and Tarek Megerisi
The question of housing, land and property rights is so difficult—and so important—because it touches on the fundamental question facing post-2011 Libya: what do Libyans want the new Libya to look like?
This paper will examine both the history and the current impact of Qaddafi’s redistribution laws. In addition, we will ask what we can learn from the failed efforts to resolve these property conflicts since 2011.
I. HISTORY AND CONTEXT OF QADDAFI’S REDISTRIBUTION POLICIES
On 1 September 1969, a council of young Libyan army officers led by Muammar Qaddafi overthrew King Idris Senussi and swept to power in a self-proclaimed revolution.
To legitimise that revolution, Qaddafi and his associates proclaimed their allegiance to the Nasserite ideology of socialism and equality which had won over many Libyans after Egypt’s own military coup of 1952. In the Proclamation of the Republic—an address given by the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), the de facto government—they guaranteed “the right of equality to [Libyan] citizens” by “opening before them the doors of honourable work… with none terrorised, none cheated, none oppressed, no master, no servant, but free brothers”. 2
Buried in the high-flown language were hints of the redistribution to come.
Qaddafi and the RCC quickly annulled the monarchical constitution, and did not establish new legislative institutions. The new revolutionary leadership instead began to rule by decree, issuing edicts such as that of 3 September, which expelled American and British personnel from local military bases. Because Nasser’s revolutionary radio station, The Voice of Arabia, had been denouncing the Libyan king as a traitor for his deals with Western powers, this decree sealed Qaddafi’s status as a ‘nationalist’ in the eyes of the people.
He and his RCC consolidated their power in the two subsequent years. On 13 November 1969, they nationalised all foreign banks. On 5 July 1970, they nationalised the import, export and distribution of petroleum products, and on 7 December they took the installations of British Petroleum. 3
On 21 July 1970, all remaining Italians and Jewish-Libyan citizens were expelled from the country. That act showed the world how
the new regime planned to treat the rights and property of all its citizens.
It also quickly became clear that Qaddafi saw land, and indeed all private property, as a tool to build support for himself and to weaken his rivals. This use of land as a political tool was not new. The Italian colonial regime (1911 – 1943) had previously claimed ownership over the vast majority of Libya’s arable and steppe land.
In the western province of Tripolitania, control over the foundation of most Libyans’ livelihoods had helped the colonial administration dominate the local population. In the eastern province of Cyrenaica, colonial leaders restricted tribal movement overland and tribal access to land in order to control and pacify resistance to Italian rule.
More than 110,000 people, about two-thirds of the population in eastern Libya, were forcibly removed from their land and sent to concentration camps, where 40-70,000 of them died. 4
When Libya achieved independence after the Second World War, UN General Assembly Resolution 388 awarded Libya all property owned “directly or indirectly by the Italian state” but secured property rights of individual Italian citizens. 5
Italian farmers were allowed to purchase land that they had previously leased or farmed without title. Nevertheless, by 1964, Italian owners had sold about 40 percent of the land that they had owned in Tripolitania in 1942, and almost all of their land in Cyrenaica. 6
The Libyan government of King Idris thus inherited thousands of hectares of destitute and neglected farmland in what was then one of the poorest countries in the world. Although government programmes encouraged Libyans to buy formerly Italian land and put it to work, only a few had the means to purchase the colonial estates. Corruption meant that large tracts of land were secured by those close to the King’s Court. Repeated droughts and associated famines throughout the 1950s made life harsh for many in the newly independent Libya, and the inequality between various social groups created resentment that was aggravated by rumours of corruption.
The Qaddafi regime capitalised on this discontent. Applying both socialist and Ottoman-era Islamic principles, they declared land a public resource. In the Constitutional Proclamation of 11 December 1969, they then declared that public ownership was the basis for social development. 7
Thus did Qaddafi recast the relationship between people and land to serve his political purposes. After confiscating all property that had belonged either to Westerners or to ex-colonial Italians, Libyan Jews and other groups that were politically expedient to persecute. 8
Qaddafi then turned towards the rest of the country. Over the next decade, in radical contrast to his stated “socialist” goals, he introduced an array of reforms designed to rebuild Libya in his own image.
On 14 November 1970, the regime began to formalise the legal and administrative chaos in which it had thus far been operating. On 28 October 1972, specific committees were set up to investigate how best to “Islamise” the legal system.
The work produced by these committees was then selectively recycled to underpin the implementation of Qaddafi’s ‘third international theory’ announced in a pivotal speech in Zuwara on 15 April 1973. In this speech, Qaddafi reinforced his deliberately ambiguous legal system by annulling old laws, which were declared incompatible with sharia, and establishing ‘people’s committees’.
Notably, he singled out new ‘politically sick’ segments of Libyan society, such as the ‘capitalists’ who would later suffer most from his reforms. Qaddafi’s political coup was finalised over the next five years.
In 1975, he removed the technocratic class that anchored the civil service after a failed coup attempt. A year later the revolutionary committees that would eventually implement Qaddafi’s policies were put in place. The stage was set for him to reshape the social and economic landscape of his country.
Ballooning oil revenues funded Qaddafi’s vision. But the primary vehicle for change would be land: property rights, land-based capital gains, and land development investment all became his political tools. In 1977, Law Number 38 retroactively removed the mechanism that had permitted users of land to acquire ownership-type rights over it.
Although not fully realised until a complementary law was introduced in 1986, this was the first step towards Qaddafi’s vision of turning tribal or community lands into individual properties with sedentary inhabitants.
In the Green Book Part Two, published in 1978, he declared there was “no freedom for a man who lives in another’s house, whether he pays rent or not”, 9 and that every person had an inherent right to the resources necessary for their material needs. 10
Expanded upon, this made a home, car and salary the right of every Libyan but simultaneously outlawed renting as a form of exploitation. In May 1978, he issued the infamous Law Number 4, which paved the way for tenants to acquire ownership of their rented accommodation.
Suliman Ibrahim from Benghazi University and Jessica Carlisle from Leiden University explain its central tenets as follows:
“Article 1 of Law 4/1978 states that every citizen has the right to own a house or a plot of land on which to construct a house and that this “ownership of the house is sacred.”
The law prescribes that anyone in possession of an amount of property in excess of this should choose which house or plot of land they wish to retain (Article 2); all additional properties, unless required to run a business, and land fit for construction (Article 3) should be transferred to the ownership of the state. Excess properties are then to be assigned to citizens in need of housing, although the law allows for properties to be kept by the state in order to serve the purposes of public interest (Article 7).
The law entitles those whose property is expropriated to compensation (Article 8), however it refers to implementing regulation for determination of the methods of payments. Today, most property claimants say that this compensation was never paid.” 11
After the shock of Law Number 4, Qaddafi continued his assault on the ‘politically sick’. On 3 July, he confronted Libya’s influential religious leaders (the ulama) in a debate at the Moulay Mohammed Mosque after confiscating their waqf properties (land held in trust by a religious institution).
Soon after, in a speech given on the anniversary of his coup, he exhorted workers to seize their employers’ businesses and convert them into collectives—with the notable exception of the banking and hydrocarbon sectors. Having lost its property assets, and now its enterprises, Libya’s once influential entrepreneurial class was relegated to obscurity.
In 1980, in a final equalising measure, Qaddafi introduced reforms that abolished savings accounts, reissued the currency and allowed tight state surveillance on the capital flows of its citizenry.
In 1984, he created state supermarkets and a state import/export corporation to manage product flows.
Qaddafi spent most of the 1980s consolidating his control over the state and trying to counter fallout from his sweeping reforms. As a result of centralised bureaucracy and work opportunities, rapid urbanisation followed. At the same time, Libya’s population grew from 2 million to 3.6 million between 1969 and 1984. 12
This created large slums around Tripoli, Benghazi and other major population centres. Housing demand vastly outstripped supply. Moreover, as educated, entrepreneurial Libyans emigrated en masse, Gaddafi was forced to rely on foreign workers—who themselves needed housing and quickly filled vacated properties.
In 1986, the land registry, and all its property records, burned to the ground. Though some described this as an accident many believed it was intentional, seeing it as either as Qaddafi’s solution to tribal quarrels over land or an important reminder that his whims superseded the law.
In 1988, his ‘Socialist Real Estate Registry’ compounded the effects of Law Number 4 with a poorly implemented attempt to force the population to re-register their property. Newly formed ‘People’s Courts’ were given the power to restore illegally confiscated property and grant compensation. But the balancing act proved impossible and the court’s powers soon drained away.
By the early 1990s, the failure of Qaddafi’s reforms was evident: unemployment was rising, housing programmes failed to meet demand and state supermarkets exhibited ever more empty shelves.
Although his land reforms had increased the ownership base amongst Libyans, boosted his popularity and ironically fulfilled King Idris’s wish to empower some of the ‘peasantry’, all economic activity was reliant on a malfunctioning state bureaucracy.
In February 1987 public dissent appeared for the first time during the annual meeting of the largely ceremonial General People’s Congress. Forced to react, Qaddafi distanced himself from the flaws of his previous reforms and embarked on a period of liberalisation.
The ‘Great Green Charter of Human Rights’ in 1988 marked a shift in Qaddafi’s attitude towards property. It declared that “land is the property of no one” and that members of society were “free from any rental fees”. Meanwhile, the regime copied Egyptian attempts to attract foreign direct investment: article 11 of the charter described private property as “sacred”, with the caveat that ownership was subordinated to the public interest. 13
Top Image: Records pertaining to the property of Libyan-Italians and Libyan Jews found after the revolution. By 1970, all remaining Italians and Jewish-Libyan citizens were expelled from the country. The NGO that found these records doesn’t trust officials with their safe-keeping for now. (Photo courtesy of the Rabitat al-Mulak al-Mutadarariyn min Hukm al-Taghyat)
2- Cited in: Sami G. Hajjar, “The Jamahiriya Experiment in Libya: Qaddafi and Rousseau,” The Journal of Modern African Studies 18 (1980): 182.
3- Ibid, 184.
4- Ronald Bruce St John, Libya: From Colony to Independence (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2008), 72-73.
5- Cited in: Gary L. Fowler, “Decolonization of Rural Libya,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 63 (1973): 499.
6- Ibid, 504-505.
7- Government of Libya, Constitutional Declaration, 1969, available online: http://www.servat.unibe.ch/icl/ly00000_.html
8- For more information on RCC attitudes towards Italian & Jewish communities, see: Ahmed A. Ashiurakis, The Rise of the Jamahereya (Tripoli: General Company for Publishing, Distribution & Advertisement, 1977), 26-27.
9- Muammar al-Qaddafi, The Green Book, Part II: The Solution of the Economic Problem: “Socialism” (1978), ch. 13.
10- UNHCR, Housing, Land and Property Issues and the Response to Displacement in Libya, 2012, 22, available online: https://terra0nullius.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/unhcr-report-hlp-issues-and-displacement-in-libya-copy.pdf
11- Suliman Ibrahim and Jessica Carlisle, “Developing the Case Against Law 4/1978: Property Claimants in Tripoli,” in Searching for Justice in Post-Gaddafi Libya, ed. Jan Michiel Otto, Jessica Carlisle and Suliman Ibrahim (Leiden University, 2013): 120, available online:
12- According to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators available online: http://databank.worldbank.org/
13- Libya: Great Green Charter of Human Rights of the Jamahiriyan Era [Libya], 12 June 1988, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3dda540f4.html
Mary Fitzgerald is a journalist and analyst specialising in post-Qaddafi Libya. She has reported from Libya since February 2011 for media including the Economist, the BBC, Foreign Policy, The New Yorker, the Financial Times and the Guardian. She lived in Libya throughout 2014. She is a contributing author to The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath published by Hurst/Oxford University Press.
Tarek Megerisi is a political analyst and consultant specialising in Libya and the wider Middle East. He has worked closely in an advisory capacity on Libya’s post-revolutionary transition with Libyan political bodies and international organisations. Currently based in London, he has contributed commentaries on Libya to the Carnegie Endowment’s SADA centre, Italy’s Limes magazine, Muftah magazine, and the Fair Observer among others.
Rhodri C. Williams is the Rule of Law Program Manager for the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC). Based in Stockholm, Williams coordinates a large, integrated set of rule of law programs supporting partners in seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa region. Prior to working for ILAC, he worked for ten years as a consultant on humanitarian, human rights, rule of law and transitional justice issues in fragile and post-conflict settings such as Bosnia, Cambodia, Colombia, Cyprus, Georgia, Kosovo, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Serbia and Turkey.
Peter van der Auweraert works as Head of the Land, Property and Reparations Division at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva, Switzerland. He has worked on rule of law, post-crisis land and victims’ reparations issues in a number of countries and was part of a small UN-team engaged in mediation on land and property issues among local political actors in Kirkuk, Iraq. Prior to joining IOM, Peter Van der Auweraert was Executive Director of Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF).