By Jonathan M. Winer

In the 42 years preceding the 2011 uprising, Gaddafi controlled all power in Libya. Since the uprising, Libyans, fragmented by geography, tribe, ideology, and history, have resisted having anyone, foreigner or Libyan, telling them what to do.


In the process, they have frustrated efforts of outsiders to help them rebuild institutions at the national level, preferring instead to maintain control locally when they have it, often supported by foreign backers.

Libya’s best chance for progress in the near term is a unified international approach built on near complete alignment among international actors, supporting Libyans convening as a whole to address political, security, and economic issues at the same time. While the tracks can be separate, progress is required on all three for any of them to work in the long run.


For 42 years, Gaddafi drove all of the important decisions about Libya. Even as he told Libyans that every one of them was equal and a king, Gaddafi alone allocated the country’s only meaningful source of revenue, the proceeds from its oil production, to the people and for whatever he deemed Libya might need, for infrastructure, goods, and services and investment.

With Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011, Libya lost the driver of its engine. It faced a choice between moving forward to achieve mutual accommodation and inclusive government, or renewed civil conflict.

Since the revolution, Libyans, fragmented by geography, tribe, ideology, and history, have resisted anyone, foreign or local, telling them what to do.

In the process, they have frustrated the efforts of outsiders to help them rebuild institutions at the national level, preferring instead to maintain control locally when they have it, often supported by foreign patrons.

The outcome has been an unstable stability, or a stable instability, in which each faction is in a position to limit the influence of others, but not to take control of Libya as a whole, and a functional impasse inhibits further progress on most issues of importance.

Libya’s best chance for progress in the near term is a unified international approach built on near complete alignment among international actors, supporting Libyans convening as a whole to address political, security, and economic issues simultaneously.

UN Special Representative for the Secretary-General (SRSG) Ghassan Salamé has been seeking to achieve this with a national assembly to bring Libyans together to compromise and reach decisions.

To succeed, international powers must press their clients to join and remain part of this process, rather than boycott it. An ultimate deal would need to include geographic balance on the location of Libya’s main institutions, agreement on economic reforms and a national security structure, and decisions on whether the government will be headed by a legislatively-chosen prime minister or a popularly-elected president as reflected in a final draft constitution.

If all of that were to be worked out in principle, the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) would then need to authorize a vote on the draft constitution by referendum, followed by elections, which in turn, internationals would need to be scrupulous about supporting regardless of results.

Getting there will be very difficult, and only possible if foreign actors that have sponsored rejectionist clients make it clear that anyone who fails to participate, compromise, and allow the process to move forward until a new government is formed will be cut loose and abandoned.

The risk is that ambitious individuals within Libya and beyond will instead engage in lethal adventures that destabilize the country, spark renewed conflict, result in partition, and/or lead the country into a new Gaddafism.


Over thousands of years of history, the territory that comprises the modern state of Libya has been divided between north and south. City-states in the northern coastal area have been dominated by conquerors from elsewhere in the Mediterranean, while in the south nomadic tribes (Tuaregs, Tubu) living in pastoral economies have had little involvement with, let alone interference from, those in the north.

As Jacques Romani observed in The Middle East Journal, Libyans before Gaddafi tried and failed to forge national unity through governments based on pan-Islamism and panArabism.

In the end, they succumbed to persistent colonialist rule until the country became an independent federalist state with an ineffective national government under the monarchy of King Idris in 1951.

Until Gaddafi’s overthrow in the February 17, 2011 revolution, just two regimes had ruled Libya since independence: King Idris from 1951 to 1969 and Gaddafi from 1969 to 2011.

King Idris’s government of 1951-1969 was minimalist in practice, adjudicating disputes with a light touch, and with only nascent national institutions.

Oil was discovered during his reign, in 1959, and Libya subsequently went from being among a handful of the world’s poorest countries per capita, to one with a broad social safety net.

Following the 1969 September revolution, in which Gaddafi and the Free Officers Movement deposed King Idris in a coup and abolished the monarchy, Gaddafi built a rentier, socialist society in which essentially all basic needs (water, electricity, cheap energy, cheap food, health care, and education for both sexes) were met by the state.

But these basics were provided by a government which extended no meaningful political rights in practice and in which wealth beyond the basics was divided between the “haves” (those favored by Gaddafi) and the “have-nots” (everyone else).

Under Gaddafi’s rule, elites included people from historically prominent families, plus his own, the small and previously uninfluential tribal group called the Qadhadhfa; successful importers; those trained as engineers and involved in infrastructure; and local tribal leaders.

The technocrats who were part of the Gaddafi system stayed out of politics. They were generally competent, their capabilities typically enhanced by stints abroad studying in any of the world’s best universities, paid for by the Libyan state.

Have-nots included the people of Cyrenaica east of Benghazi, whose territory produced most of Libya’s oil wealth, which departed from terminals in their region; the peoples of the Saharan interior; and Islamists, resentful of Gaddafi’s purely secularist governance.

They also began to include commercial and educated classes in Libya’s most prosperous cities, such as Misrata and Benghazi, whose elites felt politically marginalized despite their affluence.

Throughout Gaddafi’s 42-year rule, Libyans were told that power rested in the hands of the people under a system Gaddafi called Jamahiriya – the so-called “state of the masses.”

In theory it was supposed to provide social justice, high levels of production, the elimination of all forms of exploitation, and the equitable distribution of national wealth.

Instead of parliaments, Libya was supposed to have direct democracy, achieved through self-government, by the people through popular committees, rather than any form of intermediation.

In practice, Gaddafi decided everything that mattered. In the words of James Gelvin, it was “an Orwellian nightmare,” as “rule by the masses” in principle meant control by ”Gaddafi & Co,” backed by repression to keep the system going.

Gaddafi’s radical socialism is laid out in some detail in his 1975 manifesto, “The Little Green Book,” which states that Libya’s wealth belongs to all of its people equally, and they can decide how to manage it by participating in popular committees, congresses, and conferences.

For the 42 years of Gaddafi’s rule, they met, and he decided, especially after 1984, when he responded to an attempted military coup with a brief reign of terror. (In all, there were at least six attempted coups over the course of Gaddafi’s tenure.)

The country’s political institutions were underdeveloped and immature. Political parties were banned in 1972, and “rule by the people” was in practice limited to rule at the local level.

There, where everyone knew everyone, Libyans had experience in adjudicating compromise as families and tribes could generally find solutions that made sense within the community.

But Gaddafi had prevented this from ever happening on a national level. Gaddafi centralized the functioning of the state and built a limited number of essential institutions: the National Oil Corporation (NOC); the Central Bank; the Great Man Made River and associated water infrastructure; the Libyan General Electric Company; and the Libyan Post, Telecommunications, and IT Holding Company.

Each of these institutions was fundamentally technocratic, not political, and functioned reasonably well, even in an economy beset by corruption at the top and hobbled by subsidies at the bottom, which together inhibited the development of a broader economy beyond oil.

Gaddafi’s oft-generous social policies and infrastructure projects bought him a measure of support inside Libya, despite ideological limitations that for many years inhibited the development of an economy beyond oil exports and imports of foreign goods.

Restrictions on the right to have a private business were in place until 1988. Until then, post-coup Libyan commerce was run almost entirely by “revolutionary committees,” a structure that led to substantial shortages of consumer goods.

Gaddafi’s erratic foreign policy had long alienated other Arab leaders and left him increasingly isolated from other governments in the region.

Within Libya, his domestic policies were also increasingly seen as arbitrary, as well as repressive. While he shared enough wealth to take care of the basic economic needs of most Libyans, his regime increasingly came to be seen as a corrupt kleptocracy that benefitted Gaddafi, his family, and his minions first.

A never-to-be-forgotten inflection point was the 1996 massacre at Abu Salim Prison, in which some 1270 prisoners, including a number of Libya’s best and brightest political activists, were slaughtered and buried on the spot, before their bodies were exhumed and then ground into dust to leave no trace of what had happened.

For this, influential Libyan families who lost fathers, brothers, sons, and cousins never forgave Gaddafi and his regime.

More than four decades on, the young, handsome, and inspiring Gaddafi of 1969 had long since given way to an eccentric, embarrassing, and dangerous “crazy uncle” with an ostentatious lifestyle, given to wearing florid uniforms and making long, boring speeches.

The initial rebellion in Benghazi exposed the long developing cracks in the social contract between Gaddafi and the Libyan people, which rapidly built into the earthquake of the February 17 Revolution in 2011.

By then, Gaddafi’s support was a mile wide, but an inch deep: within a week of the February 17 Revolution, which began as a civil protest on February 15, 2011, most of Libya was reported to be under the control of opposition groups, with Gaddafi’s forces holding only Tripoli, Sirte, and Sabha.

The first Libyan independent government, the National Transitional Council, established itself in Benghazi on February 27, less than two weeks after the rebellion began, but was principally a public affairs operation, rather than a government.

Once Gaddafi organized a response, his forces took back about half the country. Nonetheless, NATO’s aerial bombardment soon turned the tide against him.

With his death on October 20, 2011, the Council suddenly was required to exercise power in reality, not just in name. Libya’s salvation had come, but its troubles were just beginning.

continues in Part 2


Jonathan M. Winer has been the United States Special Envoy for Libya, the deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement, and counsel to United States Senator John Kerry. He has written and lectured widely on U.S. Middle East policy, counter-terrorism, international money laundering, illicit networks, corruption, and U.S.-Russia issues.


Middle East Institute


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