December 26th, 2011
09:18 AM ET

Barfi: Rebuilding the ruins of Gadhafi

Editor's Note: Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation.  You can read more from Barak Barfi at Project Syndicate and be sure to check it out on Facebook and Twitter.

By Barak BarfiProject Syndicate

TRIPOLI – With the creation of a new government, Libya’s leaders should finally be able to focus on organizing the transition from the authoritarian state that they inherited to the more pluralistic one they envisage. But are they really able and willing to achieve that goal?

In the United States, the debate on Libya has focused on what steps its government should take next. Senator Robert Menendez argues it “must move quickly to embrace democratic reform,” while international development specialists, such as Manal Omar of the U.S. Institute for Peace, believe that success lies in the cultivation of a vibrant civil society.

These views, however, overlook Libya’s unique history, and treat Libya as though it were just another Third World country in need of generic solutions. In fact, remedying the country’s ills requires building strong state institutions.

Since Libya achieved independence in 1951, it has been a fractured state. Rulers relied on loyal tribes and narrow cliques to prop up their regimes. Under a monarchy that led the country from 1951-1969, King Idris’s relatives and inner circle ran roughshod over fledgling state institutions. More interested in reigning than in governing, state institutions withered under Idris’s neglect.

These trends were exacerbated after Moammar Gadhafi overthrew the king in 1969. Frustrated with a bureaucracy reluctant to implement his political vision, Gadhafi bypassed traditional institutions and claimed a direct dialogue with the country’s population. The new Libyan leader created an intricate hierarchy of political organizations that were advertised as empowering citizens, but which in reality only reinforced their subservience to his autocratic regime.

As Libyans tired of Gadhafi's revolutionary rhetoric, he decided that a new organization was needed to stir popular support. In 1977, he established committees that he dubbed the “watchdogs of the revolution.” The committees formed their own courts, assumed sweeping arrest powers, took over the media, and purged officials who resisted Gadhafi's will. This led to a split between the state’s official institutions and Gadhafi's shadow revolutionary apparatus.

Gadhafi clearly preferred the latter. In 1979, he resigned from his official posts to assume the vague role of “Commander of the Revolution,” explaining that “the revolution must be separated from the authority of the state.” This led to what the scholar Moncef Djaziri described as a division of formal and informal authority.

Gadhafi's strategy stunted the growth of state institutions, because, like Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, it implied subordinating their development to the needs of an all-embracing vision of transformation. Economic planning reflected his populist policies and foreign adventures, rather than any focus on stability and sustainable growth. Instead of relying on state structures to govern, he leaned on a small coterie of minions and members of his tribe.

As a result, state institutions decayed. Beginning in 1986, the Libyan Central Bank ceased publishing the annual statistical reports that economists and specialists need to formulate coherent policies. Frustrated by his population’s political apathy, Gadhafi frequently announced his intention to dissolve all government ministries and transfer their responsibilities to municipalities.

Today, Libya’s state institutions exist merely to extract the country’s vast oil wealth and distribute it via subsidies. In a state that embodied the whim of its leader for 42 years, the rule of law does not exist. Explaining why he helped spearhead a 1993 military coup attempt, Air Force officer Muhammad Bashir Salah said, “We have neither a state, nor laws, nor a constitution.”

Indeed, even the military, which in many Third World countries is the strongest state institution, was marginalized under Gadhafi. The revolutionary committees’ attacked it for being “a traditional fascist institution.” Gadhafi declared his desire to disband the army on several occasions, and its role was so insignificant that it played almost no part in defending the regime during the eight months of fighting that overthrew him.

American diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks noted that Libya has “few formal decision-making structures,” and called it an “opaque regime in which lines of authority are deliberately blurred to obscure power structures and mitigate accountability.”

Today, Gadhafi's successors on the National Transitional Council (NTC) are perpetuating the dualistic authority that he created. Politically inexperienced and lacking strong leadership, they have proved unable to impose discipline on the myriad militias that sprang up during the revolution. These rogue units have exacted vengeance on Gadhafi supporters and alienated significant segments of society. If the NTC cannot assert its authority, the council risks the emergence of a movement nostalgic for Gadhafi and the security that his regime provided.

Unlike their neighbors in Egypt, Libyans are not clamoring for the elections deemed by many Westerners to be of paramount importance. Instead, they have drawn on a patience rooted in their traditional political apathy. Few political parties have emerged, and there is little popular demand for them. Activists have instead focused on drafting a new constitution that would empower state institutions.

Libyans understand that the NTC needs time to build a new country on the ruins of the one that Gadhafi destroyed. That daunting task begins by developing the state institutions required to respond to Libyans’ needs.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Barak Barfi. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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Topics: Libya • State-building

soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. Kerry

    The only certain thing about Libya's future is that it will remain a U.S. Satellite state like Poland was to Russia after WW2 governed by Washington's cronies. I guess that with all the U.S. foreign aid forthcoming, they should be able to do some good there.

    December 26, 2011 at 11:40 am | Reply
    • Ali1

      Kerry, Libyans did not need US aid they had their own money and leaved good. The problem is US and UK oil companies did not have access to that oil, and now they have and thats the western game. We already saw that in Irag.

      December 27, 2011 at 6:04 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    If Libya wants unity in the country, it has to reach out to everybody. The civilians in Sirte, the birthplace of the late Muammar Gaddafi which was bombed to smithereens, are punished for their loyalty. They lost their home and can't expect help from the interim government to rebuild the town.

    December 26, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      British intelligence reported that various members of the Al Qaeda had left Afghanistan and Pakistan and found safe haven in North Africa. A few were alleged to be on their way to Libya.

      December 26, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Reply
      • hamiya

        yaa right.. british intelligence should also report the oil companies ready to invade Libya in few years for oil and the so called NATO forces will stay there in search of another ghost terrorist until the oil is completely under control of the oil... and the Libyans will fight each other calling each other terrorists and other names....

        December 27, 2011 at 6:28 am |
  3. hafidh

    I dont think the author have the knowldge of Libya, and it is dissappointing to hear again and again only western can have their way working for all. Any society in this world have its way of living, like any family, what can be good to your family is not necessarly be good to other family. We have never heard of unemployment in Libya, no homeless, no starvation. But report repeated again and again shows that In America unemplyment is increasing day by day, economy is strugling, Italy and Greece have fallen because of economic problems, but we didnt hear these intelectuals suggesting to send the Italians or Greeks working in US universities to start revolts and form new government. Racism is not white segrigating black or vice versus, it is also thingink that that certain peoples way of life is not as good as yours. Libya had a running government, the western countries did not like the leader and the system, because it was not to their benefit, they wanted to have a puppet who allows them to reap everything and if you happen to refuse you become a bad guy, Libyans will start crying very soon just Like Iraq, and nothing will move an inch to ward development. In africa we have a saying " if a baby cry for a razor , let him have it, once it does the demage the lesson will me taught, but unfortunately by the time they realize it .. it becomes beyond their control...

    December 27, 2011 at 4:12 am | Reply
  4. Ali1

    The name of this article should be: rebuilding the ruins of NATO and Western occupation. Libya had the best economy in Africa under Gaddafi, what will happen now? The US and UK oil companies will driil oil, and locals fight each other with western made weapons. Those stupid Libyans did not think when they killed Gaddafi.

    December 27, 2011 at 5:59 am | Reply

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