Libya: Gaddafi left behind a long, damaging legacy
Five years after the revolution, the Libyans’ uprising has not yet been transformed into a new political order.
When the Arab uprisings began in Tunisia and quickly spread to Egypt, it was only inevitable that Libya, with a population that had been highly oppressed and deprived of its vast natural wealth, would follow suit.
On February 15, 2011, the Libyan revolution was sparked by a gathering crowd in Benghazi, the second largest city and a bedrock of opposition to Gaddafi’s tyranny.
The peaceful uprising quickly spread from Benghazi to other cities and by the third day (February 17) the Libyan revolution was in full flow.
Gaddafi’s reaction was expectedly very brutal and violent. He ordered his security forces to shoot directly at demonstrators, hoping that this would squash the revolutionary dissent and keep him in power.
The international community was obliged to intervene on March 19 to drive back Gaddafi’s huge military force that was sent to regain control of Benghazi.
Five years on, people are still debating whether the military intervention was justified and the right policy.
Some believed the West intervened purely to secure future interests in Libya’s vast wealth and natural resources. It has been argued that Western interventions did not take place in similar conflicts because there was no natural resources at stake and it did not serve their interests.
I strongly believe that the military intervention was correct and necessary to save thousands of civilian lives and to prevent a prolonged suffering for the Libyan population. The intervention was limited to air strikes, and no Western troops set foot on Libyan soil which could have been perceived as an invasion of Libya and a violation of its sovereignty.
The revolution intensified, along with the international community’s military air campaign, which effectively neutralised Gaddafi’s air force and destroyed most of his command and control centres and supply chains.
The end of his brutal era left a huge political and security vacuum in the country which was then filled by armed groups that were formed during and after the revolution.
This allowed the Libyan revolutionary fighters to make several gains on the ground by being able to match Gaddafi’s remnant security forces.
The demise of the Gaddafi regime came on August 20, 2011, when the capital, Tripoli, was finally liberated and Gaddafi was then killed exactly two months later.
The end of Gaddafi’s brutal era left a huge political and security vacuum in the country which was then filled by armed groups formed during and after the revolution.
The number of fighters during the revolution was put at around 25,000, yet after the liberation this number mushroomed tenfold to about 250,000.
This was owing to a policy put in place by the first transitional government in post-revolution Libya, to pay salaries to those who took part in the uprising and belonged to armed groups that were acting as the new security bodies.
These generous salaries encouraged unemployed Libyan young men to take up arms and set up their own militias or join existing ones. The proliferation of armed militias turned out to be one of the biggest problems after the revolution.
I believe that an alternative policy of concentrating efforts and resources to rebuilding a professional army and police force should have been implemented immediately after the end of the revolution.
With hindsight, a speedier transition to a new democratic state could have been achieved as a result of rebuilding security institutions sooner rather than later. In the present moment, militias and armed groups continue to be perceived as an obstacle to completing the political transition.
In July 2012 Libya witnessed its first ever democratic elections, which led to a new transitional parliament called the General National Congress (GNC).
The GNC in turn appointed a new transitional government that was tasked with running the country. The GNC was supposed to oversee the transition up until a draft constitution was put to a referendum and final elections held to elect a permanent legislative body that would then take over power.
Yet the constitutional drafting assembly that was directly elected has not produced a draft until now.
However, the political parties that participated in the elections for the first time in Libya’s modern history did not live up to public expectations as they were continually seen as competing against one another to pursue their own narrow interests and agendas at the expense of national consensus and unity.
This created a negative perception about political parties in the eyes of most of the Libyan people, at a time where they were looking to them to provide stronger leadership showing real patriotism and upholding Libyan national interests.
The elections in June 2014 gave birth to the House of Representatives (HOR) which was to replace the GNC. By mid 2014, it was clear that the transition timetable set out by the interim constitutional declaration was not going to be met. This led to changes in the declaration to allow for elections to take place for a third transitional period.
However, an official power handover never took place, resulting in two competing parliaments operating in the country at the same time; the GNC in Tripoli and HOR in the eastern city of Tobruk.
During the same period, a retired general, Khalifa Haftar, had attempted to assume power through a military coup. In a televised statement, he announced the freezing of the constitutional declaration and termination of the GNC.
The coup was widely dismissed. Having failed to take over power in Tripoli, Haftar turned his attention to gaining support in the east of the country by claiming that he would rid Benghazi of terrorism under the banner of the Dignity operation.
Haftar’s actions plunged Libya into practically two civil wars, one in the east and one in the west, which were fuelled by regional players who wanted to gain influence in the country through the opposing groups they supported.
A few months into the civil war, the UN decided to intervene and initiate a national dialogue that would lead to a power-sharing agreement meant to stop the fighting and get Libya back on its transitional track.
After more than a year of various dialogue tracks and meetings held mainly in locations outside Libya, a political agreement was signed in the city of Skhirat, Morocco on December 17, 2015. The main signatories to this agreement were representatives of the two competing parliaments as well as political parties and other independent figures.
This agreement resulted in the appointment of a new presidential council, consisting of nine members headed by Fayez Serraj, which was to form a new government of national accord (GNA).
The political agreement may not be ideal and it will always have critics citing weaknesses in it. However, there can never be a perfect political agreement and solution.
Compromises have been made by all sides in the conflict and I believe it is the best outcome that could have been achieved considering the current circumstances, particularly the fragile economic and security situations.
There would have been dire consequences if the dialogue had failed and an agreement had not been reached.
On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Libyan revolution, we look back and see that the comprehensive victory achieved by the Libyan people in 2011 has not yet been transformed into a new political and social order.
Many obstacles have appeared in the transitional period thus far, some being intrinsic to Libyan society and some due to detrimental intervention by various regional states.
It has become clear that Gaddafi has left behind a long, damaging legacy caused by his deliberate decimation of any forms of state institutions.
Gaddafi’s legacy also included having no formal constitution or an independent judiciary system as well as the prohibition of political parties, civil society organisations and free press throughout his 42-year rule.
It became apparent that the culture of political pluralism and consensus within Libyan society was very weak or non-existent.
Libya stands today as a divided country with its population experiencing lack of stability and security as well as economic hardships owing to major falls in oil exports and prices. Alongside this, Libya is also experiencing an expanding terrorist threat from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) gaining footholds in cities such as Derna, Benghazi and, mainly, Sirte.
The newly appointed GNA will have to face the mammoth challenge of ending the civil war and reuniting the country and its main institutions, as well as providing safety and security and restoring better socioeconomic conditions.
Five years on, it is clear that the Libyan people have yet to enjoy the fruits of their major sacrifices during the 2011 revolution. Libyans were very successful in defeating and dismantling a brutal and totalitarian political regime. However, replacing it with a new political system based on justice, democratic institutions and rule of law proved to be much more difficult to achieve.
The key factors for achieving successful change for Libyans lie in instilling a new culture of tolerance, political consensus, reconciliation and a new social contract that ensures the fair sharing of power and wealth.
Dr Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party and has also been a participant of the Libyan Political Dialogue overseen by the UN.