Libya’s postponed democracy

Larbi Sadiki examines the liberation movements in Libya, both internal and external, and how they benefit civic life.

''Liberated'' Eastern Libya Adjusts To Life Without Gaddafi Rule - Larbi Sadiki article
In order to prepare Libyans for post-Gaddafi rule, a vibrant civil society with proper institutions must first be created [GALLO/GETTY]

Libya’s emerging civil society, wherever it may be, must fight Muammar Gaddafi on its own terms, using the means that enable it to outmanoeuvre the Colonel.

He sought and succeeded at militarising their uprising. Maybe that was his game, so those leading Libya today should demarcate a different terrain: constructing an active civil society and organising for the sake of democratic institution-building.

So what is being done to build a new, stronger civil society? What role does the Libyan diaspora play in it? What critique can be presented against the main body now vying to win the right to represent free Libya, the National Transitional Council (NTC)?

A society under construction

Libya’s uprising does not fit the Orientalist stereotype of a ‘mob’ or ‘street’ raging in uncontrollable anger.

It is a quasi-referendum against misrule in a country where Gaddafi bans elections, political parties and all forms of autonomous organised political activity. Law 71 does exactly that (article 3 of this law imposes the death penalty on anyone who forms, supports or participates in an opposing political party). The uprising is, in a way, a form of ‘public opinion’, spontaneous and instantaneous.

Partly, Libyans’ hunger for activism and resistance has been dismissed by scholarship obsessed with the study of elites and the state’s capacity for control.

Libyans began their resistance against tyranny a long time before the world cared to notice.

Resistance is not born overnight. Its threads originate in the acts of courageous men and women, some of whom die only to live forever as unsung heroes who rose up against tyranny and were prepared to pay a price for their acts of resistance.

The Organizing Committee for the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition is one vision begun a long time ago. The Islamists, including those closest in ideology to the Muslim Brotherhood, have not been passive vis-à-vis dictatorship.

Who are some of the key actors and voices today carrying the torch of popular empowerment, steering Libya away from dynasticism and tyranny? How are they re-imagining Libya’s civil society?

Critique of the NTC

Before delving into the key players, it is imperative to first get an understanding of the National Transitional Council itself.

The NTC is not perfect, but it must be lauded for initiative, boldness and decisiveness at a critical juncture in Libya’s history.

From the outset, the NTC was in-built with power and weakness owing to the voices and figures siding with the rebels against Gaddafi.

Many bring into the rebels’ camp insider or antidote-type knowledge/medicine against the bacteria contaminating the body politic embodying the Gaddafi dynasty.

At least psychologically, this factor alone shakes the confidence of the dynasty’s mission to reproduce itself and to recruit allies, internally and externally.

The weakness is no less potent though. Hypothetically, were these figures to switch sides or allow their loyalty to be bought back, it would deliver Gaddafi a perfect counter-revolution.

Incidentally, neither the Egyptian nor Tunisian people power revolts were devoid of counter-revolutionaries. Fortunately, the revolutionary tidal wave was such that counter-revolutionaries had no choice but to ride the wave or risk drowning.

Gaddafi versus Gaddafi

It is almost a case of Gaddafi versus Gaddafi in Libya.

Amongst the rebellious coalition were some of Gaddafi’s most ardent confidantes and loyal comrades-in-arms.

If not tainted by the blood of his misrule, they knowingly consented to partner in Gaddafi’s dictatorship. Today they may qualify as some kind of ‘born-again’ politicians, but until two months ago they reeked of ‘Gaddafi-ism’.

Ali al-Issawi, foreign minister in the Council, was an associate of Saif, who appointed him as a minister of economy before the revolt. He also ‘anointed’ him president for Saif’s Excellence Award.

Mahmoud Jibril, the NTC’s premier, was another close associate of Gaddafi and Saif, who charged him with overseeing the National Forum for Economic Development that was tasked with economic liberalisation and privatisation. He also was a member in the committee of Saif’s withdrawn Constitution.

Limitations of the NTC

There are, though, many limitations of the NTC.

There is a ‘tribal’ element that may be deliberately concealed, and it, too, may need specific representation.

The names of key players do not show the tribal geneaology, such as Jibril’s ‘Al-Warfalli’ (in reference to Warfallah, Libya’s largest tribe) and Mustafa Abd al-Jalil’s al-Bara’si (in reference to the Bara’sah tribe). 

The allocation of roles within the NTC will need to be subjected to more rigorous democratic competition. There is little transparency about the process or criteria of portfolio allocation.

Portfolios were allocated long before the forming of the transitional government on March 23. Furthermore, the set of values binding its members may for now be driven by ousting Gaddafi, making the NTC a single-issue civic body.

Representation is confusing. Some councillors represent regions; others represent a form of ‘interest group’ (political prisoners) or a specialism (military affairs). Ajdabiya, Bayda and Murj all lack representation. The basis for regional representation is not made clear.

The diaspora and the search for a body politic

The Libyan diaspora has not been idle. One of the first civic bodies formed to to oppose Gaddafi’s dictatorship was the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) created in October 1981.

Eleven years into Gaddafi’s reign, co-founder Mohamed al-Magariaf, a well-known academic and diplomat now based in the US, realised that the colonel’s revolution was a lost cause.

This was the man personally targeted by Gaddafi’s bombing of the UTA flight in 1989. Gaddafi’s henchmen thought he was on board that flight.

Luckily for Libya, al-Magariaf lived on, working with others through political means to develop a democratic vision and help construct a civic institution fit for post-Gaddafi Libya.
The NFSL calls for a democratic government with constitutional guarantees, free and fair elections, free press, separation of powers, non-discriminatory rule of law, gender equality, multi-partyism, sustainable development, and a realistic democratic road-map that benefits from Libyan, Arab and Islamic traditions as well as democratic learning from Nelson Mandela’s democratisation experience, amongst others.
The NFSL’s early strategies were a mix of politics and martial resistance. It took part in the 1984 attack on Gaddafi’s headquarters at Bab al-Aziziyyah, executed by some of its commandos, including Ahmad Hwas.

However, in the diaspora, the NFSL focused on political struggle, using media campaigns and the construction of a broad-based anti-Gaddafi coalition.

It is in the process of crystallising a democratic road map as its own contribution of how to defeat Gaddafi using international sanctions and the International Criminal Court.

Who’s who?

The NFSL boasts major names known for their dedication to the democratisation of Libya as well as by their integrity as professionals in their fields of specialism.

They include al-Hadi Shaluf, trained in criminology in Italy and France. Dr Shaluf, who hails from Zintan, is credited with founding the first Libyan political party in the Diaspora. He and and other dissidents named the party they created in 2005 the Justice and Democracy Party (Hizb al Adalah wa al Dimuqratiyyah).

Other potential key players in the NFSL, in Libya and in the diaspora abroad, include dissidents Abu-Baker Buera, a US graduate in strategic management and public service, and now a well-known academic at Garyounis University.

Others are trained in the sciences such as the physics professor, Mustafa Abu-Shaqoor, who lived and taught in the US. He currently continues his academic career in Dubai. 

Another talent is Dr Suliman Abdullah, an electrical engineer by training with academic association at the University of Kentucky, and with a strong passion for Arab and Islamic studies.

No less talented is Mansour Mohamed Al-kikhia, professor of geography. All these men, amongst many other dissidents, are committed to peaceful, plural, and sustainable democratic transition coupled with a process of truth and reconciliation process such as that enacted in Mandela’s South Africa.

Moreover, their combined vision places a high premium on constitutional government, institution-building, human rights, equal opportunity and participation, and fair competition as the sole means to allocate power and share it.

This vision is enshrined in the NFSL’s civilisation project charter, a comprehensive programme for the democratisation of post-Gaddafi Libya.

The charter envisions democratic induction via an elected transitional parliament to be tasked with framing a constitution to be put to a referendum.

The road ahead

Their vision takes popular empowerment very seriously, and to this end stresses the right of Libyans through dialogue to build a vibrant civil society and democracy suited to the Libyan locale, but not inhospitable to learning about how democracy unfolds, deepens and widens.

The NFSL was one of the first Libyan associations to lend its full support to the NTC, believing in the necessity of organised activism and a structure for the purpose of methodical popular empowerment and leadership against Gaddafi’s teetering rule.

The NFSL prefers transparency in the allocation of portfolios, power-sharing and pluralism.

Also, the NFSL differs from the NTC on three distinct areas: having historical pedigree being a 31-year-old declared opposition against Gaddafi’s authoritarian rule; possessing a clear institutional structure and active membership; being the first to articulate a democracy road-map for Libya.

At this critical time in Libya’s struggle, this vision is bound to boost the twin fight against authoritarianism, and for good government.

Along with the NTC and other forces, this vision adds value to the Libyan people’s struggle and quest for a Gaddafi-less society.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.