Libya, Social Origins of Dictatorship, and the Challenge for Democracy

A topic of renewed relevance amidst increasing partisanship, resurfacing of old loyalties, and neo-colonial interests by Western nations is treated in this contribution by Libyan historian Ali Ahmida to a special issue on North African revolutions: “Libya, Social Origins of Dictatorship, and the Challenge for Democracy.” Journal of the Middle East and Africa 3 (2012), 70–81.

The abstract is as follows:

This article analyzes the 2011 revolution in Libya by focusing on three elements: the Qaddafi regime’s failure to address the question of political reform and its subsequent alienation of important elite groups within the country; the impact of demography, urbaniza- tion, and global social media on the progress of the revolution; and the success of an enterprising revolutionary leadership within Libya that was able to obtain critical diplomatic and military sup- port from the United Nations, the Arab League, and NATO. The main thesis of this article is that the regime’s inability to make serious political reforms appropriate to changes occurring in the economy, education, and society eventually led to conflict between a dynamic social structure and a rigid political system that was unable to meet the demands and grievances of new social forces, especially unemployed youth. The gap between the Libyan youth and the ruling elite undermined the gains achieved by the regime during the 1970s and eventually led to the formation of an alie- nated revolutionary coalition. Had Muammar Qaddafi responded with openness to the calls for reform and not overreacted to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the urban elite in Libya might have been placated and the violent rebellion might have been avoided.

Two papers on Property and Law in Libya

Two recent articles, to my knowledge, attempt a discussion of property law in Libya and what recent changes in the political structure of the country may mean.

Jessica Carlisle. “‘We woke up and everything had gone to Qadhafi.’ Corruption, Rent-Seeking, and Struggle for Elite Status During Libyan Property Disputes.” Middle East Law and Governance 6 (2014), 93-122.

Abstract: “Since the 2011 revolution claimants in Libya have been lobbying to demand reinstatement of property confiscated from their families by Qadhafi under Law 4/1978. During this campaign they have forcefully argued that they have been impoverished and side-lined as victims of corruption. In particular, they highlight how their property enriched and empowered the Qadhafi regime’s corrupt elites as it was redistributed as a form of state controlled ‘rent’. However, in making this argument they have tried to limit retrospective evaluations of property rights to the Qadhafi period, preventing investigation of their own families’ accumulation of property under the Italian occupation or the monarchy. Property claimants’ preferred solution is for the democratically elected government to enforce property restitution and to allocate state funds for compensa-tion and for housing construction. The prospects for this are not good. In post- revolutionary Libya powerful militia have made land and property grabs, and other post-revolutionary elites are accused of engaging in corruption, in a continuing threat to property claimants’ future political and economic status.”

Mary Fitzgerald & Tarek Megerisi. Libya: Whose Land is it? Property Rights and Transition. Legatum Institute: Transitions Forum (2015).

Summary: “In 1978, Muammar Qaddafi decreed that no Libyan could own more than one house. All rental properties were subsequently reallocated to tenants or confiscated by the state. In 1986, he abolished land ownership altogether. These and other sweeping redistribution policies had farreaching consequences, creating the profound grievances, administrative chaos and economic imbalances that have hampered the reconstruction of Libya since 2011.

Without an understanding of the history of Libyan property rights, both before and after the revolution, it is impossible either to understand how Libyan politics came to deteriorate so quickly, or to design a realistic path out of the current crisis. Disputes over property helped spark the post-revolutionary fighting, and they continue to fuel conflict today.

The resolution of property rights issues also has a deeper significance. Before peace and prosperity can have any chance of succeeding in Libya, the country’s citizens will have to resolve longstanding historical grievances in a manner which all perceive to be just. The conversations that will be required to fix the chaos over land and housing are the same kinds of conversations that will be required to create a stable political and economic system.”

Women’s Bodies in Post-Revolution Libya: Control and Resistance

“Women’s Bodies in Post-Revolution Libya: Control and Resistance” by Sahar Mediha Elnaas and Nicola Pratt. In Rethinking Gender in Revolutions and Resistance: Lessons from the Arab World. London: Zed Books, 2015.

“Ever since the uprisings that swept the Arab world, the role of Arab women in political transformations received unprecedented media attention. The copious commentary, however, has yet to result in any serious study of the gender dynamics of political upheaval.

Rethinking Gender in Revolutions and Resistance is the first book to analyse the interplay between moments of sociopolitical transformation, emerging subjectivities and the different modes of women’s agency in forging new gender norms in the Arab world. Written by scholars and activists from the countries affected, including Paletine, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, this is an important addition to Middle Eastern gender studies.”

Read a review and discussion of the book at Jadaliyya.