Rebuilding Libya

The Benghazi civil society organization Attar, or Giving; photo by Kate Thomas/IRIN

The Benghazi civil society organization Attar, or Giving; photo by Kate Thomas/IRIN

Muammar Gaddafi’s misuse of governmental instruments and assets for over 42 years has left a gaping political vacuum, a severely impaired civil service, and a virtually non-existent civil society in Libya. Decades of intentional manipulation of state resources and a gross mismanagement of oil revenues have led to immeasurable social exclusion. According to the UN, over 40 percent of Libya’s population of 6 million lived below the poverty line under Gaddafi and reaped no direct benefit from its monumental oil riches. The cumulative effects of his bizarre decisions and the squandering of state resources obstructed economic progress.

Gaddafi decimated administrative structures as he maintained his centralized grip on power through a system of entrenched patronage and shifting tribal alliances. This Machiavellian game of constant duplicity served to disarm internal threats and to propagate an equally amorphous political vision based on The Green Book. Although he provided a generous social subsidy system for his people, maintained some of the highest socio-economic conditions on the African continent (and in the Arab world), and made additional strides in literacy promotion, Gaddafi in the end brought neither real democracy as promised in his dubious manifesto, nor did he deliver social justice. Along with a record of overwhelming human rights abuses, , Gaddafi left his people with a country rife with corruption, poverty and severe internal divisions.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) now faces critical security and governance challenges in its efforts to transition Libya from a rigid authoritarian state to a transparent, participative framework. With military leaders and armed factions beset by rivalries and deep-seated jealousies, securing the peace will prove to be a delicate undertaking. According to a report by Amnesty International, reprisal attacks, torture, and arbitrary arrests remain pervasive on the part of both Gaddafi loyalists and opposition forces — further undermining constructive reconciliation attempts. The establishment of an independent investigative commission, as envisaged by the TNC along the lines of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process, will be paramount in holding perpetrators of abuses accountable, compensating victims, and healing the wounds of a bitter past.

In order to restore law and order, the NTC must continue to garner credibility and act as a unifying force that fairly represents Libya’s complex tribal cultural system. A stable, post-conflict Libya requires a strategic process of collaborative consensus and coalition-building. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the lack of a vibrant civil society that could bridge traditional divisions in Libya is likely to impede progress toward building stability and trust. Therefore, the NTC ought to navigate Libya’s precarious political terrain through a process that accommodates opposition voices via partnership, transparency, and the creation of long-term conflict prevention solutions.

Political Infrastructure

With the adoption of the TNC’s Constitutional Declaration, a roadmap providing a legal framework and clear timetable for political transition has been established. However, perhaps the most unsettling provision of the Libyan draft interim constitution is the overly ambitious short timeframe — 60 days — outlined for the drafting of a permanent constitution. If not properly crafted, sequenced, and implemented, a new Libyan constitution may not endure the test of time.

Moving toward a durable democracy requires a genuine exchange of ideas, sustained dialogue, and innovative yet practical legislation. Although the TNC is reassuring the Libyan people that it is committed to a shorter transition and does not intend to hold the reins of power indefinitely, the constitution-making process should be deliberative, transparent, and include broad public participation. Lessons learned from Iraq and other highly politicized post-conflict environments reveal that strict constitutional drafting deadlines have the potential to inflame social divisions and lead to a trajectory of instability. Consequently, it is crucial to give the constitution-making period adequate time to integrate tribal and sectarian factions from a precariously evolving framework into a stable political system.

Even though Islamic jurisprudence, or Shari’ah, will certainly be a source of law in any future permanent constitution, whether it will be the primary source of law remains to be seen. Moreover, Libya’s model is unlikely to follow the strictly orthodox Hanbali School prominent among the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan or the Taliban of Afghanistan.

Libya belongs to the mainstream Maliki tradition practiced primarily in North and West Africa, which offers a more progressive interpretation of sociopolitical issues. According to the Maliki tradition, jurists emphasize al-maslaha al-mursalah (translated as social benefit) and interpret Shari’ah to pursue the public interest. But this judicial interpretation can only happen if the Libyan leadership is committed to freedom of thought and expression as well as the pluralism that has defined the Islamic legacy. A yearning for freedom, human rights, justice, dignity, and a rejection of political repression continues to define the “Arab Spring.” These noble aspirations reflect basic Islamic values, which are at the same time universal.

Although the Libyan draft constitution declares Shari’ah as a “source of law,” it is still too early to tell what legislation a future National Assembly will pass to reflect its spirit. Whether or not a “democratic consciousness” emerges will depend heavily on how well the Libyan leadership governs and which interpretations of Shari’ah will prevail. Undeniably, Islamic law has often been misconstrued and used to justify the rule of oppressive regimes. In its most extreme applications, it threatens human rights and violates women’s rights. The focus, therefore, should not be on whether Islam is compatible with democracy, but rather on how to introduce Islamic jurisprudence in a manner that reinforces, rather than impedes, international standards of human rights.

Building Civil Society

Building voluntary associations for the common interest is a critical part of the transition process. Fledgling Libyan civil society organizations have started to emerge in Benghazi, where activists are creating advocacy programs and forging alliances with colleagues in Misrata to the west. For example, the Attawasul Association (meaning to “connect” or “reach out”) brings together 150 volunteers to operate a media consortium with radio and newspaper production services. In addition, it serves as a training organization to equip future leaders with a range of technical resources and capacity-building skills.

Repairing Libya’s damaged infrastructure will also be pivotal in ensuring a peaceful transition. Sound courts, civil management, and oversight bodies are crucial for the effective functioning and legitimacy of a viable Libyan state. Ensuring that revamped institutions and systems work properly through well-designed controls and enforcement policies will eventually pay dividends in minimizing the corrosive effects of corruption. The challenges are monumental, yet the promise of remaking Libya’s public institutions and strengthening its governance structures can be realized through an honest assessment of potential vulnerabilities. The TNC has already started to assess reconstruction needs with plans to reform ministries, security forces, and public utilities.

As an oil-rich country with the largest reserves in Africa, Libya is especially susceptible to corruption and the grim possibility of a return to the concentration of resource wealth in the hands of a ruling elite. Gaddafi himself amassed a personal wealth of over $200 billion in assets, and oil revenues under his rule disproportionately benefited close associates. The prudent management of Libya’s oil resources and state assets will have a direct bearing on successfully promoting sustainable development.

A new opportunity now presents itself: Libya’s most important economic resource has the potential to serve as a catalyst for economic growth while directly benefitting its relatively small population of 6 million. Restoring oil production to pre-conflict levels may take some time and require specialized expertise. However, before the oil starts flowing, the Libyan leadership must ensure that accountability mechanisms are in place so that state revenues are not improperly diverted. Important lessons on corruption and accountability from a Human Rights Watch report on oil-rich Angola can shed light on how nations such as Libya, which has been plagued by similar resource mismanagement issues, ought to adopt more rigorous methods of investigating officials and conducting public audits of state oil companies.

The Role of Outside Powers

With the declaration of liberation, the Libyan people and their international supporters now face complex and challenging issues in the areas of post-conflict security, stability, and reconstruction. The UN Security Council unanimously adopted resolution UNSCR 2009 (2011) establishing a UN support mission for Libya (UNSMIL) with an initial period of three months, with the likelihood of extension. The mandate of UNSMIL is to assist and support Libyan national efforts in “restoring public security and order and promoting the rule of law; undertaking inclusive political dialogue, promoting national reconciliation and embarking upon the constitution-making and electoral process; promoting and protecting human rights; taking immediate steps to initiate an economic recovery and coordinating support that may be requested from other multilateral and bilateral actors.”

NATO forces are planning their exit strategy as post-Gaddafi Libya enters the state-building phase. The United States, Europe, and their partners intervened to protect Libyan civilians from the atrocities of the Gaddafi regime. Because the Western powers’ humanitarian claims for intervention have elicited suspicions of mixed motives relating to strategic and economic interests, it is all the more important for outside forces to tread carefully and ensure that Libyans take control of their own future. The Western powers’ continued commitment to maintaining the peace is essential, but the institution-building process must be given local Libyan ownership. The Libyan people are entitled to freely exercise their right to develop their own self-sustaining political institutions without too much outside assistance. Surely, Libya will require technical expertise to rebuild its governance architecture. However, such assistance should only come by formal invitation. Working multilaterally through the UN framework will serve to facilitate such requests and keep the Libyan transition on track.

The difficult path to security and good governance in Libya requires political commitment, strategic vision, proper accountability mechanisms, and a legal framework that inspires confidence in both the public and private sectors. There are no easy solutions. Creatively re-building Libya’s infrastructure by leveraging information and communication technology may be the most effective method once rule of law reforms begin. Here, social media could play a pivotal role in enhancing civic engagement, keeping Libyans informed of significant government decisions, and serving as a transparency mechanism to deter public officials from resorting to corrupt practices. The freer flow of information in the Arab world through the use of social media is reshaping the political landscape and contributing to an unprecedented opening to sharpen public accountability.

Libya has been through its fair share of stagnation and political decay. The promise of a better future for a free, prosperous, and democratic Libya lies in collaborative social innovation that can deliver sustainable development and economic growth.

Saeb El Kasm is an anti-corruption consultant and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He has taught Middle East political and legal reform at the University of California, Irvine.