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Politics Under Gaddafi

Libya under Gaddafi was a police state, and could not be expected to willingly concede political authority. Libya's political system is in theory based on the political philosophy in Qadhafi's Green Book, which combines socialist and Islamic theories and rejects parliamentary democracy and political parties. In reality, Qadhafi exercises near total control over major government decisions. In the 1980s, competition grew between the official Libyan Government, military hierarchies, and the revolutionary committees. An abortive coup attempt in May 1984, apparently mounted by Libyan exiles with internal support, led to a short-lived reign of terror in which thousands were imprisoned and interrogated. An unknown number were executed. Qadhafi used the revolutionary committees to search out alleged internal opponents following the coup attempt, thereby accelerating the rise of more radical elements inside the Libyan power hierarchy.

In 1988, faced with rising public dissatisfaction with shortages in consumer goods and setbacks in Libya's war with Chad, Qadhafi began to curb the power of the revolutionary committees and to institute some domestic reforms. The regime released many political prisoners and eased restrictions on foreign travel by Libyans. Private businesses were again permitted to operate.

In the late 1980s, Qadhafi began to pursue an anti-Islamic fundamentalist policy domestically, viewing fundamentalism as a potential rallying point for opponents of the regime. Qadhafi's security forces launched a pre-emptive strike at alleged coup plotters in the military and among the Warfallah tribe in October 1993. Widespread arrests and government reshufflings followed, accompanied by public "confessions" from regime opponents and allegations of torture and executions. The military, once Qadhafi's strongest supporters, became a potential threat in the 1990s. In 1993, following a failed coup attempt that implicated senior military officers, Qadhafi began to purge the military periodically, eliminating potential rivals and inserting his own loyal followers in their place.

Qadhafi's strategy of frequent re-balancing of roles and responsibilities of his lieutenants made it difficult for outsiders to understand Libyan politics. Several key political figures held overlapping portfolios, and switched roles in a country where personalities and relationships often played more important roles than official titles. While high-ranking officials may have official portfolios, it was not uncommon for supposed subordinates to report directly to Qadhafi on issues thought to be within the purview of other officials. Foreign Minister Musa Kusa was nominated in March 2009, after having served as the chief of the External Security Organization (Libya's intelligence service) for over a decade. Prime Minister al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi oversaw the day-to-day operation of the Libyan cabinet, and played a key role in setting financial, and regulatory affairs, as well as domestic policies.

Mutassim al-Qadhafi is the Libyan leader's fourth son and was formerly National Security Adviser; his portfolio included security and military relations, as well as foreign intelligence. Qadhafi called for his second son, Saif al-Islam, to take appointment as the "General Coordinator of the People's Social Leadership" in October 2009, although as of November 2010 the younger Qadhafi had yet to announce that he would accept the position. Saif al-Islam is seen by many Western observers as a reformer. His Qadhafi International Charity and Development Foundation (QDF) serves as a platform from which he applies pressure on government officials on issues such as human rights, civil society development, and political and economic reforms. The QDF played a key role in brokering dialogue with former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group members (LIFG), which led to their subsequent release from prison, and recantation of violence as a tool of jihad.

Ordinary Libyans, frustrated by privations during the country's isolation under sanctions and exhausted by decades of largely failed political adventurism under the rubric of Muammar al-Qadhafi's al-Fateh Revolution, appeared by early 2009 to care more about economic reform than political change. Historically entrepeneurial, al-Qadhafi's revolution had been a "poor fit" for most Libyans. The lifting of sanctions and nascent economic reforms were a welcome relief; however, the increasing disparity between what Libyans saw and wanted to buy and what they could afford (the majority are still employed by the government) has remained a problem. Static state salaries and inflation, particularly with respect to prices for food and key staples, have hit ordinary Libyans hard in the years since 2007.

The tendency of greedy regime elites to monopolize the most lucrative market sectors has had political consequences, and the pervasive culture of rent-seeking that evolved during the sanctions period, together with conspicuous consumption by regime elites, has not sat well with the silent majority of Libyans, who remain socially conservative. The fact that many young men are forced by lack of means to delay marriage is another pressing economic issue in a conservative society in which marriage is a key social anchor and indicator of status.

Some Libyans were cautiously optimistic about proposals for wealth distribution and continued economic reform, but less sanguine about proposed government re-structuring and political change. Despite talk of a possible constitution and perhaps even elections, Libyans were mostly sober-minded about the prospect and likely pace of political change, at least while Muammar al-Qadhafi remains alive and in control. But they are cautiously optimistic that the limited economic reforms that have been undertaken to date will continue, and that their salaries will somehow increase enough to allow them to enjoy more of the consumer goods that they were largely deprived of for more than 20 years.

A significant danger, though, was the increasing disparity between what Libyans saw and wanted to buy and what they could afford. The combination of static state salaries and inflation, particularly with respect to prices for food and key staples, have hit ordinary Libyan families hard in the last two years. More than 60 percent of Libya's workforce were public sector employees with salaries that had not changed in years, and some 250,000 of them draw salaries but did not work, according to the minister-equivalent for Manpower, Employment and Training. Overall inflation for 2007 was 6.3 percent and 12 percent for 2008; foodstuffs, beverages and tobacco increased by 16.4 percent.

Libyans, particularly those in eastern Libyan, had a long history as successful traders, highlighting the failure of the Jamahiriya to either efficiently distribute oil wealth or develop other economic sectors. Most Libyans would probably be willing to forego political reform in exchange for more income and greater stability in terms of services provided by the state. Many middle and lower-class Libyans, feared that proposed government re-structuring, which would include dismantling many existing ministry-equivalents (including those for health and education), would mean a lesser quality of life in at least the near to mid-term. While they are intrigued by the proposal to distribute oil wealth directly to Libyan citizens, they have little expectation that such will actually occur. If it were to happen, many believe that the proposed stipends would not be sufficient to defray the costs of paying for services like education and health care, which would be privatized.

Many Libyans were not able to earn enough to get married. Like many Middle Eastern countries, it was expected that grooms and their families will provide fully furnished homes for newly-married couples. Increased expectations about what that means - modern appliances are expensive - have made it increasingly difficult for young men to save enough to marry, delaying the age at which they do so. In a conservative society in which marriage constitutes an important social anchor and bellwether of worth, that trend has worrying social consequences.

The proposed direct distribution of oil wealth to the people - an idea floated by Muammar al-Qadhafi in March 2008 that captured the popular imagination - dominated the session of the Basic People's Congresses in early 2009. An attendant proposal to dismantle most ministry-equivalents and privatize a large number of services currently managed and provided by the government was given relatively short shrift. The focus on wealth distribution reflects the fact that ordinary Libyans, exhausted by the pervasive chaos that has characterized al-Qadhafi's regime and its successive political-economic experiments, are frustrated by politics and seek the comfort of a marginally better day-to-day quality of life. Despite talk of a possible constitution and perhaps even elections, Libyans are mostly sober-minded about the prospect and likely pace of political change, at least while Muammar al-Qadhafi remains alive and in control. But they are cautiously optimistic that the limited economic reforms that have been undertaken to date will continue, and that their salaries will somehow increase enough to allow them to enjoy more of the consumer goods that they were largely deprived of for more than 20 years.

The regime was stagnating and voices of opposition were subtly rising across the country, particularly from the poorer, eastern areas. The people see what the rest of the world has and know that the country is wealthy, but they did not see any of the wealth. They wonder where it goes. The younger generations are particularly frustrated with their country's slow economic development and lack of employment opportunities, estimating unemployment at 30 percent. The regime is concerned about this frustration exploding into violence.

Human rights remained one of the most sensitive issues in Libya, particularly for conservative regime elements, many of whom personally played a part in the most serious transgressions of the late 1970's and 1980's. Most human rights initiatives backed by Saif al-Islam and the QDF (the Bulgarian nurses, families of victims of the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre, the release of former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group members) have downplayed personal responsibility and focused on compensation as a means to resolve old grievances. Identifying and seeking to hold accountable specific individuals would be a significant evolution.

Reform-minded Libyans were "cautiously hopeful" regarding the 06 October 2009 appointment of Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi as "General Coordinator." The move provided the Qadhafi regime a "new lease on life" by introducing a person widely considered to be reform minded - both by local and foreign observers - into the system. With Saif at the top, Muammar al-Qadhafi thinks he will induce people into believing that real change is taking place. Meanwhile, he still has a few more years to control Libya from behind the scenes. In true Qadhafi fashion, this political move had local observers guessing about what practical effect the announcement will have on the Libyan government and people. Given the backdrop of political apathy in Libya, ordinary citizens are unlikely to react to the news until they begin to see real change in their daily lives. Many observers here believe that Saif's visible role in the return and welcome given to convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi was one of the necessary steps the Qadhafi clan had to take to enable the Leader to elevate Saif to this new position.

By 2010 Libya appeared to be in one of its intermittent periods of intense political foment. As debate in the externally-based opposition press and Libya's small indigenous elite swirled around proposed wealth distribution, government re-structuring, possible adoption of a constitution and the ostensible withdrawal from politics by presumed heir-apparent Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, ordinary Libyans have largely eschewed politics and remained primarily focused on improving their daily standard of living. Ordinary Libyans had been frustrated by years of sanctions-imposed privations and, more recently, by the disparity between increased availability of consumer goods and their stagnant salaries.

Exhausted by years of largely failed political adventurism under the auspices of Muammar al-Qadhafi's al-Fateh Revolution and the Jamahiriya (state of the masses), most Libyans did not really care about politics or political reform. "Do not give us free speech, parties, a constitution or elections - give us the ability to make and freely spend money", one said. In a conservative society dominated by tribes, Libyans are primarily focused on providing for their families. Drawing an analogy with Russia, Libyans would remain politically quiescent as long as economic conditions were "acceptable", but cautioned that "poverty is real" in Libya and that maintaining the perception of an improved daily quality of life for people was a serious political imperative for Muammar al-Qadhafi's regime. Despite the country's oil wealth, some internal government reports reportedly suggest that as many as a third of Libya's estimated one million families live at or below the poverty line.

Libyans were historically entrepeneurial and characterized the period of revolutionary zeal in Libya between the late 1970's and early 1990's as a "poor fit" for them. Masters of tactical maneuvering and operating with tight margins, Libyan businessmen only needed a small window in which to flourish - the recent relaxation of rules still on the books prohibiting private ownership and governing profits had been enough to prompt a flood of consumer goods by comparison with what had been on offer only four or five years earlier.

The demonstrations were initially confined to Benghazi and other cities in eastern Libya since they began Tuesday 15 February 2011. They represented an unprecedented challenge to the four-decade rule of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, whose supporters have staged small rallies in the capital, Tripoli, in recent days.

At least 14 people were injured when police dispersed an anti-government demonstration in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi in the early hours of Wednesday, 16 February 2011. Demonstrators gathered in front of police headquarters, chanting slogans against the "corrupt rulers of the country", the TV channel said. Police fired tear gas at the protesters and used batons to disperse them. Inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Libyan protesters called for a "Day of Rage" on Thursday in a bid to challenge the 41-year rule of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who has been accused of human rights abuses. Gaddafi, who came to power on the back of a 1969 coup, was the longest-serving leader in both Africa and the Arab world.

An international human rights group said Libyan security forces killed 24 protesters on 17 February 2011 during crackdown on anti-government demonstrations. Human Rights Watch says witnesses say security forces shot and killed protesters in an effort to break up the demonstrations across Libya. The New York-based group called on Libya to end the use of lethal force on the demonstrators unless "absolutely necessary" to protect lives. It also called on the government to investigate the deadly shootings in some of Libya's major cities. The clashes broke out across the nation Thursday after opponents of leader Moammar Gadhafi called for nationwide protests, known as a "Day of Rage," inspired by uprisings in other Arab states.

Janes Sentinel Security Assessment noted 25 February 2011 that "Ghadaffi is facing numerous problems at home as the population becomes increasingly frustrated by ongoing socio-economic pressures. These include an unemployment rate of 30 per cent and the burden of a state sector that employs 700,000 people, around 13 per cent of Libya's population. In early 2007, Ghadaffi announced that around 400,000 public sector posts would be axed. There has been little progress in making these reductions, and doing so has the potential to ignite social tensions since state employees have little faith in the government to make good on promises of compensation. Initially, the state took steps to remove state employees from their jobs, drafting them into the Labour Secretariat with the intention of finding them jobs in the private sector. However, as these private sector alternatives have failed to materialise, the state has either returned these employees to the public sector or has continued paying them salaries while they wait."

In Benghazi, the opposition National Council held its first formal meeting Saturday 05 March 2011. As the makeshift group tries to consolidate control of governance in the east, it was expected to renew the call for limited international military help against Colonel Gadhafi. By 06 March 2011 rebels had pushed beyond the town of Ras Lanuf, more than halfway between rebel headquarters in Benghazi and the city of Sirte, and were eying that Gadhafi stronghold.

The government lost control of Az Zawiyah, ahe city with a population of around 300,000 some 60 km (37 miles) to the west of Tripoli, in late February. The city was viewed as a platform for an attack on the country's capital to oust Gaddafi. By early March 2011 Az Zawiyah was encircled by pro-Gaddafi's forces reportedly waiting for reinforcements. The military offensive on Az Zawiyah began on Friday night [04 March 2011] and by Saturday morning Gaddafi's army, using heavy artillery and tanks, managed to break through the opposition defenses and entered the city. Gadhafi loyalists put on a show of support in the capital's Green Square the day before, a seemingly less forced affair than previous rallies, even as pockets of resistance in Tripoli continue to rise up.

Inspired by the ouster of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, opponents of Gaddafi demanded an end to his 42-year rule. But the civil war in Libya was fundamentally different from the revolts in other countries, reflecting the fundamental geographical distinction between eastern Cyrenaica, which was liberated from Gaddafi's rule, and western Tripolitania, which remained largely loyal to the regime. By early March 2011 more than 2,000 people had been killed in clashes that began in the North African country on 15 February 2011. Small, hastily formed rebel groups take over town after town, as government forces retreat. Speculation is rampant that more bitter battles lie ahead, and serves to dampen some of the rebels' euphoria. The question, as yet unanswered, about the westward march of the opposition: why had Colonel Gadhafi, not known for his restraint, held back the full might of his remaining battle force?

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Page last modified: 15-02-2014 17:33:36 ZULU