Why Libya Is So Hard to Govern

Inter-group squabbling reigns as the country stalls on drafting its new constitution.
More
Russian-made artillery was used by Qadhafi loyalists in early 2011 to block the main road leading into Jabal Nafusa. (Will Raynolds)
 

Walking through the dim, narrow mud-brick corridor that serves as an entrance to Qasr al-Hajj -- an 800-year-old fortified granary, a castle-like structure unique to the Berber community of Libya’s Nafusa Mountains -- one encounters a curious sight nestled among a number of traditional farm implements: A recently discovered large earthenware jar. After local revolutionaries found it concealed in one of the castle’s storage rooms in 2012, they cracked it open and uncovered golden heads of wheat that were harvested in the fall of 1968, roughly a year before Muammar Qadhafi and his Free Officers took power. The plump wheat grains remained unspoiled during the intervening years; after all of this time, they are still ready to be ground into flour and baked into bread.

Our guide, Ali al-Haji, a Berber man who helped protect Qasr al-Hajj from potential looters during the 2011 revolution and who continues to serve as the site’s custodian, seemed to think that Libya holds the same potential as the forgotten wheat. A year after the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, he dismissed concerns that Libya was experiencing a descent into violence or anarchy. “If there were half as many guns or released convicts on the streets of Cairo or Damascus, as we have in Libya, think of the chaos!” Our experience roughly mirrored al-Haji’s sanguine assessments of Libyans’ self-control and its fundamentally strong social and tribal system. Over the course of our journey southwestward from Tripoli into the mountains, we traveled hundreds of miles on main and local roads, were stuck in myriad traffic jams and never once saw armed men, militia vehicles, or spontaneous militia checkpoints. The checkpoints and the public display of artillery, which had characterized Tripoli and its environs in late 2011 and 2012, have simply disappeared. (But so have the police cars of the pre-revolutionary era.)

The concerns we heard in Jadu are reminiscent of what many localities and regions are proclaiming these days -- that they were wronged under Qadhafi and that they deserve redress.

In the wake of the bold American special forces raid on October 5, which abducted al-Qaeda operative Abu Anas al-Liby, many outsider observers have concluded that Libya is a totally ungoverned space where terrorists easily find safe haven as the Libyan authorities are powerless to apprehend them without outside assistance. This is only one aspect of the security situation in Libya. The other aspect is that Libya's communities remain intact and most of them oppose extreme Islamism and jihadism, policing their own neighborhoods to purge undesirable elements. This is why the Libyan government and Libyan street have tacitly accepted and empathized with the American action.

After being invited to al-Haji’s home, we asked our host what the new government’s priorities should be. He pointed to his two young sons and spoke of the importance of education and English-language training. He predicted that after the Libyan constitution was finally be drafted, Tripoli would come to rival Dubai in opulence and prestige. He saw a direct connection between having a constitution, creating a strong central government, and harnessing Libya's petro-dollars for development. Unlike many in rural Libya, he was sure that strengthening the central government would directly benefit his isolated, dust-blown town.

The Democracy Report

Refreshed by our third cup of frothy, sweetened mint tea -- and by al-Haji’s uncharacteristic optimism -- we wondered aloud if such vast improvements could really come to Libya that soon, especially as the last months have witnessed dramatic declines in oil production, foreign investment, and security. Now eager to hedge his bets, al-Haji clarified his position.

“I’m not saying that this development will be immediate. It will take time. Perhaps even two…no, maybe three years.” Despite his fuzzy logic, his outlook was infectious. During our weekend jaunt, it felt right to put aside the cynicism, infighting, and condescension of Tripoli’s political class and the sky-is-falling attitude that some EU and UN officials hold.

A bird’s-eye view of Qasr al-Hajj, an example of the castle-like earthen architecture of Libya’s Jabal Nafusa region. Each room houses a family's stores of grain. (Will Raynolds)

***

We continued up the arid face of the Nafusa escarpment westwards, passing terraced slopes dotted with olive trees and date palms. To sustain its inhabitants, this rugged land requires an amount of persistence that borders on stubbornness. The Berber (or in their own tongue, Amazigh) inhabitants of this landscape are as tenacious politically as they are agriculturally. Their representatives to the General National Congress (GNC), the legislative body charged with governing a state increasingly paralyzed by internal fissures, resigned from the Congress in July because they felt that their language should be enshrined in law as an official language of Libya alongside Arabic -- before the constitutional committee that is tasked with drafting the constitution is even elected and convened.

Arriving in Jadu, home to the most powerful Amazigh militias that played a key role in Qadhafi’s ouster, we were joined in the central square by several members of the local military and town councils. We sat on plastic chairs, sipping almond-flavored soda in front of the Amazigh Cultural Museum, built years before the revolution to covertly celebrate Jadu’s history and its favorite son, Suleiman Baruni -- an anti-Italian, WWI-era political and military leader. Unsurprisingly, because Qadhafi had closed the museum, it was now a point of great pride and was among the tidiest and best-curated private museums in the country.

Our new friends were not only Amazigh activists, they were also pessimists and conspiratorialists. They bemoaned that Libya’s new masters were Arab Nationalists “just like Qadhafi.” They spoke of an Arab conspiracy to rally behind the Islamists so as to make use of a religious justification that Arabic alone should be the country’s official language. Asked why the Arab populace would want this when the Berbers were so crucial to the revolution, our interlocutors suggested that “most Arabs” sought to undermine and eradicate Amazigh culture and influence. Like most Libyans, they viewed politics as a zero-sum game and claimed that they were being short-changed by the GNC, which was giving the Libyan minorities (Amazigh, Tuareg, and Tubu) "only" 10% of the seats on the constitutional committee. To support this assertion, they claimed that the Amazigh alone are 30% of the Libyan population. Though accurate census data is not available, scholarly evidence suggests that all non-Arab minorities (i.e. the Amazigh plus the Tubu and Toureg) together comprise only between 4 and 10% of the Libyan population.

A newly-renovated, Berber cave dwelling. The family that used to live here has moved into the yellow concrete house above. (Jason Pack)

The concerns we heard in Jadu are reminiscent of what many localities and regions are proclaiming these days -- that they were wronged under Qadhafi and that they deserve redress in terms of special privileges, political over-representation, local control over local resources, and a disproportionate share of government funds. These are emotional narratives that foster local cohesion against the specter of an evil central government, and they help block the authorities’ attempts to coordinate with the local administrations that were created by the revolutionary mobilization.

 A variant of this emotional narrative is dangerously gaining sway in Cyrenaica, Libya's oil rich eastern province, as well as in the Fezzan, the immense desert area of Libya's southwest that has come to serve as a safe haven for smugglers and Islamist militants operating throughout the Sahel. Aside from being very destructive, the pervasiveness of this narrative is shocking because the composition of the constitutional assembly is already greatly skewed in favor of the regional minorities by allotting equal representation to both the less populated areas of Cyrenaica and Fezzan and the densely populated region of Tripolitania.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Jason Pack and Will Raynolds

Jason Pack is a researcher of Libyan history at Cambridge University and editor of The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post Qadhafi Future. Will Raynolds advises governments on how to preserve their antiquities. He works with the American Archaeological Mission to Libya and the Libyan Department of Antiquities, and is the author of a forthcoming book about sailing the length of the Egyptian Nile after the Arab Spring.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

Just In