Why Libya Is So Hard to Govern

Inter-group squabbling reigns as the country stalls on drafting its new constitution.
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.

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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.

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.

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