With the creation of a new government, Libya’s leaders should finally be able to focus on organizing the transition from the authoritarian state that they inherited to the more pluralistic one they envisage. However, are they really able and willing to achieve that goal?
In the US, the debate on Libya has focused on what steps its government should take next. Senator Robert Menendez argues it “must move quickly to embrace democratic reform,” while international development specialists, such as Manal Omar of the US Institute for Peace, believe that success lies in the cultivation of a vibrant civil society.
These views, however, overlook Libya’s unique history and treat Libya as though it were just another Third World country in need of generic solutions. In fact, remedying the country’s ills requires building strong state institutions.
Since Libya achieved independence in 1951, it has been a fractured state. Rulers relied on loyal tribes and narrow cliques to prop up their regimes. Under a monarchy that led the country from 1951 to 1969, King Idris’ relatives and inner circle ran roughshod over fledgling state institutions. More interested in reigning than in governing, state institutions withered under Idris’ neglect.
These trends were exacerbated after former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi overthrew the king in 1969. Frustrated with a bureaucracy reluctant to implement his political vision, Qaddafi bypassed traditional institutions and claimed a direct dialogue with the country’s population. The new Libyan leader created an intricate hierarchy of political organizations that were advertised as empowering citizens, but which in reality only reinforced their subservience to his autocratic regime.
As Libyans tired of Qaddafi’s revolutionary rhetoric, he decided that a new organization was needed to stir popular support. In 1977, he established committees that he dubbed the “watchdogs of the revolution.” The committees formed their own courts, assumed sweeping arrest powers, took over the media and purged officials who resisted Qaddafi’s will. This led to a split between the state’s official institutions and Qaddafi’s shadow revolutionary apparatus.
Qaddafi clearly preferred the latter. In 1979, he resigned from his official posts to assume the vague role of “Commander of the Revolution,” explaining that “the revolution must be separated from the authority of the state.” This led to what the scholar Moncef Djaziri described as a division of formal and informal authority.
Qaddafi’s strategy stunted the growth of state institutions, because, like Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) Cultural Revolution in China, it implied subordinating their development to the needs of an all-embracing vision of transformation. Economic planning reflected his populist policies and foreign adventures, rather than any focus on stability and sustainable growth. Instead of relying on state structures to govern, he leaned on a small coterie of minions and members of his tribe.
As a result, state institutions decayed. Beginning in 1986, the Libyan Central Bank ceased publishing the annual statistical reports that economists and specialists need to formulate coherent policies. Frustrated by his population’s political apathy, Qaddafi frequently announced his intention to dissolve all government ministries and transfer their responsibilities to municipalities.