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Why Libya Is So Hard to Govern

Inter-group squabbling reigns as the country stalls on drafting its new constitution. By Jason Pack and 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.)

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.

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. Photo by 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. Photo by 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.

While it is true that Berbers, Cyrenaicans, and Tubu were all disadvantaged under Qadhafi and have not witnessed much economic development since the revolution, the central government is actually bending over backwards to appease their mutually contradictory demands. In so doing, the central government has given away most of their legitimate power and allowed the parameters of the debate to be set by their localist and "Federalist" opponents. Federalism in the Libyan context is code language for a weak central government, with each region having veto rights over important policies. Moreover, it lacks any compelling economical, historical, or structural logic . Yet, this Federalism is increasingly popular among large swathes of the population because it appeals to wounded pride, paranoia, and the discourse of deprivation that characterizes so many of Libya's insular communities -- and which was on vivid display in our conversations in Jadu. Absorbed by communal self-righteousness and victimhood, most Libyans forget that the federalist experiment under King Idriss, from 1951-63, failed , and that it is incompatible with coherent infrastructure plans, a successful petroleum industry (which is absolutely vital to the country), and reducing the myriad layers of government that lead to corruption and inefficiency.


After Jadu, we headed for Rohaibat. There we visited Mohammed Zawiyyah, the senior government archaeologist charged with the protection of antiquities throughout the Nafusa region. In the lush shade of his mountain orchard, he expressed worry over the recent discovery of an archeological site bearing mosaic floors during one of the many local construction projects now underway. These projects are another source of optimism, indicating that some Libyans who were disadvantaged under the former regime can now build new homes and shops. Yet for Zawiyyah, this rapid, unregulated development is a source of constant anxiety. While mosaics are common along the Libyan coast, this was the first ancient mosaic to be discovered in the Nafusa Mountains at precisely the time when the government is ill-prepared to protect it.

He was less troubled by the withdrawal of the Berber parliamentarians. In his opinion, they know that they should participate in the constitutional process and that their community has gotten a good deal, but they are simply playing to populist sentiments at home and are trying to leverage their symbolic importance.

(Musa Isa, one of two government archaeologists in Nafusa, inspects a traditional Berber house in the old city of Yefren. Photo by Will Raynolds)

Zawiyyah explained that his community was like most others: filled with fundamental distrust for the central government, yet more than willing to treat it as a cash machine. A patriot, Zawiyyah was immensely proud of his neighbors for their role in toppling Qadhafi in 2011 , but appalled that some of the initially peaceful Amazigh protestors had stormed the Prime Minister’s office in Tripoli in early 2012. In his estimation, such actions breached the "ground rules" of a functioning society.

Zawiyyah spoke more dispassionately and analytically than any Western expert we had met. As he sees it, the real problem in Libya is that each community is violating the "ground rules" to increase its share of the pie. In addition to the Amazigh withdrawing from the GNC, members of the Megarha tribe in Sebha cut the water pipeline to Tripoli to get a political prisoner freed, and workers in the East block protested the oil export terminals to get increased salaries. Libyan democracy has stalled in part because Libyans haven’t been able to shift their activism from force, threats, and blackmail to the ballot box, public debates, and civil society activism.

Reflecting on this possibility, it appears that Ali al Haji’s vision for the future of the country, while perhaps overly ambitious in its timeline, is not fundamentally absurd in the long run. The fact is, clear-headed individuals like Mohammad Zawwiyya are special, but not rare. Moreover, they will multiply rapidly if the political and security situation in the country stabilizes. The relatively small population of the country is supremely fortunate to have access to nearly infinite resources of land, oil, coastline, and heritage sites, all in a geo-strategically and commercially important location. Libya’s revolutionaries have taken the well-preserved wheat out of the jar, but to date they lack the tools, culture of compromise, and institutional processes to turn it into bread.

Too many harbor a mistrust of central government, which they implicitly associate with the old regime and Imperialism. Yet simultaneously, they want government to provide jobs, subsidies, and services. Libya will remain unable to thrive without durable institutions that pool together the country’s latent reserves of talent to capitalize on its vast resources. The ongoing constitutional process is the real test of whether Libya’s communities and regions will be able to “sign on” to this bold collective project. If the constitutional process falters or is hijacked by the Federalists, we can continue to expect sub-national authorities to fill the void by setting up their own fiefdoms, manning armed checkpoints, impudently selling pirated oil to bolster local accounts, and continuing to blackmail the central government.

Libyans have been working towards a new constitution for more than two years now. Due to numerous setbacks, most crucially succumbing to populist pressures for direct election rather than selection of the constitutional committee, the GNC has yet to even decide the day for the election of the constituent assembly that will draft the all-important document. Every aspect of Libya’s political and economic life has entered a sort of limbo awaiting the constitution. No one knows how long the GNC has left in its tenure, yet it appears to act like a lame duck legislature. As Libya’s Minister of Economy Alikilani Al-Jazi said at the FDI Libya Conference in London on September 18th: “Libya isn’t just at a crossroads. We are at a roundabout. We keep driving around the circle without knowing where to get off.”