Libyan Society Held Hostage to Trauma

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A man shows an empty bullet shell that he found outside a police station that was attacked and fired by gunmen to avenge the death of a colleague in an overnight incident on 15 May 2013 in the Libyan eastern city of Benghazi. (Photo: AFP - Abdullah Doma)

By: Abdullah Elmaazi

Published Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Over one hundred years ago, the Syrian thinker and one of the pioneers of the Arab renaissance, Abd al-Raḥman al-Kawakibi, wrote in his treatise The Nature of Despotism:

The end of the tyrannical state does not only affect the tyrants. The destruction engulfs the people, their land and their homes. Because the tyrannical state in its final stages strikes randomly at all and sundry like an ox or an elephant gone berserk in a pottery shop. The tyrannical state will destroy itself, and in the process will destroy its offspring and its entire kin before succumbing to its inevitable demise.

It’s as if, in the end, people deserve to pay the price for their long silence on injustice and their continued acceptance of oppression; the failure of the people to contemplate the holy Quran verse: “And fear tumult or oppression, which affect not in particular (only) those of you who do wrong.” (Sura al-Anfal, Ayaat 25.)

Kawakibi could well be describing the Libyan scene today. The oxen did go berserk, but it wasn’t pottery that was broken in Libya. More than 25,000 people were killed and tens of thousands injured and maimed in the process of dismantling tyranny. These figures include the many civilian casualties of the “coalition” air bombardments. Four thousand have been reported missing.

Violence and Human Rights Abuses Not One-Sided

Militias from Misrata prevented about 30,000 people from returning to their homes in the neighboring town of Tawergha, accusing them of committing atrocities in Misrata. Members of the Mesheshiya tribe in the western mountains, accused of past loyalty to Gaddafi, also reported harassment and revenge attacks.

Other more serious cases of human rights abuses, such as execution of prisoners, were also documented. Of no less concern are the kidnappings, illegal imprisonment, incidents of torture, and rapes that continue to be reported to this day.

The overall result is a Libyan population exhibiting visible symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

With a traumatized and polarized population, Libya was ripe for plucking and experienced pickers were ready in waiting. As in any power vacuum, there are many swells that rush to fill the void on the domestic and international fronts. In a world of mounting recession and dwindling oil resources, the impasse in Libya is attracting more than a few power brokers eager to exploit the divide with willing local partners.

Two generations of the tyrant’s clones have come of age to replace one tyranny with another. In a twist of irony, Gaddafi in his final days claimed, “I am in the heart of all Libyans, how can I step down?” This was when the message from the Libyan population was an unequivocal “Go!” Tragically, two years later his claim has more than a ring of truth. Through the education and media systems, Gaddafi proceeded to create a nation of clones who today, after his downfall, are unwittingly practicing that very same mantra to the letter.

Ingrained as a central part of this mantra is the culture of the conquest and the bounty; otherwise known as theft of public funds within reach. The rampant economic corruption which unfolded after the end of the armed conflict was one which put the veteran Gaddafi era to shame.

The most blatant case of corruption started almost immediately with a program to provide injured fighters with medical care abroad. Former health minister Fatma al-Hamroush spoke of a sum approaching $2 billion spent in 45 countries, yet less than 15 percent was spent on its intended purpose. Instead, cash was squandered on anything and everything a medical facility could turn a profit from, including tummy tucks, lip enhancement, and tattoo removal.

The beneficiaries of this bonanza were not only the hundred or so officials who enriched themselves in league with the private doctors and hospitals abroad. Thousands of Libyans were willing and eager participants in the biggest and most brazen embezzlement of public funds in Libya’s history.

While Libyans were scrambling to claim their share, power brokers in league with local allies were positioning themselves to claim the bounty of all bounties: Libya itself.

Ever since the beginning of the February 2011 uprising, there has been a continuous flow of arms and funds to specific groups inside Libya, with one principal aim: to establish a Libyan regime ideologically responsive to regional powers.

Simultaneously, there was relentless resistance to building a national army and police force. Groups were mobilized to sow fear and chaos and to ensure that no functioning government could exist.

The political stage was being meticulously set as well. In the last few days before the elections for the General National Council (GNC), the electoral law was surreptitiously amended to give armed militias the right to vote. The move was calculated to ensure that warlords who benefitted from the flow of arms in the absence of a national military force could now enter the GNC, combining political clout with military might “Lebanese style.”

Eliminating Political Opposition: The “Exclusion Law”

For months after the election, the GNC discussed the “exclusion law,” a piece of legislation that seeks to exclude from public office those who worked for the Gaddafi regime. When the law was finally passed on May 5, it was after a number of armed raids on the prime minister's office. In an incident in March, all members of the GNC were held hostage for close to 11 hours. Women members were verbally abused, elderly members were beat up when they tried to escape the building, and a hail of bullets met the speaker's car as he left.

Despite strident denials, it’s obvious to most observers that the GNC had passed the exclusion law with a gun pointed to its head rather than out of political conviction.

The exclusion law was welcomed by parts of the battle-fatigued population in the hope that it would bring an end to the trauma. Some hoped that once the law was passed, the militias would disband, and peace and tranquility would prevail. In actuality, the passing of the law has emboldened and further increased the appetite of these groups for power. Many of the politicians who praised the exclusion law will discover in time that they were celebrating their own political demise.

The next step for these armed groups and politicians will be to select an ideologically sympathetic constituent assembly to draft a constitution which will entrench their ideological control of the country. The political coup which started with the passing of the exclusion law will then be complete.

It’s futile to look to the government for leadership in the unfolding situation. There is no government as such in Libya. There are individuals who carry official titles, but other than those backed by armed groups, none have much authority even within their own ministries. When the justice minister promised the closing of private detention centers where political opponents are held and sometimes tortured, his ministry was besieged by armed groups. The interior ministry is ransacked whenever the salary it pays to hired gunmen is overdue, and a few miles away, the foreign ministry has also come under siege to rid it of “Gaddafi loyalists.”

Libya today consists of a number of “green zones” where daily life is relatively safe. However, the rest of the country, particularly swathes of the south, is a no man’s land. Militias from Misurata and their allies from Tajoura and Souq Jumaa control the eastern part of Tripoli while militias from Zintan control the western part of the city. The dividing line between the two groups starts from Tripoli International Airport down to Bab al-Andalus. Ministers and public officials dare not travel far outside the perimeters of their self-designated “green zone" for fear of kidnapping or worse.

Under these hostage conditions, no government, elected or otherwise, can seriously proceed with building the foundations needed for reconstruction and development.

In a society lacking visible law enforcement, the conditions created by the 42-year Gaddafi mantra are now the foundation of mob rule. This environment of lawlessness is now being exploited by militias who are positioning themselves for power and control.

Libya is in serious trouble. A group of wise, credible and altruistic Libyans should form some sort of privy council. Such a panel of wise Libyans must meet, discuss and recommend a safe passage out of this mess, which can only come through a process of national reconciliation. Otherwise, Libyans will face a more complex, catastrophic, and irreversible situation very soon.

Abdullah Elmaazi is founder and CEO of Trakon Consulting & Training. He is a regular contributor to The Tripoli Post. A version of this article also appeared in The Tripoli Post.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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I very much in agreement with the opinion of article by Abdullah Elmaazi, however, the focus of his writing was limited to the influence of two militias supported by two state-cities both in western Libya. The exclusion of the destructive role of political parties (seeking centralized power) in transitioning Libya to a justice state for all Libyans and the aspiration of Libyans to have a decentralized state was not taken in account. Federalism does not seem to be agreeable with most people in the Capital as it means the sharing of oil revenues with the rest of the population of the country, implying loss of power and wealth.

The forces with upper hand in Libya today are not from a culturally Bedouin dominated region as Dina Fareed would have us believe. Far from it, some take pride in disassociating themselves from such a culture. A say some because the silent majority all around Libya has no voice today. It’s all about guns! Moreover, I doubt that Tripoli has been the seat of government for a thousand years, only because Libya has been around for sixty two years. Furthermore before the appearance of Gadhafi, Derna or Benghazi would be considered the cultural centers of Libya.

When Sheikh Zayed embarked on his project to modernize the UAE, he looked at Libya as a model, Libya the federal state. A state built by the sacrifices of our great grandfathers (al-mujahedeen), led by Omar Mukhtar then by king Idris. Eastern Libya was the power center back in those days but it never thought to dominating Libya, the country’s wealth was shared equally amongst all Libyans. This was also manifest after overthrow of the Gadhafi regime, eastern Libyans did not hesitate to transfer power to Tripoli. This was a huge mistake!

It was not the Bedouins who came out on to the streets celebrating Gadhafi’s coup, but city dwellers fascinated by Egypt’s Pan Arabism. In the 42 years of Gadhafi, power was transferred to Tripoli where control over the country’s wealth and security could be managed directly. Gadhafi place likeminded thugs and cronies in positions of power whom he bought from all across Libya. In the 1970s Tripoli’s population represented approximately 17% of Libyan, today it represented 37%.

If Libya is to succeed it needs to agree on system of shared powers amongst its various peoples, that is a federal state!

I applaud the writer for highlighting the mantra of the “conquest and the bounty” as the most serious obstacle to building a new Libya

I have read miles of columns seeking to portray whole regions as anti revolutionary/ Gaddafi loyalists and therefore should play no role in the new Libya.
This has been in the main the line adopted by those seeking to shift the power base of the new state to their culturally Bedouin dominated regions from the capital city Tripoli which has been the seat of government for at least the last one thousand years and home to the most cosmopolitan and urbane community in the country , encapsulating the essence of the multiculturalism of the Mediterranean for centuries home to Jews, Christians Muslims Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Spaniards all leaving their indelible mark on the city's social culture

The fact is , only an urban population is amenable to progressive change. The socially “progressive” segments of the population from the non-urban parts of the country , including investors and entrepreneurs always gravitate be it as individuals or droves , towards the most urban centres in a country. This is one of the basic laws of the sociological development of nation states

When Sheikh Zayed embarked on his project to modernize the UAE he imported an urban/cosmopolitan population of a couple of millions from all over the world to help him do so.

Sheikh Zayed in his wisdom understood that Bedouin culture with all its merits only befits a nomadic life style.

The Bedouin nature of legendary hospitality, chivalry in battle, tribal solidity and solidarity in the face of rival tribes, refusal to tolerate injustice be they perceived or real and the independent free spirited Bedouin soul as acclaimed in poetry and verse in Arab culture and beyond only befits a tribe based community. Such culture however is anathema to the creation of a nation state , one for all its citizens and built on strict adherence to a common law determining and governing relationship between citizen’s and not one where tribal loyalty based on blood ties supersedes all and where tribal customs/traditions overrules state law and sometimes even religion.

Gaddafi's 42 year old rule proved this very point. His 1969 coup (conquest) was Bedouin/tribal backed, supported and dominated. His mantra of the conquest and the bounty is responsible for most of Libya's woes today

Those who wish to turn the 17th of February uprising as “their conquest “ and therefore see themselves as deserving the biggest share of the conquest’s bounty “oil revenue” need to understand that they are perusing a regressive path.

It’s natural after revolutions to see groups spurred by an overwhelming personal ambition to rule But why not , rather than reduce Libya to the size of their narrow tribal/regional based political constituency they need to expand their constituency to encompass the whole of Libya

It seems that the author just could not admit that it was NOT a revolution but a NATO coup. His words "This was when the message from the Libyan population was an unequivocal “Go!”" are not proved by ANY means, unlike his vivid description of "liberated" Libya. He wants to keep his cake and to eat it.

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