When the Arab Spring erupted in the winter of 2011, the first three countries embroiled were Tunisia, then Egypt and then Libya. While the events in Cairo's Tahrir Square received the vast majority of international media coverage, the upheaval in Libya was in its own way more dramatic. A bloody nine-month civil war ensued that culminated in the capture, torture and summary execution of long-serving dictator Muammar Qadhafi by a Misratan militia group — an event captured on a cell-phone video camera and quickly uploaded to YouTube.
Ethan Chorin served as a U.S. foreign-service officer in Libya from 2004 to 2006, during a pivotal moment of the country's political evolution. His Exit the Colonel provides an excellent account, not just of the historical evolution of Qadhafi's long dictatorship, but also of Libya's future political prospects. Based on deep reading of Libya's political and literary history — Chorin is the translator of a collection of contemporary Libyan short stories1 — as well as interviews with dozens of members of the former regime and participants in the 2011 revolution, this book is the best insider's account of the revolution so far published in English. Chorin remains cautiously optimistic about Libya's future. While Exit the Colonel makes clear that anyone expecting a rapid consolidation of democratic stability is likely to be disappointed, Chorin also rejects the doomsayers in the West who see in post-revolutionary Libya the next al-Qaeda safe-haven in the making.2
The Qadhafi Years
During the initial phase of the Qadhafi dictatorship, from his seizure of power in 1969 to about 1975, Qadhafi, like many of the leaders across the third world during this period, sought to build a modern welfare state. This largely forgotten period in Libya's history was actually a somewhat hopeful one, as Qadhafi spent the vast wealth pouring in from oil production on schools, infrastructure and hospitals. GDP per capita tripled, school enrollments doubled, life expectancy rose nearly a year per year, and welfare systems were introduced that offered free education and healthcare, and financial assistance for housing. "Within a generation," Chorin observes, "Libya had virtually eliminated illiteracy, while creating a framework for basic, national, free health care" (p. 36). Diplomatically, Qadhafi promoted the pan-Arabism of his hero, Gamel Abdel Nasser, and took an important role in pushing the OPEC cartel to take a more aggressive approach to flexing its pricing power.
According to Chorin, it was an attempted assassination in 1975 plotted by one of Qadhafi's inner circle, along with the ideological collapse of the pan-Arabist ideology that had provided Qadhafi with his initial political inspiration, that prompted the turn away from institution building. Between the late 1970s and mid-1980s, Qadhafi laid out in his famous Green Book a policy he termed Jamahiriya. Though it would be a mistake to attempt to attribute coherence (much less rigor) to this text, the basic tenets involved an idiosyncratic mix of Islamic conservatism, economic socialism and direct democracy. It called for the implementation of sharia law for civil purposes, nationalization of most economically productive assets, and the abolition of parliamentary forms, including political parties and elections. (This ban on political parties helps to explain the relative weakness of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, as compared with elsewhere in the post-Arab Spring Middle East.) Chorin makes clear that the practical import — arguably, the central aim — of Jamahiriya was to systematically dismantle or block the formation of institutions that could serve as a platform for challenging Qadhafi's authority. The governance problems facing Libya today are directly attributable to this de-institutionalization of the state.
From 1975 forward, Qadhafi would thwart numerous rumored and confirmed coup plots by factions within the military, as well as attempted uprisings by various groups, notably Salafis — many of whom fled to participate in jihadi efforts from Afghanistan during the 1980s to Iraq during the 2000s. While publically decrying tribalism, Qadhafi ruthlessly pursued a policy of divide and rule along tribal lines, a necessary effort given that he himself hailed from a relatively small and historically unimportant tribal group, the Qadhafha. Even as he was dismantling the political institutions of the state, Qadhafi "secured" his regime. He built his secret police and intelligence apparatus to conduct a ruthless campaign of persecution not only of internal enemies, but also of Libyan dissidents abroad, many of whom were disappeared or assassinated. The single most important and horrific incident occurred in 1996, when he secretly executed over 1,000 mostly political prisoners at the notorious Abu Selim prison. According to Chorin, this attack, not fully acknowledged for nearly a decade, was central to Qadhafi's eventual fall from power.
While pan-Arabism had lost its luster by the 1970s, Qadhafi continued to support revolutionary movements worldwide, including the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the IRA in Ireland, the ETA in Spain and various insurgent groups in Southeast Asia. Qadhafi's selection of these diverse clients appears to have been motivated not by some grand strategy, but rather by a certain political aesthetic, perhaps best described as a desire to give the finger to any and all former colonial powers. This culminated in the sponsorship of a variety of terrorist acts, including the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, which killed 270 people — though the details of Qadhafi's involvement remain disputed to this day. While Libya had already been under international sanctions for previous acts of terror, Lockerbie led to a dramatic tightening of the noose. Over the course of the next 15 years this caused grievous harm to the Libyan economy.
Chorin describes Qadhafi's various efforts to bring in European and Asian partners to help sustain the oil industry, which was providing upwards of 90 percent of the state's revenues. The general lethargy of the economy had by the early 2000s become undeniable, however. This set the stage for the grand bargain with the international community in 2003: the payment of $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of Lockerbie victims in exchange for an end to the sanctions regime. This, along with the public abandonment of his efforts to pursue chemical and nuclear weapons, enabled a normalization of Libya's relations with the West. Chorin's account of how Qadhafi came in from the cold is the best depiction yet of the foolishness of the "engagement" policy with Qadhafi. In Chorin's account, the issue was one of mutual (self) deception: Qadhafi pretended to engage in fundamental reform; this in turn allowed Bush and Blair to pretend that the "Global War on Terror" was paying political dividends. As Chorin puts it, Washington and London were "so obsessed with completing narratives regarding terrorism and counter-proliferation" (p. 144) that they could not (or refused to) see that little was changing in terms of Libya's internal political organization.
Qadhafi did indeed put on a show of wanting to reform the economy. In a process led by his son Saif, who presented himself as a liberalizer and modernizer, former Libyan exiles with business and technical experience were invited back, and international consultants were brought in to advise on how to reform the economy and establish standard government bureaucracies. While Qadhafi continued to proclaim his commitment to "the people's socialism," the Libyan economy witnessed increasing privatization, as the oil industry was largely turned over to private corporations. In 2010, despite significant internal opposition, Qadhafi announced plans to privatize half the Libyan economy over the following decade. At the same time, however, it was never entirely clear how committed Saif was to actual reforms. Chorin suggests, based on interviews with many of Saif's former aides, that he was pursuing his own agenda but was never prepared to seriously confront his father (p. 162). Increasingly, rumors spread that Saif was losing the battle for reform.
The Coming of the Revolution
What would unfold next provides a textbook example of Alexis de Tocqueville's celebrated thesis: an ancien régime's moment of greatest peril takes place precisely when it finally commits to reform (The Old Regime and the Revolution, Anchor Books, 1955 ). While Qadhafi had ruled primarily through fear, the loosening of the ideological strings seems to have decreased his aura of invincibility. Chorin emphasizes the importance of the growing public outrage over Qadhafi's halting admission to the Abu Selim massacre — particularly in Benghazi, home to the majority of the victims. As Chorin observes, "Every person in Benghazi would have known at least one and likely several of the disappeared" (p. 153). While the Libyan government's compensation payments to the families of the victims was meant to put the issue to rest, the process of petitioning for such payments created a political context for continuously stoking anger against the regime. In sum, when Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself on December 17, 2010, in neighboring Tunisia, conditions inside Libya were already ripe for rebellion. The Qadhafi regime's authority had been steadily eroded not just by the fecklessness of its political and economic reform process but also by the insufficiency of its reckoning with the political crimes of the past.
The uprising began in Libya's restive eastern province of Cyrenaica. The region had been the cultural center of Libya before Qadhafi (with Benghazi as co-capital), and its residents had felt systematically marginalized by the Tripoli-centric Qadhafi regime. While economic protests had broken out in January in Bani Walid, Derna and Benghazi, the final spark that led to the revolution would be the arrest in Benghazi on February 15 of Fathi Terbil, the human-rights lawyer representing the families of victims of Abu Selim. The rioting that night in Benghazi spread the following day to Bayda, Derna and Zintan, prompting the declaration that February 17 be designated a "Day of Rage." All over the country on the seventeenth, protestors clashed violently with Qadhafi's security forces and succeeded in expelling them from Benghazi. The brutality of Qadhafi's response soon prompted massive defections of regime insiders, first among the diplomatic corps, then with military leaders quickly joining the opposition. Within ten days, a National Transitional Council had been formed with the goal of smoothing the way to a new democratic regime.
At this point, the country descended into a civil war that would last eight months. Qadhafi's threats to liquidate the resistance in Benghazi prompted the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone, which soon escalated into direct NATO air support for the rebels. The fighting raged on for the summer, with tens of thousands of deaths, as political support for Qadhafi crumbled. The fighting was led by militia groups that had formed spontaneously among the young men of individual towns, with crucial battlefield support also coming from Islamists returning battle-hardened from Iraq and Afghanistan. Wealthy Libyans (including former regime insiders or beneficiaries) bankrolled the rebellion. The apparent denouement came on November 10, 2011, with Qadhafi's capture and summary execution.
The central fact of the post-revolutionary situation in Libya has been the failure to reestablish centralized political authority or even everyday order on city streets. A kaleidoscope of militia groups have emerged as de facto providers of security across the country, and the central government has had little will to challenge them and little success in coopting them. While some of these militia groups have political ambitions, others are hardly more than self-aggrandizing gangsters; still others are Islamic extremists of various stripes.
Libya remains wracked by deep divisions over how to overcome the legacy of Qadhafi's 42-year dictatorship. The policy of Jamahiriya meant that there was virtually no development of political and bureaucratic institutions prior to 2011. Political parties were banned and government agencies run primarily as a means of distributing patronage. With the vast majority of Libyans having never experienced competent government, there is no consensus about what it is or how to achieve it. Libya is riven by sharp disagreements over the best way to move forward. While everyone agrees on the need to end militia rule and restore security and effective government services, many people remain suspicious of Tripoli and continue to support "their" militia group. Law and order may be desirable, but exactly how to establish it remains a topic of fierce debate.
The central concern: who has a legitimate right to exercise leadership and political power? While many groups came together to overthrow Qadhafi, rifts have emerged since his demise between technocratic elites, revolutionary fighters, regional autonomy seekers and Salafis — all of whom have promoted their distinct visions for Libya's future. Western-oriented elites, located mainly in Tripoli, regarded the death of Qadhafi as the completion of the revolution and have claimed that they are the only ones with the technical and organizational skills to get the country running again. These elites have provided rhetorical appreciation for the revolutionary efforts of the militia groups but have promoted the idea that technocratic competence should be the main criterion for selecting leaders. To the militias, this has seemed an outrage: did thousands die brutal deaths during the civil war simply to have the same categories of people returned to leadership? These militia leaders have claimed that participation in the fighting confers automatic "revolutionary legitimacy" and a right to power in the new Libya.
The struggle between these two groups during spring 2013 centered on the debate over the so-called "Political Isolation Law," which would exclude from political office anyone who had ever held a position in the Qadhafi regime. The technocrats claimed the law was not only foolish, in that it would deprive Libya of the talent it needs to repair the country, but that it represented a fundamental betrayal of the revolution's promise of democratic openness. Militia groups responded by occupying government ministries and laying siege to the parliament in the run-up to the voting on the law in May 2013. To anyone who had read only Western media coverage, which tended to represent the point of view of the technocrats and other elites, the fact that the Isolation Law passed with close to 90 percent of the vote must have come as quite a shock. The first casualty of the law was the president, Mohammed Magariaf, who had served as a diplomat under Qadhafi 30 years earlier and was therefore subject to exclusion. Magariaf resigned right away, honorably noting that bringing about the rule of law required respecting even those laws one disagreed with. Whether others thus excluded will be so high-minded remains to be seen. There have been dark comparisons of the law to Paul Bremer's de-Baathification edict in occupied Iraq in 2003, widely seen to have sparked the civil war there by giving the old elites no stake in the success of the new order.
Overlapping this fundamental struggle are the ambitions of Cyrenaica to achieve autonomy or perhaps even independence from Tripoli. Although home to less than 30 percent of the population, Cyrenaica holds about 80 percent of Libya's vast hydrocarbon wealth; many of its leaders are demanding a greater share of the revenues, which they feel were, in effect, being stolen by Qadhafi. Militia groups in the east, in particular, have been unwilling to disarm and integrate into federal security forces. They have used both the claims to revolutionary legitimacy and to the historical special status of Cyrenaica as justifications for holding onto their arms. Meeting the demands of the East represents a very difficult balancing act for Tripoli and thus for Libya's prospects for national unity. First, the ongoing chaos fuels the narrative that the East must take care of itself; second, any heavy-handed effort by Tripoli to reimpose order will be seen in the East as a continuation of the hated policies of Qadhafi. A critical variable will be whether tribal elders in the East end up more fearful about the prospect of political subordination to Tripoli or about the dangers associated with de facto rule by local hard men.
Libya faces a variety of unpleasant future scenarios. While a legitimate democratic order seems just barely feasible, ongoing chaos and further political fragmentation are also distinct possibilities. The scenario of Libya's turning into "a Somalia with oil" looms large. This risk also creates opportunities for political entrepreneurs of various stripes to emerge with their own visions. Salafis, for example, have combined efforts to provide health care and education in various communities with the imposition of harsh forms of local justice — public lashings of unveiled women and petty thieves, for example. While the broader Libyan population is unsympathetic to the religious hardliners' theological purism, they may be swayed by a desire for calm and social services. In sum, the ability to restore order remains the great unclaimed prize in Libyan politics; whoever succeeds in seizing it will define Libya's future.
1 Ethan Chorin, ed. Translating Libya: The Modern Libya Short Story (Saqi, 2008).
2 Such voices are legion in the popular media. A small sample: Jamie Dettner, "Extremists Setting Up Shop In Libya," The Jewish Voice, June 12, 2013; and "Al-Qaeda Swaps Mali for Libya," Magharebia, June 7, 2013.