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Gadhafi's poisonous legacy

Anne Allmeling / sgb
October 20, 2012

Moammar Gadhafi controlled all aspects of public life in Libya for 40 years. One year after his bloody demise, Libya is trying to build a new state.

Libyan rebels in Misrata (picture: MISSAM SALEH dpa)
Image: picture alliance/dpa

He called himself a friend of the French, received heads of state and in the final years of his time in power nearly seemed to have taken on a mild tone. But by then the self-proclaimed revolutionary Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi no longer had friends or allies. He proved to be too erratic, supporting various terror groups, sometimes seeking Arab unity, then African unity - and eventually used brutal force against his own people.

There was not a single dissenting voice in the UN Security Council when the NATO operation against the Libyan dictator was agreed in the spring of 2011. It was the end of the Gadhafi era - but the consequences of his tyranny can still be felt.

Banned parties, oppressed opposition

No wonder: For four decades, the son of a Bedouin family had solely decided Libya's policies - first as a head of state, then since 1979 as a self-styled revolutionary leader. Regardless of who was head of state or prime minister at any time, all the power was really in Gadhafi's hands. Parties were not allowed and the opposition was suppressed. Fearing strong opponents, Gadhafi systematically neglected the infrastructure of his country. Competing centers of power were not allowed to arise at all - even the army was practically powerless.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, right, welcomes French President Nicolas Sarkozy (ddp images/AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Sarkozy and Gadhafi during a 2007 visit by the French presidentImage: AP

Now the Libyans must create completely new political structures and institutions. "It's an enormous challenge to rebuild the entire public administration, the security forces and the army," said Günter Meyer, professor of economic geography and head of the Centre for Research on the Arab World at Mainz University.

Controversy over the reorganization of the country

In recent months, the reorganization of the country led to controversy and heated debate, because of the different interests of Libya's demographic groups. This also has historical reasons: Before Gadhafi staged a coup in 1969 to seize power, the three regions of Cyrenaica, Fezzan and Tripoli had separate identities. Under Libya's first ruler, King Idris, the country had a federal constitution until 1963. Previously, the three regions were an Italian colony - but had never before been a unit. Even today, many Libyans feel more connected to their city and their tribe than to the unitary state.

Libyan civilians celebrate (picture: Mohammad Hannon, File /AP/dapd)
Libyans rose against extremism after the Benghazi attacksImage: AP

One reason is that many Libyans have had bad experiences with central rule. Gadhafi controlled the oil industry and thus the entire economy of the country. Under his rule, revenue from oil production mainly benefited the capital Tripoli and Sirte, his home region. In contrast, the Cyrenaica region around the city of Benghazi in the east was deeply neglected. It was no coincidence that when the revolution broke out in February 2011, Benghazi served as the capital for the revolutionary government until the fall of Tripoli.

Powerful militias

There is now a strong independence movement in the oil-rich Cyrenaica region. The central government still lacks effective military leadership. It must rely on a number of regional militias based on tribal or local groups. But these militias fight against each other - a serious security problem for the country. At the same time former Gadhafi strongholds like Sirte and Bani Walid are still keeping their distance from the new Libya.

Libyan protesters gather on the rubble of a destroyed section of the mausoleum of Al-Shaab Al-Dahman near the centre of Tripoli on August 26, 2012 to condemn attempts to demolish it and to protest against Islamic extremism. Islamist hardliners bulldozed part of the revered mausoleum in Tripoli in the second such attack in Libya in two days. AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD TURKIA (Photo credit should read MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/GettyImages)
Islamist hardliners bulldozed part of a revered mausoleum in TripoliImage: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/GettyImages

"The National Council, which is tasked with forming a government, has not yet been able to ensure that peace prevails in the country," said Wenzel Michalski, Germany director of Human Rights Watch. "Armed militias and criminal gangs are taking advantage of the power vacuum to enforce their demands or stake out their territories."

Radical Islamists are trying to take advantage of the uncertain situation in the country. Even so, fundamentalist Islam is relatively unpopular among religious Libyans. The destruction of Islamic shrines by Salafis badly affected the popularity of the radical Islamists. Even with their hatred of the West, Islamists can hardly gain supporters. This was evident even after September 11, 2012, as a terrorist group in Benghazi murdered four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. In response thousands of Libyans took to the streets and expelled two especially militant and hitherto influential radical Islamic militias from the city.

Need to address the past

Libya is still far away from bringing the militias under control and addressing the crimes committed before and during the revolution. This is exactly what is standing in the way of the country's further development, Michalski said. A Human Rights Watch report says it was not just Gadhafi's fighters who committed war crimes. The militias that contributed greatly to the victory against Gadhafi acted brutally against his minions and massacred large numbers of soldiers. One year after Gadhafi's death, the Libyan authorities have not yet even begun to investigate and prosecute those responsible for war crimes and other violations of international law on both sides. "Those responsible must be held accountable, so that what the revolutionaries demanded can be implemented," Michalski said, "namely democracy and the rule of law."

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