Gaddafi is not quite dead: how Libya’s democracy failed because of tribalism

Tuesday 18 June 201904:27 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية

The Libyan dictator fell - he who in the eyes of some is a national hero - but that is another story.

We were dressed in the guise of democracy for the second time in the history of contemporary Libya, and both times there were no real parties or real candidates in the country, and this is the main story here. Democracy in Libya is not real at all.

In 1952, all parties were abolished because of the riots after the cancellation of election results. At the time, the illiteracy rate in Libya was 75% for males and 95% for females and voters cast their votes according to the colors of their lists.

In the year 2012, the General National Congress was elected with a participation rate of 82%, in a society where the illiteracy rate is 9%, and this time also without parties. The voters here also give their votes to the candidates according to the colors of their lists, but this time the color was that of their tribe.

Between the two elections, Libya for more than four decades endured a monarchic, oligarchic regime, which forbade the existence of political parties. In the Green Book of Col Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s ruler declared:

“Those who form parties are traitors.”

“The party system aborts democracy”

For 60 years everything has changed, but nothing has moved from its place.

Let's start by telling the story from the beginning.

For 60 years everything has changed, but nothing has moved from its place.

In order to have a state, you need three things: a piece of land, a people to live on the land and a government. It's a simple matter, for Libya ranks 15th globally in terms of geographical space, and 108th in terms of population, and today after Gaddafi’s fall it has three governments at the same time. But to have a democracy you have to have more.

In principle, you must have a press that originated in a free economy, whereas in Libya journalism is an instrument in the hands of the state. You need a constitution that guarantees the three main freedoms, and these are personal freedom, political freedom and socio-economic freedom. And in Libya these freedoms are also restricted by the authority of the tribe.

We all fell into the trap. I will speak to you about my own personal experience. I was one of a group of liberal lawyers who organized a civil society movement that we called “Tanweer,” [Enlightenment] and after that we announced the establishment of the Libyan Liberal Democracy Forum in September 2011.

We later realized this was all a mistake when we held the first (and last) forum in July 2012 and we found ourselves in a lecture hall surrounded by our guests, half of whom were Islamists and the other half were under the impression that they were at a conference for Islamists. This is a democracy in a country that does not have a constitution and no parties and where freedoms are restricted by tribal and religious limitations.

We did not bother to participate in the first elections after the fall of Gaddafi on July 7, 2012, simply because we had clear policies that no one was supporting, while all the other candidates were running simply according to their names.

For example, one candidate was distributing pamphlets with how he would spread prosperity in Egypt (because he had plagiarized all his campaign material from an Egyptian politician), and another candidate spoke about his support for women's freedom while at the same time demanding the application of Sharia and that it should be considered a law above the constitution.

Another candidate named in his pamphlet his three most inspirational figures: the second caliph, Omar ibn al-Khattab; Omar al-Mukhtar, the Libyan fighter who battled against Italian colonialism; and Adolf Hitler.

It was cacophony that no one could bear. Only democracy’s voice remained unheard.

But the irony is what happened in those elections. The seats were distributed thus: half to the parties and the other half to individual politicians, and at point did any candidate announce their political orientation, whether right-wing or left, nationalist or Islamist, conservative or progressive, or even perhaps a jihadist?

Everyone repeats the same sentences, the same words and the same remarks, where the choice was based primarily on the title of the candidate and his family name. In short, it was a leadership campaign between the tribes, intended only to launder the spoils of the Libyan war. But in Tripoli, something else happened. Tripoli was the only remaining city in Libya. The rest of the cities were only tribal communities.

Or so our liberal party, which chose to be Tripoli-based, believed, before all its founding members fled to Europe, specifically to Germany and Finland.

Gaddafi was not completely dead. The Libyan people were split into two group: one that waited for Gaddafi’s corpse to smile and the other was afraid that the corpse would come alive again.

Gaddafi was not completely dead. The Libyan people were split into two group: one that waited for Gaddafi’s corpse to smile and the other was afraid that the corpse would come alive again. His influence was clear in Tripoli, which had transformed from a city into little tribal colonies because of Gaddafi’s support for the migration of the tribes to Tripoli throughout his four decades of rule.

This had a catastrophic effect on the first elections that took place after his death. To explain this, we need a map to chart Tripoli's demographics in the 21st century.

The inhabitants of eastern Tripoli, for example, belong mostly to the Tarhouna tribal collective, whereas western Tripoli is populated by an Amazigh tribal collective that lives by a mountain there, and those are two examples of what Tripoli and Libya look like.

As a result, an Amazigh tribesman managed to win the chair of the western region of Tripoli only because he was an Amazigh, and no voter was interested in the fact that he belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, although this was the most worthwhile issue to consider regarding him taking up this post.

The votes were awarded based on the family name and sometimes the length of the beard.

Democracy in a society whose inhabitants have not absorbed the idea of ​​co-existence is only a trap that is hard to escape, and the idea of ​​its application is bad because tribalism is the basis of a state.

Do you know, for example, that the Misurata tribe took advantage of our fledgling democracy to avenge the killing of a tribal leader that had happened 100 years ago, by putting his image on the roofs of the buildings belonging to the tribe that killed him (the Beni Walid tribe) and this was through Resolution No. 7 of the National Congress in 2013, the first body elected after the Libyan Civil War? That same congress justified the invasion of the city of Misurata to search for the body of Gaddafi's son for the seventh time, in a battle that led to more than 80 dead and 400 wounded civilians and still no one has found the body of Gaddafi's son up to this very day.

Tribal democracy is very dangerous, tribalism being at the heart of the nation state.

The experience of democracy in Libya has been a failed attempt to make Libya a modern state in a cosmetic way.

The experience of democracy in Libya has been a failed attempt to make Libya a modern state in a cosmetic way. The tribal interpretation of the idea of ​​democracy is to acquire the largest share of power, not to negotiate partnerships. The restrictive customs and traditions are forced on the individual within the tribal system in order to maintain homogeneity and the collective benefits conferred upon the group.

The tribe and its members will accordingly always prefer the collective decision against the individual decision. To be part of a certain bloodline and loyalty to that imaginary bloodline is the basis of tribalism and contradicts all the values of democracy and a civil state.

Tribalism, as Ann Penlet puts it in her book, The Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates (1878): "He sees himself as a member of a club, not a society, and as long as he is a member of a tribe he has to comply with its rules and regulations."

Tribalist democracy is not a democracy of the people. The choices of tribes are always in the interests of their “club,” which turns all attempts at democracy into a trap.

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