By Dr. Youssef Mohamed Sawani
Three weeks ago, rebel fighters found Muammar Gaddafi near his hometown of Sirte, Libya in sewage drain and shot him in the head. After four decades of oppressive dictatorship, the infamous despot was dead, but this symbolizes more than just the end of his reign it represents the collective relief of the Libyan people. Years of unchecked power seemed to garner the dictator a cloak of invincibility, and even today, Gaddafi’s ghost still haunts Libya, a recovering nation that needs to heal its many wounds with caution and diplomacy. During his reign, Gaddafi demolished ideas of state, institutionalism, and community and did anything necessary to quash incipient political and civil organizations. Sadly, the worst acts of Gaddafi may not have been oppression and murder, or the countless ways he squandered national wealth. His evils exceed the heavy repercussions that face tribes suspected of loyalty to Gaddafi in the western mountains and on the coastal strip. The crimes of Gaddafi shook the core values of Libyan society—he disrupted the culture of the political community and undermined the growth of the cultural components required for development. Today, there is a vacuum—political, civil, even cultural—and it’s up to the National Transitional Council (NTC) to create a new foundation for Libya’s future.
The February revolution, particularly in its early stages, unfolded without centralized leadership and did not reflect a specific political or ideological orientation. This amorphousness was an enormous asset at first, liberating the population from the constraints associated with strict adherence to an ideological or partisan dogma, But it now risks becoming a dangerous weakness if it inhibits the emergence of political organizations and a mobile civil society. Such institutions are necessary for Libya’s political development, as well as to counter the growing threat of groups looking to exploit and appropriate the revolution and the blood of its martyrs for their own power and control. In recent weeks, some Islamist elements have proven themselves as just such a threat, placing destructive demands on the fragile NTC. They are likely to employ all means at their disposal, using a sustained and systematic strategy to either consolidate and enshrine, or else denounce, undermine, and do away with facets of Libya’s political processes.
We have already seen instances in which certain factions, primarily Islamists, have sought to control the scope of the political context and impose its views in an effort to shape Libyan politics. This has been clear in their call for the NTC to deprive all Libyans who occupied any leading or managerial positions under Gaddafi of their political rights. They consider this ban—despite the disastrous repercussions witnessed in an analogous situation in Iraq—indispensable for imposing Islamist hegemony, which they would not otherwise attain without excluding the possible opposition of the well-equipped and experienced.
This subtle campaign of exclusion and political liquidation by Libyan Islamists preys upon negative popular perceptions of secularism and liberalism in attempt to dissuade people from supporting representatives of such ideals. There also exists a structured use of popular imageries of Gaddafi and his regime to ostracize and marginalize Libyans who have previously worked in senior positions, governmental or quasi-governmental positions. This opens the floodgates for a war beyond politics. Advocating the exclusion of particular elements or depriving whole regions that once supported Gaddafi could foment tribal or geographic conflict.
Furthermore, this scenario is unfolding against a background of indecision in creating a process of national reconciliation. There have been no measures to implement transitional justice or at least to define its basic rules and processes. Apart from the direct risks of such a deficiency, it further opens the door for the ignition of tribal or religious disputes or foreign influence, any of which would damage the development of a genuine democratic environment and political competition.
This transitional phase will be decisive in determining Libya’s future as a successful democracy or an unstable battleground. The policies put forward bythe NTC will determine the format and rules of the game. Success is dependent on proper guidance of the transition and on the ability of the Libyan people to participate in the country’s development. The NTC must act with vigilance to preserve the people's revolution, ensuring national unity and social harmony while moving Libya toward democracy. Lastly, it is also incumbent upon countries like the United States to understand fully the dynamics at play and craft an effective Libyan policy (as was unfortunately not done in Iraq). America’s image in the Middle East will be well-served if it is able to formulate an inclusive Libyan policy divorced from political opportunism and narrow interpretations of national interest. Expediency in Libya will only help extremism and lead to an even more unstable—and anti-American—situation in the region.
The Libyan people have proven their courage and their longing for freedom. Obviously and unfortunately, Gaddafi’s downfall does not mean the revolution is complete. The fight, given its magnitude and disparate underlying causes, will only be fully accomplished once the objectives of freedom, democracy, development, human rights, equality before the law, and the rule of law are guaranteed to all Libyans.
Dr. Youssef Mohamed Sawani is a former director of the Gaddafi Foundation who resigned his post in February 2011 to join the uprising, and is a professor of political science at Tripoli University.
[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Martin Beek]