The ongoing violence in Libya is symptomatic of a much larger trend that has wound its way through the country’s history. Ever since the establishment of the Kingdom of Libya, nearly all Libyans have experienced varying degrees of political marginalization, to the point of complete alienation in many cases. Now, in the wake of Muammar Gaddafi’s death and the fall of his regime, the resulting power vacuum and interfactional fighting can be explained by highlighting the Libyan people’s history of being removed from the political process.
These politically-excluded communities, varying in size but nearly all fielding militias, have learned long ago that there is no benefit in putting their trust in leaders beyond their local influences. Therefore, many local commanders have no interest in working with the National Transitional Council (NTC) or with leaders of other communities because the former is seen as illegitimate while the latter are seen as burdensome. In order to achieve a sustainable democracy in Libya, its citizens must see political participation as both something they can actually do, and something that will bring results. To get to this point, Libyans must strive for political and economic self-sufficiency.
Political alienation and self-sufficiency
Political alienation is both imposed on the citizen, and comes from within the citizen himself. Marvin Olsen refers to these “two categories of political alienation” as political incapability and discontentment, respectively. Because the discontentment factors have manifested themselves in the revolution, what remains to be ensured is that political incapability does not find its way into the new Libya. This kind of alienation is further broken down into three different factors: guidelessness, powerlessness, and meaninglessness. Guidelessness refers to a citizen’s inability to understand the methods by which he may achieve his desired goals. Powerlessness is when a citizen understands what he wants and how to get it, but is unable to do so due to external factors. Meaninglessness is the lack of a logical connection between a citizen’s goal and what he must do to achieve it.
The mitigation of guidelessness and powerlessness can be achieved by empowering Libyan communities to become more economically and politically self-sufficient. By reducing dependence on a national government which has never gained the respect of the Libyan people, these communities will be more willing to engage politically within themselves and with other communities. The maintaining of militias is the method by which Libyans are exercising leverage through their communities; militias are a sort of insurance policy against a revitalization of the old state dominance so many people have come to fear. Instead of forcing political allegiance, it will have to be earned. If local communities can become more self-sufficient, they will be more confident and conscious of what exactly they need from a federal government, and what they can provide for themselves. The debate over national and local authority will become less of a hazy power struggle, and more of a grounded discussion about what specific services are necessary.
Technology’s capacity to promote self-sufficiency
The simplest and most effective method to help Libyan communities on a path towards self-sufficiency is by providing them with computers and internet access so as to educate themselves, connect with their country and with the world, and develop their economy. The Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN) builds Community Knowledge Centers (CKCs) in rural communities, providing them with a solar energy generator connected to a satellite internet receiver. These technologies provide huge benefits in self-sufficiency; the sources of power and internet connection are completely independent from outside power structures. When Colonel Gaddafi shut off Libya’s entire internet during the revolution, anyone not technologically capable of harnessing another kind of connection was cut off completely. These standalone connections allow for security that is only subject to direct destruction of the infrastructure.
The CKCs themselves will allow for Libyans to educate themselves and each other about not only how to use computers and important programs, but also about what’s going on in the rest of the country, and in the world as a whole. Furthermore, CKCs provide for economic opportunities, ranging from doing IT work online for pay, to learning new farming techniques to increase crop yield. By enhancing Libyans’ abilities to take their economic future into their own hands, even by a small degree, the factors of guidelessness and powerlessness begin to erode.
Starting with the implementation of CKCs in five (5) different Libyan communities with differing levels of urbanization will allow for the analysis of geographical isolation’s impact on political alienation and community economic development. This information would serve to better inform ALIN and its partners for future rounds of CKC installation. Ethnographic data allows for some metric by which to judge how much political alienation has been affected by increased levels of self-sufficiency. A survey similar to Mabroka Al-Werfalli’s from her book “Political Alienation in Libya: Assessing Citizens’ Political Attitude and Behavior,” which seeks to analyze the political opinions of everyday citizens, would be re-administered as often as the people desire, but no less than once per year. Such opinion gathering may indeed serve to increase citizens’ desire to speak their minds, which was certainly not the case for Al-Werfalli during the Gaddafi regime.
The legacy of Libya’s tribal marginalization for political autonomy
The current conflict in Libya is characterized by a multitude of militias engaging in seemingly random battles which can flare up over anything from minor disagreements to age-old tribal disputes. After Muammar Gaddafi’s death, the resultant power vacuum has left a hole which is not yet being legitimately filled by the National Transitional Council (NTC) and its government, according to many prominent figures in major tribes and cities, as well as to everyday citizens. As a result, militias take it upon themselves to establish their own authorities as directed by their leaders.
Some of these leaders have indeed made declarations or undertaken actions to establish a high degree of local autonomy—some actions, violent in measure. These calls for more self-direction by so many citizens are the logical result of over 60 years of political marginalization by the Libyan national government. From the establishment of the Kingdom of Libya to the last days of Gaddafi’s regime, ordinary Libyans were entirely sidelined politically, forced to surrender all civic freedoms and choices in favor of the federal government. From the banning of political parties under King Idris to Gaddafi’s last-ditch effort to silence his people by shutting off the internet, the only national authority Libyans have ever known has been authoritarian and power-hungry.
It is due to this political alienation that many Libyans now see their local militias and leaders as the only people they can trust. For a citizen without faith in government, it is most prudent to entrust decisions to those people who are closest, both in location and in identity. These militias are the only kind of leverage ordinary Libyans can maintain over the NTC, which is desperately seeking peace. Until more local leaders are satisfied with the NTC’s intentions and with the national government as a whole, there will continue to be conflict.
History of alienation and mistrust
There were three major factors which caused discontent amongst the Libyan people during King Idris’ reign. The first was the government’s relations with the West. King Idris allowed foreign countries, primarily the United States and the United Kingdom, to maintain military bases on Libyan soil. At this point in the Middle East, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab philosophy was quite popular. Many Libyans therefore found these bases profoundly offensive—they were seen as a sign of foreign imposition in the new Libyan state. Another aspect of Libyan’s alienation came from their inability to articulate their political interests. King Idris and his supporters effected a ban on all political parties after fears of anti-monarchical sentiments being raised. This left many citizens afraid to speak out about their hardships or abuses by the government.
The last and most important factor in the political marginalization of Libyans under King Idris came from his economic policies. Two years after the discovery of huge oil reserves in eastern Libya in 1959, the government’s laws on petroleum were updated to increase the profits that would reach them, rather than the citizens; the law was updated again four years after that to further this goal. The blatant attempts to hoard oil revenues were not left unnoticed by the Libyan people. These three practices, among others, were prime examples of how ordinary Libyans were made to feel excluded from the political process of their country. It is no surprise that Muammar Gaddafi’s coup was so well-received.
Contemporary manifestation of alienation
Unfortunately for the Libyan people, Gaddafi was even more effective than Idris had been at keeping ordinary Libyans out of the loop. Al-Werfalli, on page 13 of her aforementioned book, describes the regime as having “increased the citizens’ expectations in terms of economic outcomes at the expense of political outcomes.” Gaddafi managed this diversion by directly increasing the guidelessness, powerlessness, and meaninglessness experienced by Libyan citizens.
One of his main methods of alienating the populace politically was through the sort of “direct democracy” he attempted to establish in Libya. Hundreds of Basic Popular Congresses were ostensibly the means by which small communities could articulate their interests up the political ladder. However, as Al-Werfalli’s research reveals, these meetings were seen as useless by many Libyans. Many people did not feel comfortable participating for fear of retribution for their opinions, or for several other reasons. Furthermore, any legitimate solutions that may have caught on fell victim to the bureaucracy and corruption that ran rampant in government positions.
Gaddafi was also successful in buying the allegiance of a few major Libyan tribes, and instituted laws which heavily integrated tribal affiliation into many legal considerations. Through these actions, he was able to entrench the divisions between tribes, keeping them at odds with each other and thus in disarray against his rule. By cementing his power and by giving the people a severely dysfunctional political tool, Gaddafi effectively sidelined everyday Libyan citizens from political life.
Now, in the post-Gaddafi era, there is little reason to question why so many militias are unwilling to surrender their arms. It is evident that the lack of confidence most Libyans have in the NTC is widespread and deeply infused; it did not simply crop up out of nowhere. Libyans have never experienced a Libya without an absolutist national government that subjected their needs for the benefit of its ruler and his inner circle.
In order to repair the severely broken trust in a national power structure, Libyans must enter into such an agreement willingly. In order for them to do so, they must feel confident in their abilities to survive and get their basic needs. By increasing the political and economic self-sufficiency of Libyan communities, they will one day be prepared to articulate exactly what they want and need from a national Libyan government—and hopefully there will be an open dialogue.
— Jake Simon