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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 47, November 12, 2011

Gaddafi and After — Libya’s Progress

Saturday 12 November 2011, by Uttam Sen

The manner of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s removal was chilling: the faces of his young killers on video recordings mirrored total disdain for their helpless quarry, whose misery was to eventually end with a bullet to the head, according to the purported autopsy report. Time stood still for the products of a treacherous terrain who have witnessed iniquity and retribution in the past, in a tradition that took no prisoners. They could well have been kin of Gaddafi’s own victims. The thought that they were lumpen hirelings in an arabesque plot was almost too terrible to consider.

The Libyan leader had undoubted flaws, including excesses of tyranny and venality to his name, that were relentlessly flogged by a probing international media. But he had his moment of leadership, trying to forge representation and unity among descendants of Berber (later Bedouin) tribes through governance by local councils and a sense of identity that spanned the Afro-Arab horizon. The Libyan people were sensitised to their rights over a natural resource like oil. The long and short of the jolt was that the stock of a once-charismatic, if incorrigible, icon was reduced to dust.

His sins began to outweigh his virtues on the public radar to the tune of the overlordship (of public opinion, if you will) that eventually consumed him. The circumstances included the ill-advised crackdown on demonstrators extending the Arab Spring to Libya; going back a little, to the appropriation of huge sums of money from foreign oil giants. His singularity in striking bargains on his own terms was a capability that opponents or competitors strained to negate. His demonisation and demolition were completed by the dismissive public statements on his death, celebrating the dawn of a new democratic era in place of the usual obituary references, traditionally polite despite denials. Suffice it to say that was not a generic equation.

On the other side of the coin, one of the few ways of pulling the plug on street justice was to bring on democracy through elected government, and empower people in the course of securing them basic entitlements, for which purpose the arbitrary removal of a despotic leader was but poetic justice. However, proving the skeptics of transformation wrong would mean encouraging such a process in its entirety. The incongruity in the situation lies in the known reluctance of the global players on the scene to spend on human capital in their own backyards.

As the days wore on, the indignation in sections of the world, including India, intensified, not necessarily out of empathy with an “unsophisticated” leader, by definition that by his tribal antecedents,1 but the mode of his elimination. The turn of events that bears recalling, however, is that people outside the praxis of erstwhile colonialism are beginning to reinvent themselves and do not necessarily look askance at attitudes that underpin natural systems of entitlement and sustenance, vital in an ambience where viable economic conclusions are in question. Gaddafi’s frenetic search for self-realisation and expression, however “rustically” projected in his oracular Green Book, will be looked upon more with tolerance than contempt. He had made a fairly clean breast of the ambition of achieving parity with Western parlance and schools of thought that more often than not falter when superimposed. His failure underscored his condition of being apart in calibre from a person like Nelson Mandela, whom he admired, but whose tenacity and capacity for dignified reconciliation plainly eluded him. The dissentient’s idealised treatment of a Libyan destiny yielded to bizarre experiments with terrorism and eventually a compromise with sworn enemies.

He evoked ambivalent responses from unequivocal followers of the status quo on the one hand and people of regions that are economically emergent on the other. The latter, not militarily dominant, are focused on a framework that assumes constructive engagement based on the rule of law. In the end, the Libyan posed a problem to friend and foe alike: a halfway house of conflicting aspirations that queered the pitch for both sides.

He has left behind his troubled legacy, like Saddam Hussein. Sharing the spoils in Libya could mean cluttered business. The rival centres of Tripoli and Benghazi are already at odds, though the good news is that oil production is being brought back on stream.

The defiance is likely to continue, at least on the surface. The head of the interim National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, announced at a victory rally in Benghazi that the future legal system would be based on Islamic Shariah law, banks would follow the Islamic system in which charging of interest is banned, and the institution of polygamy would be re-instated. Recovering a rational and scientific Islamic humanism is one thing but a relapse into a fundamentalism that not only predates the Gaddafi era but the monarchy that was brought to an end in 1969, is quite another.

But there are encouraging straws in the wind. These include an interim government in the offing to draft electoral laws that will put in place elections to a two-hundred member Constituent Assembly whose output will be ratified by a referendum within a year, for the first time in Libyan history. Jalil himself is perceived as an avuncular figure, who, despite the publicised proximity to the well-organised Islamicists, also has a soft spot for secularists. This is a promising counterpoint that could suit Libyan resurrection in the image of “a reality composed of many ultimate substances” (the pluralist doctrine).

LIBYA as an integrated political entity in north-west Africa achieved independence under King Idris in 1951 and economic salience with the discovery of high quality petroleum reserves (notably by Esso, later Exxon) in 1959; but the majority slipped into neglect and penury as a Westernised elite (though the demographic bulk has graduated to urban residence along the Mediterranean coastline under the Gaddafi regime) cornered the gravy train (the reason for the popularity of the Gaddafi-led overthrow of 1969).

The royal dispensation was pro-Western and Arab-conservative and the elite co-existed with residual Italians who dominated Libyan business. The Anglo-French ran territories that constitute modern Libya as UN trusteeships, subsequent to the departure of the Italians. (The Americans had supported the UN resolution in February 1951 providing for Libyan independence on the heels of an armed resistance led by King Idris.) Given the broad elite-commons/secular-fundamentalist paradigm of binary opposites that defines the socio-economic dispersion in North Africa and portions of neighbouring West Asia, future polarisation could assume piquant contours. The precipitation of the commons-fundamentalist anti-Gaddafi joint interest to co-opt (or appear to) corporate exploitation of the country’s energy resources would be the real purple patch. Though royalist legatees were seen waving their banners in the 2011 anti-Gaddafi demonstrations, in some quarters “civil war”, the elite of King Idris’ time was known to have been influenced by secularism and Arab nationalism following in the footsteps of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.

But the significant details are that while the British held Tripolitania to the north and Cyrenaica to the east, the French trusteeship was Fezzan in the south that contains the low sulphur oil and uranium fields extending to neighbouring Chad. King Idris also happened to be the emir of Cyrenaica, the eastern province neighbouring Egypt, the seat of the Sanusiya movement that unified eastern Libya and has always turned toward the east for trade and cultural ties (Arab-Islamic), as contrasted with Fezzan which looks south towards Africa for both trade and cultural influences. Somewhat predictably, Jalil, even if a former Justice Minister in the Gaddafi Government, and head of the current caretaker dispensation, hails from the eastern city of Bayda, still relatively “Italianised” (apart from having been under Italian occupation for a considerable period from 1912 to 1943, the national geographical region as a whole was an outpost of the Roman empire). The east was neglected by the previous regime. Gaddafi himself was from near Sirte in the north which also has heavy petroleum reserves; towards the end he was best served by the Tuareg African loyalists with a hot line to Niger. Militias in Sirte, Misrata (where Gaddafi was captured and killed) and the mountains south of Tripoli are in ferment. The federal/provincial/regional poles and their rivalries were always meaningful in the contentious Libyan mosaic.

The elaboration can be as composite as revealing and, like India or the subcontinent at the grassroots, conveys a sense of the African unease with alien constructs of nation and state, particularly their political and discursive pre-eminence over tribe, ancient ethnicity and region that still command allegiance and loyalty across latter-day political boundaries. Taken with the seemingly contradictory importance of the former colonialists as a carryover of historical hegemony in matters of language, education, culture and even economics and politics, without disregarding genuine synergies created by natural and spontaneous human cooperation, they constitute an intimidating cocktail.

Loosely defined, the unity of opposites is a situation in which the existence or identity of a thing (or situation) depends on the co-existence of at least two conditions which are opposite to each other, yet dependent on one another and presupposing each other, within a field of tension. If the opposites are balanced, stasis or motionless sets in, but if one set outdoes the other there is movement and change. For one thing, the traditional and the modern, or the African and the foreign, in qualitative synthesis after extended conflict (often manifested in cultural and intellectual brilliance or political leadership, sometimes even despite going awry) could translate into show-piece material progress, for which classicists rather than mercenaries would have to show their hand.

The dialectical balance in the situation is palpably delicate but the return to a good state is inherently presaged by the sum of accompanying factors, if not in the immediate future then over the long run. Alternatively, subsidence is being signified by outbreaks of seemingly unfathomable violence, the avaricious hands of nearsighted syndicates, man-made epidemics brought about by the breakdown of traditional security systems and tribal wars provoked by professional agents provocateurs. Privation abroad can also become more real when it has to be shared at home, particularly when accompanied with the verifiable know-ledge that deprivation today is globally inter-related when not instantly and transparently infectious. What if natural resources are utilised for the betterment of people, for example, constructive utilisation of African intricacies while protecting entitlement systems, or the Rich’s travails determine greater equitability? An Indian journalist’s belief that India should not be expected to bear the burden of the world was well taken. Despite that being so, India’s formal role of assisting reconstruction and rehabilitation in Libya, keeping in sight a harmony it could help bring about with others, is laudable.

The Colonel may have been a law unto himself but not the Libyan people en masse who should not only have had the last word on who governs them but also access to knowledge and assertion over their indigenous assets. Shooting Gaddafi can still be tangentially justified if the latter two conditions stand a chance of fulfilment. The relevance can be superficially validated because Gaddafi was frequently over the top himself. In the final analysis, the Libyan people as a whole should have been the judges of his fate rather than a motley crowd, arguably of the fundamentalist variety, egged on by external opinion, according to firmer judgment, of vested interests. If the instability created by severed entitlements spreads to other parts, including the migratory waves already reported into Europe (some are admittedly returning), the victors in Libya and beyond may well find themselves paying a much heavier price than they had counted on.

But there is also a comforting aspect in that the awesome historical range of the region’s past necessarily involves the antecedent condition of human ingenuity. Its supersession by successive dictatorial configurations could have also been a measure of the demands of human security and management posed by physical exposure to the Mediterranean Sea to the north, Tunisia and Algeria to the west, Egypt in the east, and Niger and Chad to the south, not to mention a volatile Sudan in the south-east. In an era when the common man is in the picture both owing to the urgency of soundness and practicality, the feeder channel of European and Arab-Islamic civilisation named by Homer in Odyssey can come into its own by surmounting the political facade behind which it has been conventionally exploited. Elections and a Constitution could be the agencies.


1. A semantic fait accompli Gaddafi would doubtless have wanted to address but for methods that entrapped him in the quicksand endemic to the culturally disadvantaged.

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