Libya: A Society in Transit

An empirical review of the social and political concerns that characterise Libyan society. Observations of a society in transit, remnants of the fascist regime, between revolution and stability.(2377 words)

It is December in Tripoli and I am taking the public bus out from the city centre. I’m standing above a seated woman in her mid-20’s who has taken out a one dinar note that will be handed to the driver when she disembarks. I look on past her scarfed head as she deliberately folds the paper note in her hand, running a crease through Gaddafi’s printed body. Then with long painted fingernails she pinches Gaddafi’s face from the paper. Resting the note on her lap, she proceeds to shred Muammar Gaddafi’s face until the extract becomes too small for her to tear anymore and the pieces fall and scatter beneath her seat.

courtesy of
courtesy of

The one dinar note that boasts Muammar Gaddafi’s portrait is widely vandalized, an act that in many ways epitomizes Libya’s sustained hatred. A hatred for the previous leadership and a sign that the country is still living with the memories, reminders and traumas of that period. Despite being routinely defaced, the Dinar’s has not collapsed although purchases including bus fares are often twice the price they were during Gaddafi’s dictatorship. Muammar Gaddafi’s regime collapsed over a year ago but, as world media attests, Libya remains troubled by internal conflicts.

Routine Car search: Rebels in Uniform
Routine Car search: Rebels in Uniform

On Tripoli’s streets, concerns are voiced by regular office workers and students alike over extreme religious groups seizing influence amongst the desert people in the south. Rebel police perform routine car searches at road blocks in a hunt for wanted Gaddafi loyalists. As I was frequently warned by the Libyans whom I lived with, elsewhere in Libya rebels have turned vigilante, exploiting the lack of government organisation and absent social security. Even inside the capital city of Tripoli where I was based for two months in 2012, fears of gun crime remain high. A concern exacerbated by speculative knowledge of the number of weapons currently in circulation. Peculiarly, strangers will often boast of their weapon stash, I can recall the second day that I spent in Libya when I met a car mechanic who unexpectedly took me for coffee so he could practise his English. I never met him again but he bragged about his anti-tank weapon, his RPG, that “could be put together in seconds”, and yes he had used it.

Martry Square

Despite attempts to encourage weapon handovers, most households have stored weapons, from Kalashnikov’s to rocket propelled grenade launchers. Symptomatic of being a stranger in an unusual place, a wide variety of people will often come and speak with you. Sometimes the exchange is just to say something predictable as with one group of Benghazi rebels, all in their 30’s, on Martyr Square who wanted to see where I was from and state that they had fought against Gaddafi. Other interactions can result in longer relationships as with a group of four medical students, all 21, that I met on the bus. They too had guns and had fought in the revolution, though the sentiment from these young men was quite apprehensive of the sense of change the war had brought. As one put it, it is intimidating to shoot a gun “but once you have done it you are no longer scared”. Whilst it is widely trusted that the Libyan people will not carry or use these guns and as even those young students told me, “people are tired of fighting, we want to see things go back to normal,” there exist people who do use these weapons to commit crimes.

It seems thought that the worst of the revolution is over, business has resumed, entrepreneurs are taking opportunities, and people shop and participate in leisure activities. As this goes on though, government’s ministers repeatedly reassure the Libyan community that they are in a process of change; the country is restoring social security. More precisely, they mean to say there is no social security.

In December 2012 Libya democratically elected and decided upon a government. Libya’s appointed state leaders, elected ministers and political representatives, appear indisputably new. However Libya has been represented by supplementary ministers in many of its departments since before Muammar Gaddafi’s death, including those members of Libya’s transitory council. Those ministers who took occupations during the leadership of the transitory council of Libya are in most cases maintaining their positions. This is rising contest amongst some civilians who see the new government as failing to take the initiative in organising the country anew.

The immediate concerns being expressed are to do with Libya’s longterm future, its potential to function effectively as a democracy, and ultimately to do with risk of unethical practices by the country’s officials. The arguments being raised stress the importance of profiling ministers. If not by the current leadership, then internal security forces need to investigate the backgrounds of all political active figures and know where and from what background have they come. How did they acquire their role, did they experience or contribute to Gaddafi’s hierarchy of power, and how have they acted politically previously? In regards to this, members of the transitory council and the elected government are criticised for carrying out an obvious power seize. It is also contested whether the government should stringently reveal and remove ministers filtering through from the Gaddafi regime. The current government however does not appear to be interested in this question. Instead it has passed legislation protecting officials from political relegation if they’d aligned themselves oppositionally to Gaddafi before 20th March 2011. The publication of this legislation received some public disapproval though very few people rallied in protest.

Legislature exempting ex-Gaddafi ministers from ministerial relegation
Legislature exempting ex-Gaddafi ministers from ministerial relegation

The poor turnout, stated members of the protest, made them nervous and demonstrated a public lack of faith in protesting. Moreover it demonstrates how little the people want to participate in protests at a time when a concern for political transparency is questionable. Those Libyans present there on Martyr Square on the 16th of December were largely a mixture of international Libyans, working class civilians and members of society who had been criminalised by the Gaddafi regime. They insisted that Libya seeks to implement a policy of transparency as to prohibit the growth and dominance of corruption and social divides in the nation’s development. Led by a few louder members of the group, they protested that a new government should not allow Gaddafi ministers to take positions of power inside or outside of the Libyan government where it is within the power of the government to do so.

Clearly the issue of ethical practises when governing a country is a fundamental one. Gaddafi’s regime infamously propounded poor ethics that determinedly led to the revolution and Gaddafi’s demise. Character traits including moral corruption, money laundering, and exploitation of power, prominent during Gaddafi’s leadership, will not dissipate immediately. They will remain in the system as long as there is insufficient protection against them and whilst those who already have power and money are still able to use it for personal ends. As few government office positions are necessarily revealed or affected by elections, the government needs to act to apprehend and deter individuals who might be willing to corrupt the country’s development. This is not to suggest that government ministers should be paranoid of their colleagues, the government above all else must seek to maintain its internal effectiveness in cooperatively running the country. In other words, an important question needs to be answered: how can the public be sure that the government is acting in their interests?

Some of my housemates
Some of my housemates from Felah, Tripoli.

Due to the Libyan government’s history of corruption, as well as the repression of creative or opinionated expressions, many Libyan civilians are sceptical of their government’s honesty, are disenchanted with the merits on offer, and are generally pessimistic of their career prospects. I lived with 10 Libyan men who all worked as if they were in the lower echelons of society as taxi drivers, car mechanics, and teachers. These men occupied jobs that in Britain or many other countries they would be relatively well off. This is certainly true for the status of a teacher. However these men were atypical of this bleak view on the future. Their work appears futureless and the surrounding culture oppressive, and from the teacher’s perspective, the students and the future population of Libya too unconcerned with its future, perceiving learning was an unnecessary chore to life. In this light it is clear that Libya still has a long way to go before it’s revolution is truly over and that in many ways the fight has not ended with Gaddafi. Over the next few years the government should be asked by its people to develop the national identity of the Libyan people, to improve the education system and increasingly to address the problems caused by political, racial, and sexual divisions that currently reside within Libyan society. These are by no means small tasks and solving such problems will mean transforming the way that the Libyan population thinks.

In regards to division, the post-revolution period has seen little change for women except that over the past few years women’s rights groups and awareness groups, such as the GBV program: International Medical Corps have been able to establish themselves. Unfortunately, as demonstrated by affairs affecting a young Libyan female acquaintance of my own who was employed on the GBV program until December 2012, even women’s rights groups are internally affected by unfair sexual politics wherein men are able to casually incite libel and usurp the authority of female workers. Not only does this inadvertently discredit the women involved, but detrimentally affects the course of women’s rights work. Significantly, the effect of the revolution altered racial and political divisions to much more noticeable effect.

With the release of a newspaper in the Tuareg language, Tifinagh, it appears that racial differences may be given space to relax. Libya’s varying indigenous ethnicities are relieved of direct repression against their identity. However, given that Malian Tuareg’s were employed by Gaddafi as mercenaries, Tuareg populations are still cast with as much mistrust and disdain as they ever were. I had a short stint in a student recruitment office called The Attomouh Company just outside of the city centre, the manager there was prone to state his mistrust for anyone Tuareg but it was not this that surprised me. Opposite the office on the other side of the road there would accumulate a great number of immigrant workers, they would place a symbol such as a hammer or brick near the road to tell drivers what skills they had to offer. Drivers could slow down and pick workers up for the best possible price, sometimes taking as many as 12 men on the back of a truck. Occasionally rebels or police would drive up and the workers would run away in fear. Later I was told by a work colleague at Attomouh that “the police were supposed to arrest them” but they would occasionally take the opportunity to “beat them up.” She told me,”sometimes they kill them, yes, its no problem, no-one cares.”

The great number of sub-saharan African immigrants to Libya add only to social prejudices. Illegal workers, South African’s, including Malian émigré, do not just hire themselves for work at a reduced rate but they also risk a number of abuses including questionable attacks by police forces during raids targeting illegal workers.

Perhaps the most complex social phenomenon is the political division that has torn apart entire communities. Whole families have been uprooted from their homes, extradited from their community, and then forced to relocate to another area. This group is distinguished by its support and loyalty to Gaddafi and its affiliations with Gaddafi sympathisers. A significant proportion of this community is composed of the wives and children of Gaddafi Loyalists. In the suburbs of Tripoli there are purportedly three such communities, or rather camps, that are host to these politically displaced Libyans. One in Felah, West Tripoli, is said to be host to a community of displaced Libyans from Tawergha.

Camp for the displaced in Fallah
Camp for the displaced in Fallah

These camps are cramped. Inhabitants of the camps live in metal buildings and each of these will host more than one family. These communities are largely segregated from, and distrusted by, the surrounding neighbourhood, are perceived as dangerous and thriving with thieves and drug dealers. The reality is that the people in these camps are often families who simply need a home and a community in which they can survive. Whilst security conditions have improved, human rights NGO’s within Tripoli, including the IMC’s GBV program, report that women and children in these camps have often been raped or abused.

In regards to trust and responsibility in the public domain, the pattern for corruption and exploitation appears to have been duplicated from the image set by the previous government. An observation that presents a new problem. How to maintain an incorruptible government when the public domain is wrought with corruption? Moreover how can we recognise this corruption and how does it manifest itself? Gaddafi’s dictatorship itself was thoroughly corrupt, money had been the key to power, and that which could not be won over by skill or aptitude could be won over by coercion or by financial means. On an important note, a polarised landscape appears to have formed wherein generosity and sincere kindness is brought into ever closer proximity with bribes, exploitation and poor employment ethics. Formal monetary transactions appear to receive a deficit of respect to the effect that some Libyans, as employees at a central Tripolitan coffee store on Istiklal Avenue informed me, demand and take payment for a days work at the end of the working day.

Libya can appear as though it’s slipping a downward spiral in a chase for money despite it’s changing face and new attitude towards itself. This observation though would not be giving Libya any credit for what it has overcome. The characteristics of Libyan society have been cut into shape by its history and only now can changes come about. Not only are there the old problems left behind by Gaddafi’s leadership but the revolution has borne its own ugly children. Some of these children are more the uglier for the fact that the government has yet to establish social security within the country. The question is whether the new leadership is able to address the country’s problems and lead it forwards, encouraging unity, national identity, and providing social security, education, and, most importantly, futures for Libyan citizens. Or will it attempt to restore an image of law and order that the population is familiar with, i.e. by reinstating a facsimile of the previous authoritarianism. These outcomes can only be seen with time. As acknowledged by many Libyans, they know there are many years of change to come. A popular piece of advice from shop owners, taxi drivers, the students I met, and my housemates, to all travellers is, “Libya is not a good place to visit. Come again, in five to ten years.” “Then,” they say, “Libya will be the new Dubai.”

No real tourism just yet: Taking photographs in Libya
No real tourism just yet: Taking photographs in Libya


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