On 24 December 1951, a new country was born. It had witnessed the horrors of a devastating world war. The life had been sucked out of its lands by monstrous colonisation that had lasted over three decades. This country, previously known as the United Kingdom of Libya, was granted its independence almost overnight through a marathon of complex international, diplomatic, and political operations.
Libya’s first government, headed by Prime Minister Mahmud Al-Muntasir, faced the challenge of reviving an exhausted and desperate country, once known as a ‘sandbox’ due to the severity of its poverty. The country had no educated blocs and had barely enough funds to cover salaries for government officials. It was riddled with ignorance, disease, and destruction, and had hardly any resources to speak of other than scrap left over from the Second World War and the esparto grass—collected by the poor—that was used for making banknotes to pay its officials and staff, and to run a few simple affairs.
Thus the Kingdom was obliged to sign contracts with its allies, the United Kingdom and the United States, to lease Tobruk and Wheelus Air Bases in the Libyan suburbs for 3 million pounds (approx. USD 5 mn). It was also reliant on relief aid from UN-related international organisations. Libya’s first independence was a shock to its system.
I am among the Libyan writers, intellectuals, and politicians who prefer to describe the period following 17 February 2011 as the “Second Independence.” This is due to my belief that the Qaddafi period was, in many ways, not dissimilar to the Italian colonisation of Libya. Just as they had been during the Italian occupation, the majority of the Libyan population under the Qadhafi regime were turned into refugees in their own country and citizens with no rights.
Writer Abdul Salam Shihab was held at Al-Jadida prison in Tripoli pending investigation over a political incident, together with fourteen other young writers and journalists, including myself. In 1979, he wrote a revealing story, the main narrative of which revolved around the 1977 public hangings by the Qadhafi regime of two activists, Omar Daboub and Mohamad bin Saud, of Benghazi. It depicts a bereaved old man, standing in front of the two suspended bodies. He requests an explanation, and is told that the two in question were accused of treason, to which he replies, “This is what the Italians used to say.” Indeed, the Italian occupying forces used to hang Libyan activists for treason in public squares.
On 17 February 2011, Libya became engulfed in its ‘Liberation War,’ culminating in the killing of Colonel Gadhafi on 20 October. His death marked the end of a bloody and dark forty-two years. On 23 October 2011, Counsellor Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the former chairman of the National Transitional Council, announced the declaration of liberation from a platform in Liberation Square in Benghazi City. For the second time, Libya emerged on the world stage with new political characteristics.
Libya’s new government, headed by interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib, was poised to lead a country exhausted by an eight-month war in which over thirty thousand Libyans had lost their lives and twice as many were wounded. The war had destroyed some cities, leaving thousands of Libyans homeless, widowed, or orphaned. Worse still, Libya had become a hotbed for armed militias and fanatic Islamists; its borders had become wide open to traffickers of illegal drugs, humans, and weapons.
Unlike Mahmud Al-Muntasir’s government in 1951, El-Keib’s government began constructing the first financial plan for the country, comprising around LYD 68 billion. However, the prime minister and the majority of government members lacked political experience—most were from the academic sector. Many had also spent years outside Libya, and therefore did not have the necessary experience to connect with social problems unique to Libyan society.
As a result, the bonds of national cohesion disintegrated, giving way to tribalism and loyalty to the political system, rather than to nationalism. El-Keib’s government ended up having to run affairs in the absence of a country, a constitution, a parliament, a police force or a military. The administration was completely paralysed by corruption and lack of efficiency. In addition, it was surrounded by armed militias with extreme religious affiliations, in many cases with external financial and artillery support, as well as an ideologically contrasting political agenda to that of democracy.
The lack of political and administrative experience of the prime minister and his officials was apparent to the Libyan people from the beginning, and created an opportunity for thieves of public funds to roam free. These thieves skilfully succeeded in pilfering hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds—and soon, the stench of corruption began to spread.
Libyan citizens had expected the new government to start a national programme aimed at rebuilding the country, especially the heavily stricken Libyan cities. In addition, they had hoped for youth educational and training programmes and post-war rehabilitation programmes for people with disabilities. However, the government remained paralysed by fear, as though it had inadvertently stepped onto a minefield and was then unable to move once it was struck by the gravity of the situation.
The trauma for the Libyan public following the second independence was greater than that of the first independence, as they had believed that removing Qadhafi would be enough to turn the clock back to 1969. The Libyan public had forgotten that ‘Qadhafi’ was not only a dictator, but also a political system that had existed for more than forty years. Libyan citizens will need to be patient when finding viable alternatives to the ethics and culture that were planted by that system.
The first parliamentary elections to take place in Libya since 1965 were on 7 July 2012. They were monitored by an international committee, described as honest, had a tremendous turnout, and had a positive participation from the Libyan female population. Contrary to the electoral experiences of the other Arab Spring countries, Tunisia and Egypt, the Islamic parties failed to gain the trust of the Libyan voters, while the National Forces Alliance gained the largest number of votes, with over 40 percent.
However, there is still a long and thorny road toward democracy in Libya, and moving forward in the right direction requires ridding the country of the implications caused by the deposing of Qadhafi and his dreadful regime. If the Libyan people truly do not wish to backtrack or to fall victim to similar autocratic tyranny—if they want to light the path towards democracy—they will have to think together.