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Gadhafi casts a long shadow

by Barak Barfi

The recent coup attempt in Libya, led by Gen. Khalifa Hiftar, has finally pierced the illusion that the country’s dysfunctional central government, whose power is limited to the capital, Tripoli, can rule effectively. But determining how to bring peace and stability to Libya’s deeply fragmented society will require more than an assessment of this government’s mistakes; it will demand careful consideration of former leader Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s failures — and his successes.

Hiftar believes that the key to solving Libya’s myriad crises lies in establishing a strong national army capable of subduing the Islamists who are destabilizing the country. Others continue to advocate for national reconciliation. But neither solution addresses what is really driving events in Libya: the legacy of Gadhafism.

Given that Gadhafi ruled Libya for more than four decades, his is a legacy that cannot simply be ignored. That means not only recognizing the vital link between his policies and today’s problems, but also ensuring that what should be preserved is not sacrificed in the rush to efface his memory.

Gadhafi used strong security services and paramilitary revolutionary committees to safeguard his rule, leaving state institutions dysfunctional and fragmented. Indeed, Gadhafi’s belief that the bureaucracy impeded the transmission of his message to the masses spurred him to dismantle ministries periodically and place privileged personal relationships above institutional hierarchies. Lacking unified leadership, Libyans reverted to tribal and regional allegiances, at the expense of a shared national identity.

This atomization of the state and society continues to impede Libya’s ability to establish effective and credible government. With the right approach, however, there is hope. The problem is that Libya’s leaders have so far done more to perpetuate fragmentation and dysfunction than to ameliorate it.

In its two years in power, the parliament, known as the General National Congress (GNC), has empowered nonstate actors, with ministries bypassing the army to task militias with security operations. Hiftar recognizes the problem with this approach — indeed, it spurred him to initiate the coup; but his proposed solution is equally flawed. After all, Libya’s security forces have already proved to be more likely to facilitate than fight cronyism.

Moreover, instead of eliminating Gadhafi’s highly politicized judicial system — for example, separate courts, administered by the revolutionary committees, could try any Libyan without due process — his successors have embraced it. In 2012, a United Nations report revealed that “the vast majority” of an estimated 8,000 conflict-related detainees were being held outside of the state’s purview.

Militias have taken advantage of this system to strong-arm prosecutors into issuing arrest warrants. And militias based in the city of Zintan continue to refuse to hand over Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, to the central authorities.

Finally the corruption that was endemic in Gadhafi’s regime endures, with ministry officials accepting bribes, for example, in exchange for contracts. For their part, the militias that overthrew Gadhafi have released prisoners in exchange for ransom payments.

If Libya is to escape its current predicament, its leaders must transform the governance structures that Gadhafi built to create a fair and credible system based on the rule of law. That requires, first and foremost, efforts to strengthen and modernize institutions, guided by Western examples.

At the same time, Libya’s leaders must recognize and build upon the few positive aspects of Gadhafism. For starters, Gadhafi managed to unify a country that, since the Greek invasion in the seventh century B.C., had been divided between a coastal strip linked to the larger Mediterranean basin and an isolated hinterland that even Benito Mussolini’s brutal regime could not secure.

Gadhafi thus took the first step — intentional or not — toward creating a modern nation-state. The challenge now is to overcome the divisions that remain within the population — no easy task in a vast country with a sparsely inhabited interior populated mostly by ethnic minorities and reclusive tribes.

The most important positive component of Gadhafi’s legacy, however, was the partial emancipation of women. As a modernizer seeking to mobilize his entire population, Gadhafi promoted women’s social and economic inclusion by expanding education for girls, granting women the right to divorce, and appointing female judges and ministers.

Though Gadhafi’s female guards were mocked as the trappings of his eccentricity, they actually represented his desire to liberate women.

Here, too, Gadhafi’s successors have failed. Back in 2012, for example, the head of the interim government, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, declared his intention to lift restrictions against polygamy.

Later, he ordered Sarah Elmesallati, the host of the ceremony at which power was transferred to the GNC, to leave the stage halfway through her presentation because she was not wearing a headscarf.

Ordinary Libyans have also advocated keeping women on a short leash. A college-age Libyan woman’s father recently denied her the opportunity to accept a scholarship from the U.S. State Department to attend a training workshop in Washington, because he could not accompany her overseas.

Libya’s leaders — and their Western benefactors — have no choice but to consider and address the effects of Gadhafi’s legacy on public attitudes and official behavior. But they must also accept that only modernization of Libya’s state and society — the agenda that Gadhafi pursued, albeit in a perverted form — will ensure the country’s survival.

Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation. © 2014 Project Syndicate