After the fall of the regime

When the Libyan regime fell, with the killing of Gaddafi on 20 October 2011, the country fell into a state of confusion and disarray which persisted for several years thereafter, and from which the country has yet to fully recover. The central government remained unable to assert its own authority or to disarm the independent militias that continued to clash for control of the territory.

And there was also the question of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, found itself acting in a society that, after the fall of Gaddafi, no longer needed it to carry forward a vision of Islam felt to be right for that society. In fact what the Muslim Brotherhood embraced was a Salafi vision in a society that was already Salafist in the strictest sense of the word, that is, in a nonpolitical, religiously conservative sense (Tinazzi 2013). It would indeed be misleading to view the political dynamics in Libya through the false lens of the clash between Islamists, on the one hand, and liberals and secularists, on the other. For the real problem was that of security, which meant disbanding the paramilitary groups. The tribal councils continued to interfere with the central government’s ability to assert its own power, and at the same time it was proving difficult to disarm the militias (ibid.). In short, the biggest hurdle that Libya needs to overcome before it can fully transition to democracy lies in the fact it lacks the conditions needed to build a strong central government.

Libya was a rentier state, meaning a state whose revenues derive in large part from the rent that foreign entities pay for its natural resources. In Libya’s case, this meant the income it received from its sale of oil on the international market (Varvelli and Villa 2012, 232). A state so configured has no need for democratic institutions, for it can raise revenue without levying high taxes on the

The Arab Springs 187 population, and so it does not have to rely on popular consent or participation for its legitimacy. This position of advantage enjoyed by resource-rich countries, and oil-rich ones in particular, helps to explain the predominance of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and the challenge they face in transitioning towards democracy.

Built into these rentier or “distributive states” (Vandewalle 1998, 7) is the paradox whereby, on the one hand, they have a weak administrative and fiscal apparatus, precisely because they are not highly dependent on tax revenues, but at the same time they have stable forms of government, for they lack the democratic organization that could enable the people to organize and mobilize. Before the civil war, Libya could be described as a rentier state owing to the control it exerted on the inflow of oil revenues, but its institutional makeup was not statelike: as noted, it rather consisted of a patchwork of informal organizations, clans, committees, and militias that all answered to Gaddafi’s dictatorial regime. It was organizationally a stable system, to be sure, but it did not manage to diversify its own economy, and so it felt the full brunt of the volatility the oil market experienced in 1975 and of the sanctions the United States imposed on Libya from 1986 to 1990. In addition, the Libyan regime was highly dependent on foreign technology and know-how.

The outcome was persistent high youth unemployment (about 20 percent), coupled with significant wealth disparities between the different regions of Libya, Cyrenaica being particularly hard hit. This was the economic picture in the period leading to the outbreak of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, an outbreak that in turn conspired with the economic malaise to make conditions ripe for the revolts that would soon break out against the dictatorial regime in Libya.

The end of Gaddafi changed the situation in profound ways. Which is to say that the challenge confronting Libya was not just one of state-building: it was also, and most crucially, a »«inw-building challenge. Indeed, when the Gaddafi regime fell, what remained was a fractured Libya made up of regional and clan or tribal allegiances—an intricate sociopolitical landscape prone to instability, and with the added peril of militias bearing little or no connection to the central government.

Finally, there was Libya’s structural persistence as a rentier or “distributive” state that has not been able to effect an authentic democratic-participation process: this was making unfeasible the prospect of any transition towards democracy (Varvelli and Villa 2012, 247-48). On top of that was the aforementioned clash between armed militias, as well as the fragility of the democratically elected parliament and government, making it difficult to prefigure what the future of Libya might look like.


On the Libyan situation, fractured between the “legitimate” government in Tobruk and the “revolutionary” militias that in 2014 joined forces under the Libya Dawn banner to take control of Tripoli, see Toaldo 2015.

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