Interview with Prof. Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, Political Science Department, University of New England in Maine February 2022
Professor Ali Abdullatif Ahmida was born in Waddan, Libya, and educated at Cairo University and the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the founding chair and professor, Department of Political Science at the University of New England, Biddeford, Maine. His areas of expertise are political theory, comparative politics, African History, and historical sociology. His scholarship focuses on the production of knowledge, genocide studies, and power, agency, anti-colonial resistance and post-colonial politics in North Africa, especially in modern Libya. His books include Forgotten Voices: Power and Agency in Colonial and Postcolonial Libya (Routledge, 2005; Arabic edition, 2009); Post-Orientalism: Critical Reviews of North African Social and Cultural History (The Center of Arab Unity Studies, Beirut, Lebanon, 2009); and Genocide in Libya: Shar, A Hidden Colonial History (Routledge, 2021).
Now that Elections have been indefinitely postponed, how do you see the situation developing in Libya going forward?
“I could see that if the current situation continues, the balance of power will continue and the election will continue to be delayed. The Abdul Hamid Debiba government will try to prolong the delay to make sure that the election will have an outcome catered to their own liking. I think it will be an ongoing struggle without a resolution because all of those involved are still not agreeing on having the election. Unless we have a compromise or some agreement to resolve these factors which produced the infighting, competition, and the lack of interest in the election then I would say that probably the situation could be delayed until next year. But the situation is fluid, the bad news is that there is no interest in having the election. There are many actors inside Libya and maybe even regionally who are not interested in having a fair election. The Libyan crisis is made of internal, regional, and international actors. And it’s really misleading to see it as just an internal conflict. Libya after 2011 has been going through what I call the “Crisis of Transition.” The scenario on what to do after the collapse of the Gaddafi regime was not really clear. A common agenda was not very clear and a compromise on the form of government, election, rebuilding the police and security apparatus were all postponed. There was a civil war, where part of Libyan society sided with the Gaddafi regime while other groups inside the regime and in the opposition made their own coalition. Also diplomats, military officers, young men and women in Eastern Libya all fought against the regime. Unfortunately, something unanticipated happened. The UN resolution with the initiative by the Arab League, asked for the protection of civilians. But then NATO and the Western powers took the 1973 resolution to mean toppling the regime which also led to militarizing the political protests against the regime. The Gaddafi regime fought until the last moment, and in the meantime, Libya also had accumulated millions of weapons purchased by the Gaddafi regime. Additional weapons came from outside actors who opposed the regime, especially Europe, Turkey and the Gulf states, which hardened the demands for toppling the regime instead of reforming it. Instead of trying to compromise and find a middle way, the regime decided to fight any opposition as they did in the past. In short, the fight in Libya against the Gaddafi regime was militarized unlike the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Consequently, this led to the rise of military forces inside Libya who sought support from external factors such as the EU, the United States, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Russia. After the opposition defeated Gaddafi’s regime and in the absence of a common agenda for rebuilding the State, they began to fight each other over who should be in control. In my opinion, this is still the root of the conflict in Libya.”
If elections were to be held, do you think this will settle the issue? Do you think the parties to the conflict will accept the outcome of the elections?
“I’m afraid that’s not going to be that easy because for the reason I mentioned, there has to be an agreement on the election itself, accepting the results of the election, and having a fair election will not really be possible as long as you have Russian, Syrian, Turkish, Chadian, and Sudanese foreign sponsored mercenaries in Libya. Political actors in the West are opposed to rebuilding the army, revamping and empowering the police force and the security forces, because they see it as a threat to them, since some of them have committed crimes and atrocities. So they are afraid to potentially be prosecuted. In the East there is a general by the name of Khalifa Haftar, from the old Libyan army who was in the opposition, and he became really legitimized through the fact that the militias, the fragmentation, the political conflict and the foreign intervention made people so desperate that he emerged as a sort of “savior” from all of this chaos. He gained some legitimacy in the East, and to a point in the South, but in the West, he was not successful, especially after his miscalculated attack on Tripoli in 2019. The government of National Accord, that was recognized by the UN, requested military support from Turkey. The Turkish government sent drones and mercenaries that were able to defeat Haftar’s army near Tripoli. I always say there are no innocent people in civil wars. This is the second civil war, as the first one was in 2011, a second civil war in 2014, then the militias took over Tripoli, and fighting flared up again in 2019 when Haftar attacked Tripoli. There have been several ups and downs with periods of fighting and then truces. From 2012 until now I see it as a continuing civil war and part of the problem is that Libyan leaders failed to compromise for the protection of civilians. Therefore, now all the candidates think they can win and they are fighting over pillaging and stealing the money and the revenues. And now Libya has been added to the list of the top ten most corrupt governments in the world.”
Libya organized elections in 2012 then in 2014 but the Libyan crisis has worsened. Do you think elections are enough to resolve the manifold pending issues in Libya?
“Well yes and no. The Libyan people now are demanding elections to get rid of all of the corrupt and incompetent officials who failed to resolve everyday basic needs, such as electricity, salaries, and security. We have a paradox in Libya in one sense, where you have a society that despite having no police or protection is insisting on keeping the country together. Which is a huge country in terms of geographical size. On the other hand, we have failed leaders and elites who could not lead the country into a successful transition. We could say without hesitation that the election is a popular idea and people say to me all the time “how else can we change these corrupt leaders and this miserable situation?” only through election. And they did in 2012 and 2014 when voter turnout was huge, and the results were verified by international observers. Unfortunately, the leaders elected in 2012 and 2014 were split in supporting two governments in the East and the West, while the South was controlled by armed groups and smugglers. Right now, we have a dilemma, people want elections but we don’t know if they are going to be fair. Second, we don’t know if the losers will accept the results of the election. In my view, and I have said that many times, there are four conditions which are important in making the elections a reality, as the Libyan people are demanding. One is to get rid of mercenaries, second is to dissolve and disband the militias but give them a creative solution. Not to punish them or threaten them otherwise they will not give up, but to have a humane and pragmatic solution for them, such as giving them scholarships, vetting them to see if they could join the armed forces or police force. The militias need an alternative so they won’t continue clinging to their arms. The third important factor is there having to be a truce and common agreement among the actors who are exploiting the Libyan civil war and uprising. There are no innocent actors here, including Turkey, Russia, etc. So, if you resolve these challenges then you might have legitimate elections. For now, the most immediate challenge is to insist on immediate elections, and at the same time, get rid of the mercenaries in Libya. I think the Libyan people are capable of voting as they have in past elections. The final condition for elections to be legitimate, sustainable, and democratic, is to make sure that there will be protection against potential revenge attacks.”
What do you see as the major challenges for Libya to transition away from a decade of fighting and violence?
“It is no secret that the Libyan people are still suffering. Libya is a very wealthy country with 7 million people, very rich in oil and gas, large youth population, and high literacy rates. Libya is in a bad situation but it is not like Syria or Yemen mainly because Libya had incompetent, failed leaders. I have said before that Libya is like a body without a head. The Libyan people want and need to rebuild the army and the police force but they are intimidated by armed groups, mercenaries, and foreign intervention. Unfortunately, the collapse of the Gaddafi regime posed a new problem, disagreement over the form of new state. Royalists are calling for the return of the monarchy, we have other groups especially in the East where some groups are calling for federalism. We have people calling for minority rights even for small groups that have only 30,000 people. We have all of these aggravated demands which are understandable given there has been a civil war and it’s more of a reaction to the 40 years of Gaddafi’s military Jamahiriya dictatorship that suppressed any kind of diversity or way of expressing yourself or determining your local affairs. Right now, you have fragmentation, greed, and corruption which led to alienation and hopelessness. To me, Libyans should not wait for an outside solution, they should instead look in their own history of anticolonial struggle, unity, institutions, experiences, and their heritage which led to independence in 1951. That’s really what’s going to last. But a quick recipe by some UN bureaucrats or some consultants from the outside is not going to resolve their crisis of transition and regain their independence. In addition, the people need to exercise an honest self -criticism and break the cycle of violence through revenge, vengeance, and settling scores. Revenge is not going to build states. The survivors of the Libyan civil war including the supporters of the Gaddafi regime deserve a second chance. Above all Libya needs to go back to the question of decentralization and self-governance. I would say no to federalism but yes to self-governance and local governance such as empowering the current local municipalities and reviving the old Muhafadhat- governates system.”
The constitutional process has been dormant for some time now. Some suggest a return to the suspended 1951 constitution, while others call for a referendum on the draft constitution or the drafting of yet another one. What do you think is the best option?
“I think the answer is not going to be just yes or no. I think the old constitution which was amended in1963 was well written, and served the Libyan people at that time. However, I think right now we have a different reality because we are talking about 70 years later. Libyan society today is different demographically, economically, socially and educationally. I think Libya should build on some aspects of the old constitution but create its new constitution because every generation should be able to amend or draft its own. The constitutional commission that was elected and drafted the 2017 new constitution is problematic. I’m almost worried that even though it was a constitution that was created and drafted by elected officials, it was also created during a time of civil war. And I don’t know if one can have a constitution during a civil war. I prefer a process that selects a committee of experts but not right now and after the elections. There is no shame in saying we made a mistake and wait for the post -election period. And that brings me to the point that should be kept in mind the need for new good leadership which is competent, qualified, but also willing to serve others. I am afraid that the leaders that emerged especially after the death of my late friend Mahmoud Jibril, failed to appeal to all Libyans and unify the whole country. Everyone is looking to gain support from different regions and constituencies. The last point in terms of what’s needed for the election to make sense, is you need people who are willing to compromise for the sake of everybody. Not everyone has to agree but we need to agree on rule of law, transparency, and the right of the people to select their own representatives. This way of thinking may take a while but as for now the main objective is to focus on making sure that there will be a fair election, getting rid of the militias and mercenaries, electing good people, and slowly reviving the economy. Since 2012 I have always advocated for a truth and reconciliation commission in Libya. People were killed, abused, kidnapped, properties destroyed, there are a lot of wounds that are still open. I hope if a new elected leadership were to come it should have the ability to say let’s have truth and reconciliation, so we recognize everybody, stop the cycle of revenge, and focus on the common goods and interests of everybody. I think that also might help in healing the wounds of the Libyan civil war.”
Colonel Qaddafi created a stateless society based on his third international theory. Is Libya still living under this legacy?
“Let me clarify because I know this is really common in the media, this term called a “stateless society.” I don’t think Libya is a stateless society. Gaddafi took power in a populous military coup in September 1,1969. He borrowed a one-party system based at the beginning on his idol’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. We have to keep in mind that the history of multi-party system in Libya is short and insignificant. We find only in the turn of the turn of the 20th C. 1908-1919 under the Ottoman Empire there were some political parties. In the 1940’s under the British colonial administration (1943-1951) after the defeat of the Italian fascist rule of Libya, political parties emerged in Tripoli. But the monarchy (1951-1969) banned political parties, and Gaddafi’s regime (1969-2011) regarded political parties as treason. So, both postcolonial modern regimes of independent Libya were hostile to political parties. This historical context explains the limited role of political parties in Libya. Western thinking sees Gaddafi as being erratic and hostile to this state, which is true but in Libyan tradition and history you’re talking about a decentralized system. The Ottoman Empire controlled Tripoli and the coastal towns, while the rest of society in the interior governed its own affairs. Colonial anthropologists of Africa called it stateless societies, which Western scholarship has taken to mean advanced versus backwards societies which lacked state formation before the coming of colonialism. I read it differently, I think stateless society means tradition of self-governance and we know that the modern state is important to Libyans now but let’s not be naïve because the modern state is also associated with repression, racism, and abuses against its own population. Therefore, I think Gaddafi tried to do something very intriguing, even though he used it for his own dictatorship, he said I want to build a state based on Libyan cultural, Arab, Maghrebian, Islamic values where people deliberate and create their own traditions. And in that sense Gaddafi’s message was very seductive to ordinary Libyans especially country folks. Remember Gaddafi spoke like a Badawi, nomad from the interior, with a heavy accent, he ate with his hands, and dressed like them. Gaddafi was a master of using cultural and social anti-colonial symbols. He was shrewd and astute in mocking urban westernized culture and appealing to ordinary country people who came out of a brutal colonial experience between 1911-1943. Yet by the early 1980s this appeal waned and he had to rely on repression informal security institutions and his manufactured cult of personality. One has to keep in mind that the modern state government in Tripoli was always feared by Libyans because of the violent and genocidal colonial experience. Gaddafi manipulated and highlighted this national aversion to the modern state. The Jamahiriya system that he created in 1977 was based symbolically rooted in the anti-colonial cultural experience. Yet this locally rooted experiment failed not because it’s not true, it failed because Gaddafi did not let the Libyan people govern in a genuine way, build on those traditions. I dislike the talk about stateless society, I call it not a stateless society, but I call it the indigenous traditions of self-governance. But anybody who stays in power for 40 years, will become corrupted. And Gaddafi in the end was old, delusional, and also out of touch with the realities of his people, and couldn’t reform his state, which collapsed in the end.”
In your opinion, what is the most suitable political form of government post-transition phase? A presidential or parliamentary system?
“At this stage I would say presidential. When I was asked in 2011 after the collapse of Gaddafi’s dictatorship what system should come next, I said we don’t need any supreme leader, we need an ordinary leader. And I was wrong because Libya now needs a figure who could unify the country again. As the experience of King Idris before him and Gaddafi during his first decade of leadership. Libya is a geographically big country and still has a small population of 7 million people. It needs someone who is capable of learning from past patterns and mistakes and building on the positive traditions of the past. I think Libya is now occupied in a way, with current leaders who are more interested in fighting each other than unifying the country and rebuilding the state. There is also a need to look for solutions among Libyans themselves, by respecting people and traditions. Not by importing a solution that was drafted from the outside. Libya needs maybe a few years of rebuilding. And I think society will recover sooner than people think, because we are talking about a very rich, modernized country with the highest literacy rate in Africa. I always say to people that no society is immune to civil wars, conflict, occupation, or mistakes, and the Libyan case is not an anomaly. If one can look back on past mistakes and advocate for unity among Libyan people, then I think Libya might surprise us all. If this is achieved, then I could see Libya recovering within the next five years.”
We have witnessed a growing movement calling for the return of the Sanusi Crown prince, and the establishment of a parliamentary monarchy as the best way to safeguard Libya’s territorial integrity. Will this help resolve the Libyan crisis? What are your views on that?
“I have a soft spot for the Sanusiyya. I wrote about it, my grandfather Ahmida was a shaykh and Imam of Sanusi Zawiyya, my other grandfather was named Ali Senussi named two sons Idris, and Sanusi. So, from a family background I am very fond of the Sanusiyya which in my opinion was one of the most brilliant, early modern reformist movements in the whole Muslim world between the second half of the 19th C and 20th C. It focused on building local education, trade, community, and unity. However, the time for monarchy is gone now. It doesn’t mean that constitutional monarchies are a bad idea because republics have also failed in the Arab world and led to military dictatorships. I am now more reflective than before, but I think having a monarchy in Libya would only work if it were a constitutional monarchy that represented the wellbeing of the people and with monarchs that are not absolute or able to manipulate the process. But at the same time, I think learning and respecting Senussi institutions, including the remarkable achievements in unifying several tribes, merchants, intellectuals, and ethnic groups inside and outside Libya, is a lesson to be learned and revived. I respect the Senussi crown prince and the Senussi family because of my family background but Libya needs to move forward. Going back to the monarchy is not going to resolve it even though the monarchy now looks like a really positive state builder, especially institutionally. I was educated partially under the monarchy so there are a lot of things to be learned from the monarchy such as its system of governance, administration, and education which all opened civil society in many ways. But I think Libyan people need to build a republic based on the rule of law and full citizenship to everybody. This is to me the way to go. I know there is nostalgia for the monarchy, but I might even say something that many Libyans might not like, we need to be fair to the monarchy and the Jamahiriya. Instead of seeing the monarchy and the Gaddafi Jamahiriya as opposed to each other, we need to think about them together and learn from both. In a republic, I feel like we should respect people and I think the age of monarchies is in the past, it’s time to build an accountable state again. Libyan founded the first republic in the Arab World, the Tripolitania Republic between 1918-1920, had a second republic between 1969-1977. The future third republic should be based on the first two and the social peace and unity achieved by the Sanusiyya reformist movement. They should not run away from their history; they need to rediscover it.”
We usually hear about Eastern (Barqa, or Cyrenaica in English) and Western Libya (Tripolitania) but less often about the South, Fezzan. How do you see the situation in the Libyan south and how important is the South in the protracted Libyan crisis?
“ I was born and educated in Fezzan. This is the region where I grew up, so not only do I speak about it from a scholarly perspective but from a personal perspective. The Libyan South is probably the most marginalized region in the whole country. And there is ignorance about the Libyan South even among elites in the Eastern and the Western part of Libya. Many Libyans haven’t even travelled to the south before and they think of it in a vague, stereotypical way. Gaddafi was actually considered a “Fezzani” because part of his Tribe lives in Sabha and he went to school there. Many people in Eastern Libya always thought they were more marginalized after 1969 than the rest of the country because Gaddafi moved the center of power to Tripoli. In that way, the south is economically and socially more forgotten and marginalized than even eastern Libya in the last 40 years. There is also tremendous marginalization of Southern Libya such as opportunities, economic and social disadvantages, funding of schools, hospitals, roads, etc. But the Libyan south is the key to the security of the Libyan people because it historically has been the frontier where the Ottoman State and the Italian colonial settlement would go to trade with West Africa. The south was a region of refuge and strong resistance to the Italian colonization of Libya. It was the safety valve for the Libyan people for centuries in many ways. And the new most important oil fields have been discovered within the last 30 years to be in the south. The south is economically important, yet we have the contradiction that it is constantly overlooked and marginalized. I continue to be shocked about the misconceptions about the south, such as it being a region of blacks, Tibu, Tuaregs, and more superficial claims its development under Gaddafi’s regime. The Libyan South is crucial and sadly is completely understudied. Now it is not even discussed, rather it is completely left out of regional conversations by the northern elites. As it is invisible and does not exist.”