Gaddafi is dead, long live Gaddafi's legacy

Gaddafi is dead, long live Gaddafi's legacy
Comment: Gaddafi's violent death five years ago brought an end to his 42-year dictatorship over Libya, but his legacy and cult still overshadow the country today, writes Guma El-Gamaty.
7 min read
19 Oct, 2016
Libyans have only gained freedom from their revolution at the expense of stability [Getty]

It was five years ago to the day, 20 October 2011 that the life of Muammar Gaddafi - the man who ruled, dominated and controlled Libya and the life of Libyans - came to an end.

He was captured in his home town Sirte and taken injured to the city of Misrata 200km west of Sirte but was dead on his arrival. There is no doubt that the way in which he died was gruesome and his end was horrific. His captors, reflecting all the vented anger and fostered hatred towards him as a brutal dictator, most likely had no intention of keeping him alive.

I personally expressed to the media on that day, that ideally Gaddafi should have been kept alive as a prisoner of war and later put on a fair trial; thus revealing to the world all the crimes and human rights violations that he was responsible for throughout his 42 year rule. This is something that Gaddafi never granted his critics and opponents.

The fall of Gaddafi was an opportunity for us, as Libyans, to demonstrate to the world, and all those who sympathised with us, that our 2011 revolution was based on correcting all the wrongs and ending all the violations of the Gaddafi regime.

A good start would have been to uphold the rule of law, respecting a basic human right: the right to a fair trial that meets internationally agreed standards. Even if this does apply to your most hated and despised enemy.

Many, however, have argued that there was an inevitability about how Gaddafi died and that it was certainly what he deserved. History presents many examples of brutal tyrants who have suffered very brutal demises as an end to their rein of tyranny.

A lack of basic state institutions and a security void is what Libyans awoke to the morning after Gaddafi's death

Despite his death and exit from the Libyan scene five years ago, the Gaddafi legacy and his cult is still overshadowing events in Libya today and directly influencing what goes on. So how did his death, in the five years since it happened, change the game for the Libyans and Libya?

There is no doubt that Libyans, who were deprived of all forms of participation and empowerment throughout the Gaddafi era, find it very challenging today to shed what was left behind, namely a chaotic state constructed around his personality, ideas and identity.

As one Middle East analyst put it, Gaddafi "used a military funded by oil to crush any opposition to himself, rather than build state institutions that could survive beyond him". He argues that "It will be several years if not decades for Libya to create a national identity".

A lack of basic state institutions and a security void is indeed what Libyans awoke to the morning after Gaddafi's death. Reactions were extreme, almost in compensation for all the deprivations they endured for 42 years. Some Libyans went from a state of total fear due to oppression under Gaddafi, to indulging in anarchy, with no respect for basic laws, rights or they sanctity of human life and property - whether belonging to the state or private individuals.

To compound this, many Libyans went from a situation in which they faced severe punishment for possessing arms, or even a single bullet under the Gaddafi regime, to obtaining heavy weapons. It is estimated today that some 19 million arms are widely spread amongst the population.

Gaddafi also left behind a fractured society with deep divisions

The easy availability of arms has led to a proliferation of armed groups and militias, whose numbers are estimated to be around 170,000. It has also resulted in a sharp increase in revenge killings, armed robberies, kidnappings and other forms of criminality. The proliferation of armed militias has become one of the biggest problems faced by Libyans in the years since the revolution.

Many argued that Gaddafi, once realising his imminent downfall, deviously planned for chaos and troubles to spread in Libya after his death. One deliberate act was to release or allow to escape about 26,000 prisoners, "almost 200 of those escapees were facing the death penalty for serious crimes, including murder", points out Tracey Shelton.

Gaddafi opened arms depos for them, in the hope they would fight with him against the Libyan revolutionaries. However, once they possessed large arsenals of weapons, many went on to form militias engaging in all types of crime, and to act with impunity until today.

This has certainly contributed to the instability and difficulties faced in restoring law and order, especially in the capital, Tripoli. Militias and armed civilian groups in general, who are not all criminals, are perceived as hindering the rebuilding of the army and police institutions, and as one of the main obstacles to completing a successful political transition in Libya.

The five years since Gaddafi's death appear to have exposed the damage he inflicted on the psyche and mindset of Libyans

Gaddafi also left behind a fractured society with deep divisions. As Shelton says, "he pitched tribes and regions and different ethnic groups against one another for decades, which is why Libyans and the international community have struggled to create a national identity in his absence".

Gaddafi's death thrust the consequences of 42 years of oppression into the limelight overnight. It opened a Pandora's box of the evils, ills, cultural weaknesses and deficits inflicted by his systematic ideological conditioning and cultural framing of Libyan society mainly through mass media and the education system.

The five years since Gaddafi's death appear to have exposed the damage he inflicted on the psyche and mindset of Libyans, manifesting itself in deep polarisations along tribal, regional and ethnic lines.

There has since been intolerance between Libyans and a tendency to demonise those who express a different political stance. There has been no willingness to reconcile and forgive some of the mistakes associated with an era that has become a past history.

Competing factions have failed to coexist, compromise or share and instead only greedily seek to gain at the expense of one another in what is clearly a "Zero-Sum Game".

A sense of Libyan national belonging and identity has been very weak or almost non-existent

A sense of Libyan national belonging and identity has been very weak or almost non-existent and may very well take a generational shift to develop.

The five years since Gaddafi's death have also shown a sharp rise in corruption, which was already deep-rooted during his era. As Houda Mzioudet of the Sadeq Institute points out, "A corruption culture, financial irregularities, and circumventing of regulations within institutions has become pervasive across all sectors of Libyan society for decades". 

Corruption is now even more widespread than before, driven by a rentier culture and total absence of transparency, strong regulatory bodies and a functioning judiciary system.

Gaddafi and the legacy of his era will continue to overshadow Libya and the Libyan people for a long time. His death, including the way it happened, will continue to cause antagonisms and animosities - especially from his die-hard loyalists - unless a genuine reconciliation with them and a recognition of their grievances and their equal rights as Libyan citizens is accommodated in a new Libya.

This could be a good start to paving the way for a paradigm shift where a new culture of tolerance, pluralism, transparency and adherence to rule of law can be constructed and instilled. Such a future may take a generational change that must be aided by a strong, high-quality education system and the constructive role of a free media, as well as a free vibrant civil society.

So far, Libyans have only gained freedom from their revolution, all be it at the expense of security and stability.

However, guaranteeing civil, political, economic and other rights - which drove the revolution and the demise of Gaddafi – will only be achieved through building an institution-based state with a democratic system of government.

This may take decades but it is the only guaranteed route to preventing a regression into totalitarianism, oppression and tyranny. Gaddafi may have died five years ago, but his legacy lives on and is embodied in the chaos that roams Libya today.

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process.

Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.