Looking back on some articles I had written over the last 11 years on the successive anniversaries of the revolution, today, on the eve of yet another anniversary, the 12th anniversary of Libya’s February 17th, 2011, revolution, I see that they still very much hold true.
The articles reflect the political quagmire that Libya was and is very much still in, and the stranglehold that its self-serving elites have on the country.
Failure to hold constitutionally based elections
Libya has had two elections and several interim prime ministers and governments. All were tasked by the Transitional Constitutional Declaration of 2011 with the one simple task of organising constitutionally based elections. All have failed.
Political elites do not want elections
Today, there is a widely held view that none of Libya’s political elites, and some foreign states with huge influence on Libyan affairs, want elections to be held. The average Libyan citizen is held hostage by the UN-brokered Skhirat Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) of December 2015.
Libyans are unable to get rid of the status quo represented in the militias, the House of Representatives (HoR), the High State Council (HSC) or the Aldabaiba government installed by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) process of 2021.
A good example of the ruling elite’s desire to avoid elections is HoR Speaker Ageela Saleh’s latest constitutional amendment. A close reading of the amendment shows that it is as much concerned with retaining the status quo as it is to enabling constitutionally based elections.
Rentier state dynamic
All this is aided by the fact that Libya is a rentier state. Its ruling elite can buy the acquiescence of the population – with a little militia coercion. This rentier state dynamic affects the dynamic between the ruling elite and the general public.
No reliance on work or taxation for state revenues
It means the ruling elite do not need the public to go out and work everyday to pay taxes to generate revenues. Revenues in most democratic states that the ruling elite/government need to keep the country functioning.
Elites can ignore public’s political needs and demands
The rentier state dynamic means Libya’s ruling elite do not need to be responsive to the needs and wishes of the general public. The ruling elite have access to money from the oil revenues which they can plunder and expropriate and use to sedate and buy the general public. They do not need the general public thanks to the oil money and can, in reality, totally ignore the public’s political needs and demands.
A good example of the use of rentier state money to sedate the public is Tripoli-based Prime Minister Abd Alhamid Aldabaiba’s multiple handouts in the form of allowances. At the very time the general consensus is that the state must wean the public off the Qaddafi era political bribes and encourage hard work and enterprise, Aldabaiba is using rentier revenues to buy political acquiescence.
Elections change the dynamic
This dynamic works as long as there are no bothersome elections. Elections change the relationship and force Libya’s ruling elite to take notice of their electorate. The HoR and the unelected HSC understand this very well. They understand that elections will mean the end of their political careers.
The unelected HSC know they will be banished for ever. Most of the HoR know they will never be re-elected. And the Aldabaiba government understands that both houses do not really want elections and so offers to leave the political scene – only if the other two houses depart as well. None of them want to depart the political scene. So, it is checkmate!
LPA and LPDF instrumentalised against the people
Ironically, Libya’s status quo political entities all use the LPA and LPDF, the instruments the UN (UNSMIL) created ostensibly to hold elections in order to satisfy the political wishes of the Libyan people, as a fig leaf to cling to power.
Libyan public is marginalised, impotent and disenfranchised
It is an open and continuing conspiracy and joke at the expense of the poor disenfranchised Libyan people. They are impotent and marginalised as they find themselves helpless bystanders in Libya’s interim political game.
Libya’s interim politics are conducted in exclusive meetings and events often in hotels of foreign capitals. The average Libyan citizen has no input in the process. It is a process for their parasite elite who refuse to get their claws and fangs out of the rentier oil state.
Meanwhile, in the 12 years that have passed, there is no state monopoly on the use of force, no strong civilian-controlled police or army to enforce the government’s will, no strong judiciary, no accountability or transparency and no real development and progress.
There is definitely no planning or building for the future. Libya’s oil money is wasted on a huge state-sector salary bill and a huge fuel and electricity subsidy bill – instead of preparing an economy for the post-oil era. The rentier welfare state is being enshrined instead of being eroded or abandoned.
The state sector cannot absorb the numbers of annual university graduates seeking jobs, and the bloated state sector dominates the economy, preventing the private sector from flourishing and providing those needed jobs. Ministry of Economy figures say at least 100,000 new jobs are needed every year. Currently, the government keeps adding them to the state sector. This is unsustainable.
How can the status quo elites be convinced to let go?
This current situation has led to a political deadlock at the expense of Libya’s oil revenues and its people. It requires the political will – internally and externally – to change it. The general public may desire change, but it does not know how to go about it. The political elite do not want change, but pretend they do. And there are several foreign states who do not want change or are not interested enough to force change.
How to affect and force change on our political elites
The question for Libyans is how to affect and force change on our political elites. What are the carrots and sticks available to convince or force them to change?
It is not easy to get the political elite to abandon positions of power that give them access to unlimited rentier wealth. And Libyans are not very politically demonstrative. It took them 42 years to come out against Qaddafi – and only after Tunisia and Egypt led.
It never gets bad enough for Libyans to invoke another uprising?
The problem for Libyans is that the rentier oil money acts as a great sedative. Leaving the war periods aside, things get bad, but it seems for Libyans, never bad enough for a mass public demonstration or strike. Power and water cuts, cash, fuel and cooking gas shortages and high rates of insecurity have all been endured since 2011.
And in reality, with Hafter’s war on Tripoli long over, the country is slowly recovering. Things are getting better – but not fast enough to make structural change to infrastructure and the economy. Not fast enough to fix the broken health system or the education system that does not graduate students ready for the workplace. And it is definitely not fast enough to achieve development on the scale achieved by other oil peers such as the UAE or Qatar.
Libya condemned to years of mediocrity?
Libya seems to be condemned to mediocrity, limping along for more years or decades until the oil runs out or things get so much worse that we do uprise against the status quo.