Hope among the ruins
In 2011, Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya came to an end, but the country is damaged, and its people divided. Legal expert Suliman Ibrahim comes from the badly hit town of Benghazi but is based in Leiden and is helping to rebuild his country from here.
Vincent Bongers
Thursday 21 February 2019
The oil refinery fires in Libya, in Sidra that were started by attacks on oil terminals, in 2016. Photo by NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team

“In Benghazi, things are more or less stable now but much of the town, which, in February 2011, saw the first protests against Gaddafi’s government, has been devastated. The university, too, has suffered much damage.”
Libyan lawyer Suliman Ibrahim works for Leiden’s Van Vollenhoven Institute and the University of Benghazi. “I was there just last month. We can’t use the third floor of the Law Faculty, for instance, and even entire buildings have been destroyed but everyone’s doing their utmost to ensure that lectures can continue. Even the students’ dormitories are being used as lecture halls.”

So, life there can be quite tough. “But we live in hope. As an academic, I do my best to help with the rebuilding. Thousands of people no longer have a home and are staying with friends or family in Benghazi or in other places dotted about the country. Staying with people in the mountains for two weeks might seem like a holiday, but after eight months, the situation becomes quite problematic. I’m lucky that my family survived reasonably well – they live in an area that was scarcely damaged. But I have other relatives who live outside Benghazi. In the town of Benina, where Benghazi’s airport is located, the fighting was fierce, and they were forced to flee; they lived in a school for months.”

Together with academics from Leiden and Libya, Ibrahim is studying his country’s legislation, judicial system and national identity.

Muammar Gaddafi’s murder, on 20 October 2011, brought an end to the 42-year dictatorship. “When the protests at the beginning of that year had just started, Gaddafi asked the protesters: ‘Who are you?’ In itself, it’s quite a valid point. You see, while he ruled, Gaddafi focused very strongly on Arabic nationalism.

“There are all sorts of minorities in this country, tribes and peoples like the Imazighen, Tuareg and Toubou, for instance, who regard that kind of nationalism as discrimination. We are investigating how government authorities and the legislator deal with that issue. Those minorities are demanding that their languages are given the same official status as Arabic, for instance.”

Such population groups don’t like to see Libya referred to as an Arabic state either, says Ibrahim. “Their objections are actually now reflected in policy, as our study has revealed. Since 2011, the nation may not be described as an Arabic country in official documents. We find it striking that no objections have been raised against that measure, as the dictatorship fuelled a pan-Arabic mentality for decades.”

There is still room for improvement as far as the languages are concerned, though. “Arabic is still the nation’s only official language, although the Imazighen, for instance, are allowed to teach in their own language in the regions in which they live.”

It will still take a huge effort to get Libya back on its feet again. “My country is very divided. In 2012, elections were held and were extremely successful. Everyone was very optimistic back then. We could vote at last. At the polling stations, people were handing out sweets and pouring each other drinks.”

Ibrahim continues. “However, the country has become divided and even has two governments now: the Islamic New General National Congress in Tripoli and the parliament in Tobruk that has the support of the Libyan national army. These two are involved in an armed struggle, while international community is trying very hard to bring the two parties together. But to find a solution, we need to find the source of the division. That’s why we’re doing this study.”

Does the Gaddafi clan still have any influence? “That’s debatable. One of the dictator’s sons, Saif, would like to take part in the elections later this year. Saif al-Gaddafi was sentenced to death in absentia by the court of Tripoli in 2015 and the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for his arrest.”

Nonetheless, it’s not impossible that he might play a role of some importance.

“Under Gaddafi’s government, certain tribes were favoured above others and now they have lost most of their power. Of course, they’d really like to have it back and perhaps they believe that Saif will make that happen. Moreover, there are people who believe that things are so bad now, they almost long for Gaddafi’s return, claiming that ‘it wasn’t that bad back then’.”