Gaddafi: “Useful Idiot” of Western Imperialism?
Smirks and the odd expletive fill the room as a group of young men recall their education growing up under the eccentric and oppressive rule of Muammer Gaddafi.
“It was theory behind the theory behind the theory – it was stupid,” says Ahmed ben Musa. “Even he [Gaddafi] didn’t understand it.”
Colonel Gaddafi’s Green Book was a compulsory subject for study from primary school right through to the end of university.
First published in 1975,it outlines his “third universal theory” which he used to turn the oil-rich north African nation into a Jamahiriya, or “rule of the masses”.
Libyan students lined upto repeat chants in praise of Col Gaddafi’s system before class and again after lunch. As they studied the book’s contents, they were taught to reject modern liberal democracy. Libya’s unique system, they were told, was based on “direct democracy” in the form of popular committees.
The reality, however, was starkly different. There were neither political parties nor elections, while feared revolutionary committees controlled life in cities, towns and villages across the country. Dissent was quashed, civil society groups were rare and Col Gaddafi had an iron grasp on the country.
Yet now, in the opposition-controlled east of the country, things are changing. Committees have been formed to govern “liberated” cities. Some are even tentatively talking about establishing political parties for the first time in the hope that the regime will be ousted and Libya will begin making the huge leap to democracy.
Bassem Bubaker, a political science lecturer, is considering establishing a party with university professors and colleagues that would focus on “democracy and social development”. “From the beginning of the revolution they are thinking and talking about it,” he said.
These talks may still be in an embryonic stage, but just three weeks ago, merely the hint of criticism of the Jamahiriya system would have risked interrogation.
However, even if the revolution – which has escalated into armed conflict – is successful, the transition to multi-party democracy will face hurdles in a country where state institutions are weak and most people have known nothing but Col Gaddafi’s rule.
Mr ben Musa and his friends formed the Libya Youth Movement after the opposition seized control of Benghazi. They initially hoped to set it up as a “party” to support the revolution and prepare for the future. But they decided to wait until a new constitution – something that has been absent in Libya since Col Gaddafi seized power in 1969 – was in place.
The youth group emphasises that it is not a party “because it makes it easier to deal with others because people are still scared”, Mr ben Musa says. “With the background we have it is kind of a prohibited area. I think in the minds of the people every politician is dirty,” the 30-year-old Halliburton employee says.
As battles rage around oil towns farther west, the youth group is focused on more mundane matters – finding engineers to operate shifts at the power station; advertising for employees to work at bakeries and a local spaghetti factory; and sending food and medicine to the fighters on the front lines.
However, its very existence highlights the growth of civil society organisations in the east and is an example of the dramatic changes that have swept across the country.
When asked if the Libyan Youth Movement could turn into a party if the regime fell, Mr ben Musa gives a politician’s answer. “Maybe, nobody knows, it depends how attractive it is,” he says.
Civil Society on Rise in Rebel Areas of Libya