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Libyan Civil Society Before/After the Arab Spring Research Paper

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Updated: Nov 19th, 2020


When it comes to building civil society in a particular country, it is crucially important to be mindful of the whole scope of the would-be affecting social, political, and cultural circumstances. If this discursive provision is not observed throughout the process’s entirety, the concerned undertaking will be likely to sustain an utter fiasco. In my paper, I will aim to substantiate the validity of this suggestion at length, regarding what used to account for the primary challenges of establishing such a society in Libya in the past.

I will also outline the contemporary impediments in the way of trying to achieve this objective, on the part of the country’s post-2011 governmental authorities while keeping in mind that nowadays, there are at least two competing governments in this country, with each of them claiming to be the only legitimate one.

Civil society defined

One of the major challenges within the context of researching the conditional state of civil society in a particular country is the fact that there is no universally accepted definition as to what the term “civil society” stands for. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify two major conceptual trends that provide an axiomatic framework for defining this specific term, which can generally be categorized as Classic and Neoliberal.

Social scientists affiliated with the first trend believe that secular civility constitutes the foremost precondition for the normal functioning of civil society and that there are many qualitative dimensions to the concerned process. In its turn, civility is best defined as the societal condition that presupposes the undisputed primacy of impersonal law, as the instrument for eliminating intra-social tensions, the operational integrity of state institutions (which enables lawfulness), the possibility of social lifting for citizens (regardless of the specifics of their ethnocultural/religious affiliation), the citizens’ comparative prosperity and their ability to take an active part in governing the country (political participation). Among the additional preconditions, in this respect, are also commonly mentioned the citizens’ endowment with the genuine (not formal) sense of nationhood and the country’s well-established traditions of statehood.

According to the proponents of the Classic outlook on what civil society is all about, such society’s existence serves a well-defined operative purpose:

  1. to bridge the specific identities of different communities;
  2. to find a balance between conflicting norms;
  3. to orient procedures for handling conflicts of interests so that they do not escalate” (Rucht, 2011, p. 387).

Hence, some of the main indications of a particular society remaining on the path of civility: “self-control”, “compassion”, “tolerance”, “justice” and “economic prosperity” (Rucht, 2011). This, of course, implies that the term “civil society” is essentially synonymous with the notion of “statehood”, because it is namely the efficient functioning of state institutions, which allow ordinary citizens to have a voice, within the context of how the government goes about enacting various policies in the country. In its turn, this empowers citizens as the active participants of the governing process.

The advocates of the Neoliberal conceptualization of civil society have a somewhat different point of view, in this respect. It presupposes that the existence of civil society has very little to do with the concept of statehood (in the conventional sense of this word) and that the former merely connotes the presence of the Western-based Transnational Advocacy Networks (TANs) and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in the society, as well as the local authorities’ willingness to affiliate themselves with the “collective West” and to indulge in the well-meaning (but essentially meaningless) rhetoric about the importance of protecting “human rights”, “animal rights” and now “gay rights”.

Hence, the term’s Neoliberal definition, “Civil society is… a convenient shorthand term to refer to the organizations of non-profit interest groups which form to assert interests and causes outside state-based and controlled political institutions, which constitute networks of action and knowledge (TANs and NGOs)” (Deirdre,1999, p. 446). This, of course, presupposes that the notion of civil society has very little to do with the notion of statehood. The proponents of “democratization” often suggest that the civil society’s members are naturally opposed to the “sheer oppressiveness” of governmental institutions, which are there to ensure the integrity of the country’s statehood.

Consequently, this implies that the notion of civil society has the value of a “thing in itself”. This presupposes the possibility of such a society’s creation in the Second and Third World countries, without any regard given to the ethnocultural, historical, and religious traditions/customs of them would be affected populations – all for as long as the mentioned TANs and NGO’s are allowed to operate on the locale.

As Jebnoun (2015) pointed out, “International peacebuilders have adopted the principles of liberal democracy and market-oriented economics in an attempt to transfer the Western liberal-democratic institutions, values, and norms to the weak, peripheral countries” (p. 834). Given the fact both mentioned outlooks on the essence of social civility are considered equally legitimate, it will make much sense referring to the affiliated conceptual provisions while researching this paper’s subject matter.


Monarchy (1951-1969)

For anyone who strives to gain a better understanding of the main challenges in the way of building civil society in Libya, it will come rather indispensable familiarizing himself/herself with the thematically relevant facts from Libya’s history. Probably the main of them has to do with the fact that the concerned country is essentially an artificial geopolitical entity and as such, it could not have had any strong statehood-legacy by definition. As Geha and Volpi (2016) noted, “Libya is a former colony of Italy that progressively acquired its independence after the end of the Second World War. Under Ottoman rule before the Italian conquest in 1911, Libya had no parliamentary institutions” (p. 690).

By the time the UN granted Libya independence (1951), the country was nothing short of a conglomerate of some sparsely populated territories in Northern Africa. These territories’ residents used to be endowed with the strong sense of tribal solidarity – something that represented a major obstacle in the way of establishing and preserving Libya’s statehood, and something that even today continues to hurt the government’s attempts to reconcile the country’s citizens on the ground of their presumed willingness to adhere to the values of the Libyan way of life.

Following Libya’s declaration of independence in the mentioned year, the country was proclaimed a constitutional monarchy (headed by King Idriss Al-Sanussi), with its legislative body having been declared the National Assembly. The year 1951 also marked the enactment of the country’s first constitution, which contained provisions for recognizing the regionally defined tribal differences between the Libyans, on one hand, and ensuring that the would-be undertaken process of national unification will have a secular (civil) quality to it, on the other.

While referring to the specifics of political governing in Libya through the years 1951-1969, Pargeter (2012) stated, “Given the divergent interests of the different regions, and particularly those of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, what emerged was a complex and cumbersome political system, comprising a parliament, a federal government, and powerful provincial councils” (p. 34).

Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate to suggest that the mentioned historical period represented the initial phase of building civil society in Libya. After all, it was specifically through the fifties and sixties that the Libyans acquired the initial taste of what it feels like living in the society ruled by an impersonal/secular law. Initially, Idriss Al-Sanussi proved himself a capable ruler while mediating disputes between the tribally distinctive groups within the country.

However, by the late sixties, it became quite apparent for many political analysts in the West that the country was about to experience a social upheaval. What contributed the most, in this respect, is that since the discovery of substantial oil deposits in Libya in 1963, the country’s GDP continued to increase rather dramatically. By the year 1969, Libya became the world’s fifth-largest exporter of oil. Nevertheless, even though this specific development did result in making it possible for many Libyans to begin enjoying a much better standard of living, which in theory should have strengthened the country’s monarchic regime, this was far from being the case.

The reason for this had to do with the rapid growth of the population of educated Libyans, endowed with a secular (non-tribal) mentality, and committed to the cause of Pan-Arabism. It was specifically these individuals (belonging to the Free Officers Movement headed by Muammar Gaddafi) who in 1969 overthrew King Idriss Al-Sanussi and proclaimed the creation of the Libyan Arab Republic.

Republic/Jamahiriya (1969-2011)

Ever since what later became known as the Libyan Revolution of 1969, the country’s self-appointed government (Libyan Revolutionary Command Council) declared its intention to affiliate the country’s societal paradigm with the ideology of Socialism. In his numerous speeches through the seventies, Muammar Gaddafi never ceased promoting the essentially Socialist ideas, concerned combating poverty, ensuring that ordinary people are entitled to have a share in the national wealth, eliminating illiteracy, etc. At the same time, however, he also used to stress out the importance of adjusting the implementation of the quasi-Socialist internal policies to be consistent with the population’s traditional values, “A society has fundamental laws derived from either tradition or religion.

This is what constitutes the moral code for a society” (Gaddafi, 1983, p. 34). As time went on, however, Gaddafi’s political rhetoric continued to acquire a somewhat anarchist sounding – the trend that became especially apparent after the Libyan Republic’s transformation into the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in 1977. According to Geha and Volpi (2016), “After 1977 in particular, the structure of government in its traditional legal-bureaucratic sense was dismantled, and the ‘people’s authority’, exercised through people’s congresses and committees was proclaimed” (p. 693).

In reality, however, this development was meant to serve the purpose of strengthening Gaddafi’s dictatorial powers. He declared himself to be the lifelong Leader of the Revolution and the General Secretary of the General People’s Committee – the organization that assumed both legislative and executive governmental functions in the country.

As a result, even though the chosen form of governance by Gaddafi implied that just about any Libyan citizen was in the position to participate in the decision-making process by the Committee (Jamahiriya can be translated as “people’s rule”), post-1977 Libya has been effectively turned into the classic dictatorship of the worst kind with Gaddafi having realized himself being in the position to exercise an undisputed authority within Libyan society.

In this respect, Bhardwaj (2012) came up with a valuable observation, “After the 1969 coup, Muammar Gaddafi’s purportedly socialist political system of Jamahiriya razed civil society and centralized the government around Gaddafi’s sultanic rule, characterized by an underlying monopoly of processes by his cult of personality” (p. 82). The members of the General People’s Committee were also the members of Gaddafi’s clan (Nur Aischa), which explains why most of them continued to remain personally loyal to the “Leader” right until his deposal in 2011.

Throughout the entirety of Gaddafi’s rule, the instances of public dissent with the country’s de facto dictatorial form of governance used to be dealt with quickly and ruthlessly. For example, it is now estimated that at least 1270 inmates (with the substantial share of political prisoners among them) in the Abu Slim prison had been executed without a trial in the aftermath of the 1996 riot – the event that continued to be denied by Gaddafi’s regime until 2009 (Hilsum, 2012). This, of course, suggests that during Gaddafi’s reign, civil society in Libya was virtually non-existent, especially if assessed through the lenses of the Neoliberal conceptualization of such a society.

At the same time, however, Gaddafi did succeed in bringing certain elements of statehood-based civility to the country’s public domain. In this regard, it needs to be mentioned that under Gaddafi the sectarian/tribal tensions within Libyan society were kept effectively suppressed, which in turn made possible the prevalence of law and order throughout the country – quite an accomplishment, given the fact that as Jebnoun (2015) pointed out, “Gaddafi inherited a society where people were more inclined to identify themselves with their respective provinces, cities, towns, and villages than with Libyan nationhood” (p. 839).

His second achievement, in this regard, was turning Libya into one of the most economically developed countries in Africa, in which most citizens used to enjoy an unprecedented (by African standards) level of prosperity – not the least because of the regime’s commitment to the idea of building a “welfare state” in Libya. According to Bajrektarevic (2011), “(Under Gaddafi), Libya was the most developed African state, and a provider of solid jobs for many in the region, including Egyptians and Tunisians – over half a million of their guest-workers” (p. 100). It is understood, of course, that this used to contribute rather substantially towards fostering the secular sense of national identity in Libyan citizens, which has been traditionally referred to as the load-bearing cornerstone of civil society.

The foremost discursive implication of this suggestion is that Libya would probably be much better off, had it not been chosen as the target of yet another “Arab Spring” revolution by the powerful players in the arena of international politics, such as the US and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia and Qatar). After all, as the examples of China and Russia indicate, the successful transformation of the totalitarian society into the more or less democratic one can only prove successful if evolutionary (as opposed to revolutionary).

Even as far back as in 2009, Gaddafi decided to allow the gradual liberalization of the public sphere in Libya – the development that would eventually result in the peaceful replacement of dictatorship with democracy in Libya, without the cost of reducing this formerly prosperous country into the battleground of the ongoing civil war of everybody against everybody, which proved to be the ultimate consequence of the Libyan 2011 “Arab Spring” revolution. As Bajrektarevic (2011) aptly predicted, “The post-Gaddafi Libya will be – unfortunately – a territory.

It will be a mare space of the grave political, territorial, economic, and social problems, energized by a growing and nearly self-perpetuated sectarian violence” (p. 101). This once again shows that the process of building/preserving civil society is not quite as straightforward as many people in the West tend to assume. In the next part of this paper, I will explore the validity of this idea at length, regarding the post-2011 developments in Libya.

Civil disorder (2011 – present day)

Following the murder of Muammar Gaddafi by the crowd of “fighters for freedom” (Western term) in 2011, the main obstacle in the way of building civil society in Libya appeared to have been effectively eliminated. As Sharqieh (2013) noted, “Libyans cheered for the collapse of the Qaddafi regime and embraced their long-overdue freedom” (p. 3). In the same year, the National Transitional Council (TNC) announced that in 2012 there were going to be held all-national elections to the General National Congress (GNC), which in turn would be put in charge of drafting the country’s new Constitution.

Simultaneously, since the fall of Gaddafi’s dictatorship, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of foreign-based NGOs operating in Libya, “Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have mushroomed in post-2011 Libya thanks to newly acquired freedoms” (Mikail, 2013, p. 1). At the time, these organizations assumed the responsibility of helping TNC to make sure that the scheduled political elections would be thoroughly transparent and procedurally legitimate, “Nongovernmental organizations like the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) worked with the Libyan electoral commission to register voters, design and implement an electoral formula, and stage the polls” (Chivvis & Martini, 2014, p. 41).

However, it was only in the year 2014 that such elections took place – the development that (ironically enough) proved strongly detrimental to the cause of preserving the unity of Libyan society and keeping it interested in the ideals of democracy, “By the summer of 2014 fighting had broken out between forces loyal to the outgoing GNC and those loyal to the newly elected congress” (Geha & Volpi, 2016, p. 688).

Ever since then, the sociopolitical situation in Libya began to deteriorate rapidly, which in turn resulted in triggering the outbreak of the civil war in the country between the supporters of the most powerful warlords from TNC. As of 2015, there were no fewer than two different governments in Libya controlling the country’s different areas and calling each other illegitimate.

While describing the state of societal affairs in Libya as of that year, Perroux (2015) stated, “Two parliaments and two governments – neither of which is exercising any significant control over people and territory; two coalitions of armed groups confronting one another…” (p. 1). Jebnoun (2015) provides even more shocking account as to what it feels like living in today’s Libya, “Today Libya is more fragmented than ever, often functioning as a cluster of ragtag armed groups controlling swaths of territory, administrating entire cities and districts, running their security and detention facilities, occupying oil fields…” (p. 833).

It is understood, of course, that because of this the idea that the Libyan Revolution of 2011 did contribute towards helping the Libyans to build civil society appears utterly arrogant at best. Just as it has been the case with Somalia for about forty years now, today’s Libya (as a sovereign country) exists only on paper. Given the fact that the West used to provide strong support to TNC ever since the organization’s establishment, there can be only a few doubts that it does share collective responsibility for the destruction of Libya’s statehood – the main reason why nowadays the idea that it is still possible to build civil society in this country sounds more like a bad joke.

Partially, this explains why it now became a commonplace practice amongst Western politicians/governmental officials and their collaborators from the Gulf monarchies to avoid mentioning Libya, as if this country never existed. The failure of democracy in Libya is usually considered reflective of “the complexity of the post-conflict reconstruction process” (Sharqieh, 2013, p. 3). There is, however, a much more logically sound explanation of the phenomenon.

The foreign-based supporters of Libya’s “democratization” have failed to take into account the fact that, “The plain concept of Arab civil society, far from being neutral, conceals normative assumptions that reflect the impossibility of imposing a singular model of political change” (Yom, 2005, para. 32). As for Libya, this country is likely to continue descending into civil chaos – the country’s richness in natural resources alone predetermines the viability of this prediction.

After all, the de facto absence of central government in Libya presupposes that these resources can be claimed by Western transnational corporations with ease – even though the local warlords exercise formal control over the country’s oil fields. This shows that the old principle “divide and conquer” continues to define the actual dynamics in the arena of international relations.


In light of what has been said earlier, it will be appropriate to suggest that the failure of the undertaken attempts to build civil society in post-2011 Libya can be regarded as illustrative of the conceptual erroneousness of the Neoliberal outlook on what the concerned concept stands for. After all, in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s demise, it did not take too long for the numerous “democracy promoting” TANs and NGOs to find their way into the country – something that according to this outlook’s provisions should have resulted in providing a powerful boost to the democratization process in Libya.

Such an expected development, however, has never taken place. Quite to the contrary – ever since 2011, it is specifically the “law of the jungle” that defines social dynamics in this country. As a result, there can be no rationale, whatsoever, to think that it may still be possible to build civil society in Libya in any foreseeable future. Hence, the paper’s foremost discursive implication – the notions of “civil society” and “statehood” organically derive out of each other, which means that the idea that NGOs are the main facilitators of such a society’s well-being cannot be deemed even moderately credible. I believe that this conclusion correlates perfectly well with the paper’s initial thesis.


Bajrektarevic, A. (2011). Libya – the unbearable lightness of being, Africa. Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice, 3(1), 99-109.

Bhardwaj, M. (2012). Development of conflict in Arab Spring Libya and Syria: From revolution to civil war. Washington University International Review, 1(1), 76-97.

Chivvis, C., & Martini, J. (2014). Libya after Qaddafi: Lessons and implications for the future. Washington, DC: Rand Corporation.

Deirdre, C. (1999). Transparency and political participation in EU governance: A role for civil society? Cultural Values, 3(4), 445-471.

Gaddafi, M. (1983). The green book. Tripoli, Libya: Green Book World Center for Research and Study.

Geha, C., & Volpi, F. (2016). Constitutionalism and political order in Libya 2011-2014: Three myths about the past and a new constitution. The Journal of North African Studies, 21(4), 687-706.

Hilsum, L. (2012). Sandstorm: Libya in the time of revolution. London, England: Faber and Faber.

Jebnoun, N. (2015). Beyond the mayhem: Debating key dilemmas in Libya’s statebuilding. The Journal of North African Studies, 20(5), 832-864.

Mikail, B. (2013). Civil society and foreign donors in Libya. Arab Forum for Alternatives. Web.

Pargeter, A. (2012). Libya: The rise and fall of Gaddafi. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Perroux, J. (2015). Libya’s untold story: Civil society amid chaos (Middle East Brief No. 93). Crown Center for Middle East Studies. Web.

Rucht, D. (2011). Civil society and civility in twentieth-century theorising. European Review of History/Revue Europeenne d’Histoire, 18(3), 387-407.

Sharqieh, I. (2013). . Brookings Doha Center. Web.

Yom, S. (2005). Civil society and democratization in the Arab world. Rubin Center. Web.

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