This is Dr Mabrouka al-Werfalli’s timely offering for readers to gain a better understanding of Libya’s complex political, social and economic milieu in the wake of the 2011 revolution. The detailed findings of this empirical work are corroborated by Libya’s mass uprising and the bloody ensuing battle to wrest power from a regime popularly perceived as bereft of the moral and political legitimacy to rule. As a lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences at Libya’s Garyounis University over the last two decades, Dr al-Werfalli was well-placed to analyse and discern the sources of Libya’s shift towards the political discontent, resentment and alienation which led to the ousting of the Gaddafi junta. Al-Werfalli brings the full weight of her knowledge and experience to bear in this book which could have been read as a presentiment of events that were to come.
‘Political Alienation in Libya’ began as a first of its kind PhD research survey in 2001 to gauge local attitudes and behaviour toward the Gaddafi regime. Findings from the survey were developed subsequently into the book in its current form; it was completed in 2008
The book seeks to explore the relationship between popular recognition of a regime’s legitimacy and levels of political alienation, defined as a conscious rejection of the entire political system, by the population it purports to represent. Previous studies into the political legitimacy of Middle Eastern regimes have tended to approach the question on a systematic level. Conversely, ‘Political Alienation in Libya’ suggests consideration of the micro-level in efforts to conceptualise legitimacy and alienation as well as how to organise research into the subject. Accordingly, it represents a relevant and fresh contribution to research and understandings.
The longest section of the book is dedicated to the former regime’s long quest for legitimacy following the collapse of the short-lived Gadaffi personality cult and the subsequent loss of ideological ground. This collapse was precipitated by the repression which accompanied the ‘revolutionary transition period’ and undermined public support and trust for the regime. In turn, this increased the regime’s dependence on the so called ‘revolutionary legitimacy’ founded on a declaration of the people’s authority. However, this quasi-democratic system, based on a unique form of ostensible direct public participation in the decision-making process could not disguise the regime’s totalitarian character; as such, a popular view that the regime was the only real political actor prevailed. With the failure of this mode of legitimation, and no alternative in sight, the regime’s dependence on repression and coercion continued to deepen ever further.
Al-Werfalli’s central thesis holds that “the seeming stability and longevity of the political regime in Libya is not sufficient evidence for the existence of legitimacy. Stability and the absence of opposition for such a long period might indicate a lack of legitimacy – i.e. that the opposition might have been forcibly suppressed, and that the longevity of the regime might have been due to a constant application of force rather than to virtue of consent. The existence of the means of participation does not always indicate the existence of legitimacy when a state of abstentionism proliferates, since a regime’s legitimacy is affirmed by the political participation of the citizen.”
The predominant state of political alienation in Libya prior to the 2011 revolution is shown to have been the result of a range of inter-related factors exacerbated over time. These included continued authoritarian rule; the marginalisation of citizens and the means of their political participation; censorship of opinions and attitudes; dissatisfaction with the regime’s economic output; widespread unemployment and discontent over standards of living; and perceptions of endemic corruption and mismanagement of public funds. While an unrepresentative foreign policy was also shown to have played a role, it may be concluded that Libya’s 2011 revolution, like other uprisings of the Arab Spring, appears to have focused almost exclusively on domestic issues and demands for internal reform rather than external issues. This is quite significant given that in the past, Middle Eastern regimes have tended to emphasise external issues as a means of redirecting popular hostility and attention away from domestic concerns in order to avoid addressing them. (In this, such regimes are no different to successive US administrations which, post-World War Two, have always required a foreign ‘bogey’ to distract American citizens from their domestic problems.)
Quite indicatively, al-Werfalli points out that belated effort by Gaddafi towards political reform neglected the internal dimension in favour of securing international support through the re-orientation of his foreign policy. Rather than reflecting a genuine desire for reform or a redress of the crisis of legitimacy his regime faced, ‘reform’ represented a calculated effort to obtain international recognition and enhance its status while continuing to be repressive and authoritarian. Moreover, it was the result of external pressure from the international community rather than internal necessities.
Efforts on the domestic front led by Gaddafi’s heir apparent Saif ul Islam, while reflecting the regime’s desperate need for political change, aimed at retaining and consolidating power under the guise of reform. Emphasising socio-economic development and modernisation, Saif ul Islam called for an end to the revolutionary era and stressed the need for a constitutional democracy. He also addressed other issues of concern, focusing on the youth in an effort to dull the appeal of opposition, win their support and justify his succession. However, he was the only person allowed to criticise the regime.
It may be argued that these efforts, rather than achieving their purpose, underscored other core issues of popular discontent such as nepotism and favouritism; abuse of authority; rampant corruption; and feelings of being politically inefficacious, thus exacerbating alienation. According to al-Werfalli, the youth were among the most discontented portion of society and displayed an acute trend toward political and ideological alienation and separation from the system; they tended to be the most revolutionary and supportive of violence. The most dissatisfied elements of society often perceived legitimate means for change as ineffective and moribund. This indicated that for those seeking a total change in the regime, violent means would need to be employed to bring it about.
According to al-Werfalli, “When citizens withdraw their loyalty from their political regime and leaders, they highlight their alienation from them. The link between legitimacy and political alienation is that the regime’s claim for legitimacy is in question when a state of political alienation prevails.” Alienation produces a kind of instability which results in yet more alienated political behaviour and criticism, while continually undermining the regime’s right to rule. Libya’s regime dealt with this through ever more repression. Over the past three decades, this cycle has manifested in ways such as attempted coups and student uprisings, as well as other forms of rebellion and disobedience including silent resistance. It culminated in the overthrow of Gadaffi and his regime.