Legacy of Qaddafi's 'Organized Chaos' Keeps Libya Back

This past two weeks, North Africa has been in an uproar. In Egypt, two million citizens demand that their democratically elected government step down. In Libya, Parliament passes a law prohibiting officials who served under Qaddafi from holding senior offices. If the law passes legal challenges, it will mean that the president, prime minister, much of Parliament, and most of the diplomatic corps, judges, and prosecutors will have to go.

Many in the West are quick to leap upon turmoil in Egypt and Libya as proof that Arabs, or Muslims, or North Africans aren’t ready for democracy. (Never mind that democracy began much closer to Tripoli than to London, and that Libyans probably have nearly as much genetic relationship with the ancient Greeks as today’s Greeks do.)

I’d be the first to admit that there are elements of Middle Eastern and even specifically Muslim culture that are hostile to the habits of mind necessary for democracy. The insularity of cultures that place the seclusion of women above most other values, the lack of critical thinking in cultures that view religious training as a matter of little besides rote memorization of prayers, the lack of will power that seems to accompany the notion that whatever happens is God’s will—all of these are detrimental to society, period.

But there’s something else at work, and acknowledging it means supporting interventions in dictatorships. It’s what a Libyan friend of mine calls the “organized chaos” of Qaddafi’s Libya. What she means is the way there was never just one government office or military unit charged with a certain task—there were a handful.  (This was because Qaddafi distrusted everyone, and broke up power centers into competing fiefdoms.)

For example, several official bodies handled housing contracts. You tried to get a contract with the one you might have an “in” with. The Army? It existed and at least on paper followed best practices and had a chain of command, but Qaddafi’s sons and other palace favorites commanded militias that were better equipped and allowed to violate the laws of war. There was never a clear policy in many areas of life. Rules would change capriciously. Everything from the school curriculum to dates of holidays to business requirements could shift from month to month.

The result of 42 years of this culture is a citizenry used to capricious behavior and apt to engage in it. If this is how your rulers behave, then when the people rule, they behave the same way. Nothing is final in Libya—or Egypt—not even the results of the very free and fair elections they fought to institute.

It’s likely that Libya’s deep conservatism kept its social fabric intact despite Qaddafi’s “organized chaos”—and that probably won’t change. Egypt is more at risk, but it is still a functioning society. What both countries need from us isn’t gloating at the “inability of Muslims to form a democracy,” but tolerance of their emergence from a netherworld of irrationality. Libyans are well aware of their own flaws—and with some luck, they will do something about them. The law just passed, ironically, could both rid Libya of those who facilitated “organized chaos” and at the same time encourage more of it. But these are the contradictions of societies that emerge from dictatorship. They don’t have anything to do with Islam, or with ethnicity.


Photo Credit: Magharebia

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