Libya after Gadhafi

Almost three years have quickly passed since Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan dictator who ruled his country for 42 years, was toppled from power by a revolution. That revolution drew its stimulus from the youth-powered “Arab Spring” and was celebrated throughout the democratic world as the triumph of the people. In reality, the fractious and poorly armed Libyan rebels could not have succeeded against Gadhafi’s superior army without the military intervention of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato).

Today, Libya, an oil-rich country and one of the first in the region to welcome Filipino workers, is more chaotic than ever. The attempt to create a stable postrevolutionary state has failed—despite the active support of the United States and other Western powers. The lesson this conveys is that while a revolution may be fast-tracked, a functioning state cannot be assembled from prefabricated pieces. Glue is needed to hold it together, and that is what has been missing in both Iraq and Libya since the fall of their respective dictators.

The old glue available in both countries—religion—has proved incapable of binding large sections of the existing society into a unified community. Indeed, divisions within the Islamic faith itself have been a major reason for the widening societal cracks that have become more visible since the overthrow of the dictatorial state. These sectarian fault lines often fuse with existing rifts based on regional, ethnic and political loyalties—thus producing opportunistic alliances that are as brittle as they are unpredictable. Underlying these fierce struggles in both Libya and Iraq is, of course, the battle for control of oil wealth.

This is the situation that foregrounds the beheading of the Filipino worker last month at a checkpoint manned by an unnamed militia group, and the more recent abduction and gang-rape of a Filipino nurse by young gunmen who roam the streets of Tripoli  Less than 1,000 of the estimated 13,000 of our countrymen who live and work in Libya, mostly in hospitals, have returned home. The Philippine government is hoping to rescue them from their homes and places of work and ferry them to safety in Malta across the Mediterranean. They have to travel by land to get to the nearest port, and this will not be easy. Some may find it easier to cross the border to Tunisia or to Egypt. In any case, they will have to negotiate or purchase their safe passage from one checkpoint to another. And, no one can be certain about the situation on a day-to-day basis.

Tripoli, Libya’s capital city, has been plunged in darkness following the continuous shelling of its power plants. The place has become the battleground of two rival militias, one based in Misrata and the other in Zintan, both claiming credit and thus supremacy for the overthrow of Gadhafi in 2011. In Benghazi, the Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sharia has declared the city an “Islamic emirate,” even as the national Libyan army under the retired renegade general Khalifa Haftar has vowed to drive all Islamist elements out of this major city to the country’s east.

Clearly, all the basic traces of government have vanished. It is weapons and money that now speak. The United Nations and all the major embassies of the Western powers have evacuated their personnel—the clearest sign that the international community has given up, at least for now.

Ironically, it is in such periods of political dissolution that a people may sometimes piece together a collective life from whatever reserves of social solidarity it can tap as a countervailing force against the sheer power of arms and money. Revolutionary theory expects this form of solidarity to be forged in the fires of the revolutionary struggle itself. But perhaps that is too much to expect from the kind of political upheavals and instant democracies we have seen lately.

Instead of being an integral part of the emancipatory process, the search for statesmen in postrevolutionary situations today tends to begin only after the dust has settled. Typically sponsored by the dominant foreign powers that shaped the outcome of the struggle, the new leaders have little legitimacy apart from their foreign connections. Trained abroad in modern governance, they tend to be hobbled by their ignorance of local realities and lack of empathy with their own people’s sensibilities. But, on top of these disabling qualities, there is the curse that the mad scramble for oil wealth casts on hapless nations like Iraq and Libya.

When one contemplates what is happening today to countries that hosted some of the world’s greatest civilizations, one cannot help recalling how the Philippines’ own difficult passage from revolution to nationhood was greatly eased by the grounded imagination of rare intellectuals like Apolinario Mabini. It was this great Filipino, whose 150th birth anniversary we are celebrating this year, who guided Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo through the critical stages of forming a government after the latter declared independence in 1898. Mabini offered Aguinaldo a vision that saw through the machinations of US colonialism and rose above the selfish interests of the local elites.

In a rather perverse twist to the narrative of the Arab Spring, deposed tyrants like Saddam and Gadhafi, who had ruled their people with an iron fist, are today sorely missed by a world that seems to have run out of ideas on how to handle the challenge of failed states. To have believed that revolutions could be outsourced and democracy imposed from outside—that, to me, has been the biggest source of this tragedy.

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