Political Alienation in Libya, Mabroka Al-Werfalli

Review and In Conversation with the Author

 

The Libyan academic Mabroka Al-Wefalli took a big personal risk when she first conducted a local survey in 2001, to question the Libyan respondents’ attitude towards their political regime and participation - or lack thereof - in the system’s so-called grassroots democratic organs. She also examined their views as to how the regime must legitimize its rule – or not - to remain in place for the foreseeable future.

As she explains to Nahla Ink: “From the early 1990s, I observed as a teacher at the political science department at the University of Garyounis, that criticism of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime was secretly increasing. But the method of expressing resentment, under such a coercive regime, was not only by withdrawing from political participation and deserting the basic popular congresses, but also by a growing sort of silent resistance; a political behavior that associates with political alienation.”

Taking months just to get a security permit to distribute her questionnaire in the Al-Orouba district in Benghazi, Werfalli found people quite unwilling, resisting and suspicious of her motives. She had to use her social clout and family connections to gain people's trust; and, even so, when she got her results, she had to flee the country to avoid her work being confiscated and compromised.

Completing the PhD dissertation from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in 2005, she turned it into a book in 2008 and only recently published it with a great Afterward. It comes at a perfect time for those who wish to understand the underlying political, economic and social forces that led to the current Revolution. She says: “The Libyan armed revolution has actually confirmed my findings. I had hoped that the Libyan regime would make use of the information in the book before it was too late.”

The book identifies theoretic and practical links between legitimacy and political alienation – or lack of participation - and questions the regime’s organs of government. Drawing on socio-political theory and Max Weber, it looks back to the 1969 coup and how Gaddafi had revolutionary and charismatic legitimacy to begin with; as he then reflected people’s sentiments towards pan-Arabism, anti-Zionism and anti-Imperialism and rode high on the Egyptian Jamal Abdul-Nasser’s popularity and influence.

But over time, the system turned into an oppressive apparatus and lost any authentic public support. It stopped delivering on its promises; and, instead, resorted to violence, oppression and corruption as well as confiscation of people’s wealth and property.

The book offers a view and analysis of the executive, legislative and judicial organs that were put in place by the regime and which, in theory, were to allow for people’s participation and especially through the Basic People’s Popular Congresses. However, it concludes that these had no say and no power, as they were overshadowed and controlled by the Revolutionary Committees that had their own ruthless agenda and answered directly to the top.

In a state of anarchic rule, people lost confidence in the system and feared it; the only way of resistance felt possible for a very long time took form in silence, private talk, political joking, satirical poetry and non-participation in anything governmental.

According to Werfalli, such were the seeds for a violent revolution as the only way out. Although more recently the regime seemed to offer reform through the apparent-heir Saif al-Islam, this proved ineffectual as the father and his old revolutionary guards kept a firm grip, overturned any modernising efforts and familial jealousies between the brothers led to nothing being done to appease the people’s desperate desire for change.

The book is very useful to learn more about Libya’s modern history and to understand how Gaddafi’s regime originally claimed its legitimacy, managed to stay in power for so long and how the people’s suffering had to lead to the recent uprising and new independence that we’ve just witnessed.

Interestingly, Werfalli herself took a positive role in this which is worth telling: “I and a female friend joined the demonstrations in Tripoli on February 20, but a few minutes later, we had to leave for the violent reaction by the regime’s security forces.

“We, as former members in the Revolutionary Committees Movement sent a message through al-Hurra channel and Facebook on February 24, declaring our support for the revolution and urging all RCM’s members to join the masses. But please note that I had actually withdrawn and stopped being involved in the movement since 1987.

“But because we did that while we were in Tripoli, where it was under the control of the Colonel forces, it was not safe at all and we kept shifting residence. Four weeks later, we were actually detained for a different reason though and when released, decided to flee the country out of fear that the security would find out about the call we sent, as we provided our personal details.”

As to the political future, Werfalli says: “I don’t expect a conflict-free future in Libya. On the contrary, I suppose the situation will get more complicated. There is blood involved. Unless the new government solves the tangled problems that rose with the Revolution successfully, the detestation and hostility will be the key element in determining the future tribal, rural-urban and regional relationships.

“I also fear that the blood shed may have planted an evil weed that would harm, if not kill, the seeds of democracy and tolerance; which would, in turn, affect the Libyans’ hope for quick recovery. However, the picture is not that gloomy. The passion that showed after each liberation of the cities, the longing for freedom, the immense number of martyrs would help the Libyans to regain trust in each other and overcome the torment.”