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The post-conflict makeover fantasy: Libya as tabula rasa

April 14, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

Since the start of the conflict in Libya a significant part of the media has promulgated the image of the country as a collage of rivals tribes held together only by the strong hand of the dictator. The fall of the regime, so the argument goes, would have precipitated the country in complete anarchy. Such argument is epitomized for example by Thomas Friedman on the NYT where he describes Libya and other countries in such terms:

The tribes and sects that make up these more artificial states have long been held together by the iron fist of colonial powers, kings or military dictators. They have no real “citizens” in the modern sense. Democratic rotations in power are impossible because each tribe lives by the motto “rule or die” — either my tribe or sect is in power or we’re dead.

More worryingly such argument has in my view led to an absence of Libyan voices in the official debate about the political future of the country. The conference in London held by external political forces (see Jessica’s post on this) is the consequence of this kind of reasoning: if Kaddafi was the only unifying force in the country and if there is no civil society ready to take over, the post-conflict institutional reconstruction should be carried out by somebody else ( for example the same NATO nations that are conducting the military intervention). In other words Libya is sometimes treated as a tabula rasa.

According to Najla Abdurrahman, a Libyan-American writer and activist, this view is both wrong and misleading. In fact the image of Libya as a sum of tribes with a flag is an artificial construct promoted by Gaddafi. In her words:

(..)  it’s quite remarkable to hear pundits who know so little about Libyan society raise the spectre of instability arising from “tribal divisions” – tensions many have naively credited the Gaddafi regime with keeping in check – even while Libyans throughout the country and the world have been scratching their heads in confusion at these concerns, and trying to assure the international community that they are united and committed to democratic change.

Indeed, the Gaddafi clan seems to relish educating the world about Libya’s uncivilized, tribal society with its competing factions poised perpetually on the brink of civil strife.

And the world seems to be buying into such argument. However, the reality is far from this fiction

many observers have demonstrated a curious tendency to overlook clear indications that the Libyan national identity is in reality quite strong, and that the current struggle, nurtured by a deep sense of collective suffering over the past 41 years, has only intensified this sense of national unity, at least among the overwhelming majority of citizens who make up Gaddafi’s opposition.

By most accounts pro-democracy Libyans, both at home and abroad, have largely rallied around the Libyan Interim Transitional National Council formed under the leadership of the widely respected former justice minister, Mustafa Abduljalil, and composed of professionals and representatives hailing from every corner of Libya, in an apparent show of unity that would be the envy of every American general from Iraq to Afghanistan.

If the international community is really interested in the future of the country such voices and forces should not be ignored.

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