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Studies 01 June, 2014

Insiders and Outsiders in the New Libya

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Alison Pargeter

Alison Pargeter is a specialist in North Africa and in political Islamist movements and radicalisation. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) where she is conducting a study of the Muslim Brotherhood beyond the Arab Spring. Her previous academic positions include Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge and Research Fellow at Kings College, London. She is also a Senior Associate at Menas Associates, a global consulting firm.

 

Pargeter has published widely on her areas of expertise and her books include, ‘Libya: The Rise and Fall of Gaddafi (2012); ‘The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition’ (2008) (updated paperback edition titled ‘The Muslim Brotherhood: From Opposition to Power’ released in 2013); and ‘The New Frontiers of Jihad: Radical Islam in Europe.” She has also authored numerous articles in academic journals and specialist publications.

 

On July 28, 2011, as Libya was still in the throes of the struggle to oust Colonel Gaddafi from power, the charred corpse of the commander of Libya’s rebel forces, Colonel Abdel Fatah Younis al-Obeidi, was found dumped on the outskirts of Libya’s second city of Benghazi. Although the exact circumstances surrounding al-Obeidi’s death are still unknown, it is widely believed that he was killed by an Islamist militia that had ties to the upper echelons of the National Transitional Council (NTC), the interim ruling body set up in the east of the country prior to liberation.

Given the wider drama that was unfolding in the country at the time, the significance of al-Obeidi’s killing at the hands of his fellow rebel fighters was not fully appreciated. However, his death was a defining moment that was to set the tone for much of what was to come in the post-liberation phase. Crucially, it was the first indication of the new boundaries that were going to be drawn as the country struggled to pull itself through the transition. Al-Obeidi may have been a key rebel commander, committed to bringing down the Gaddafi regime, but his past was already checkered. Prior to his defection at the start of the uprisings, al-Obeidi had been a key lynchpin in Gaddafi’s regime and a close confidante of Gaddafi himself. [1] Therefore, despite the fact that his defection brought the rebels much needed military clout and experience, it was ultimately insufficient to shield him from his former connections.

Therefore, even before Gaddafi was killed and the country fully liberated, new demarcation lines were already being drawn between “true revolutionaries” and those deemed to be tainted by their past. As the revolution progressed, scores of others who like al-Obeidi had defected and sided with the rebels found themselves suddenly castigated as “outsiders,” dismissed as “unclean”. In time, these “outsiders” also came to include figures who had been part of what was known as the reformist current, which during the latter years of the regime had been pushing for change from the inside, albeit through the figure of Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam. Despite the fact that it was many of these same individuals who set up and led the country’s first new political institutions even they came, in time, to be personified as polluted elements that were soiling the February 17 revolution and that needed to be purged.

Thus, the “symbolic boundary” defined as the lines that include and define some people, groups, and things while excluding others had shifted.[2] In the Libyan case, this boundary had gone from being a distinction between those who were fighting for and against the Gaddafi regime to one between those who were “clean” or “pure” versus those who were contaminated by their own personal histories. Indeed, inequality in the political context came to be “measured by degree of purity and impurity”.[3] Or, in local parlance, between the thuwar (revolutionaries) and Azlam Gaddafi (Gaddafi’s men).[4]

As the transition progressed, this symbolic boundary came to be formalized through a series of legal measures aimed at weeding out Azlam Gaddafi from the country’s new power structures. These measures included the election law, the Integrity Commission, and, most notably, the draconian Political Exclusion Law, which best encapsulated the new distinction between in-group and out-group. This law, which was passed by the General National Congress in May 2013, not only prohibits those with the slightest link to the former regime from holding political office for a period of ten years, it also bars them from holding any senior post in the wider bureaucracy. As such, this law was an uncompromising attempt by the thuwar and their political allies—specifically the Islamist current—to institutionalize the new symbolic boundary into the emergent political system. It was through this legislation, therefore, that this new symbolic boundary was objectified and transformed into a formal political boundary.[5]

This article will argue that the ousting of the Gaddafi regime created new symbolic and political boundaries in Libya that go beyond a simple division between those who were for and those who were against the revolution. These boundaries have taken on the mantle of purity and impurity, of honor and dishonor. They have also become tied up in the complex power struggle that emerged with the transition to the post-Gaddafi state. Given the highly personalized nature of the Gaddafi regime, when the state collapsed the center collapsed with it. This has left an array of local powerbrokers, ranging from militias and revolutionary brigades, to local councils, tribes, and local personalities, including those of an Islamist bent, all of whom are vying for power and influence. It is within this context that these forces have sought to define and institutionalize these new symbolic boundaries, largely as a means of expanding their own power base. As Lamont and Molnar have argued, symbolic boundaries have become an essential medium through which the different interest groups are attempting to acquire status and monopolize resources.[6]

The article will argue, too, that the institutionalization of these boundaries is reinforcing feelings of marginalization in certain areas and among certain tribes, leaving them feeling, in the words of one Libyan, “as though they have no part to play in the new Libya.”[7] In sum, the creation of these symbolic boundaries and their objective manifestation is hindering Libya’s efforts to transform itself into a viable functioning state.

 

Follow the link at the bottom right to read the entire paper as a PDF.


[1] Al-Obeidi served as head of Libya’s Special Forces and as interior minister. He was also one of the young officers who had staged the 1969 coup that had brought Gaddafi to power.

[2] C. F. Epstein, “Tinker-bells and Pinups: The construction and reconstruction of gender boundaries at work,” in Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality, Lamont and Fournier eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992).

[3] M. Lamont and M. Fournier, Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992).

[4] The term azlam means “men” but is generally used in the pejorative sense. It comes from the old Arabic word for “arrow”.

[5] Michele Lamont and Virág Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries Across the Social Sciences,” Annual Review of Sociology 28 (2002):167-95. Lamont and Molnar argue that symbolic boundaries are a necessary but insufficient condition for the existence of social boundaries. They also argue that only when symbolic boundaries are widely agreed upon can they take on a constraining character and pattern social interaction in important ways.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Telephone interview by author with Libyan civil servant, 2012.

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