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Post-Revolution Libya: Reasons for Optimism

Ronald Bruce St John
Independent Scholar, Albuquerque, NM

With the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi and the official end in October 2011 of the February 17 Revolution, the rebels inherited a country with no institutions, no civil society, and no democratic experience. Since then, a series of interim governments have struggled to restore security, draft a new constitution, and rebuild a war-torn economy. On all three scores, failures and delays have been all too common. Heavily armed militias, beholden to no one but themselves, still exert a major influence over large areas of the country. The General National Congress (GNC), elected in July 2012, has degenerated into a quarrelsome body of competing personalities and interests, seemingly incapable of compromise. The economy remains in a shambles with oil production dropping from around 1.5 million barrels a day before the revolution to virtually zero a few months ago. When asked if Libya was a failed state, former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan famously responded that Libya could not be considered a failed state because it was not yet a state. Clearly, much remains to be done to make the country a model for Islamic democracy; however, the consensus on critical issues that has emerged since the official end of the revolution offers reason for optimism.

Widespread Support for Democracy

In less than three years, the Libyan people have suffered through two national elections, five governments, and a dysfunctional GNC; nevertheless, public opinion surveys suggest they remain optimistic about the future and strongly supportive of a democratic form of government. A public opinion survey conducted in November-December 2013 and published in March 2014 by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a nonprofit organization working to strengthen democratic institutions worldwide, and JMW Consulting of Denmark found Libyans optimistic about the current state of affairs in Libya and the country's future. In line with similar surveys conducted in May and September 2013, security remained the top priority of Libyans with 31 percent of respondents feeling the disarmament of militias was the most important task facing Libya today and another 30 percent ranking political stability and public order as the number two priority. A small minority were pessimistic about the future; however, 64 percent predicted that Libya, three years from now, would be better off than before the February 17 Revolution.1

Surprisingly, the understandable preoccupation with the country's security and stability has not dampened Libyan support for a democratic form of government. In recent surveys, Libyans have voiced increasingly strong dissatisfaction with their current institutions and leaders; nevertheless, 80 percent of respondents in the November/December 2013 NDI/JMW survey agree that democracy, despite its shortcomings, is the best form of government. Consistent with earlier polls, 41 percent of Libyans identified the protection of individual human rights and freedoms as the most important characteristic of democracy with another 36 percent viewing the opportunity to change the government through elections as the most important.

Homogenous Islamic Society

Unlike many countries in the region, notably Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, Libya is a homogenous Islamic society in which over 95 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Conservative in outlook and deeply religious in nature, the Libyan people throughout history have never demonstrated a widespread attraction to the more extreme, radical strains of Islam. Likewise, the general public over the last three years has shown little interest in an Islamist alternative to the non-ideological February 17 Revolution. Most Libyans expect Islam to play a role in political life; however, opinions vary as to exactly what that means. The current situation is accurately reflected in an NDI/JMW public opinion survey, conducted in September and published in November 2013 in which 44 percent of Libyans felt Sharia (Islamic law) should be a main source of legislation in the new constitution, 27 percent said it should be one source among others, and only 25 percent said it should be the only source.2

Consistent with past history and current opinion, Islamist groupings in Libya did not do well in the July 2012 elections for the 200-member GNC. In sharp contrast to regional trends in which Islamist parties took power in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, the Justice and Construction Party (Adala Wa Binaa, JCP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, won only 17 of the 80 seats allocated to political parties, and more radical Islamist groupings won no seats. Several factors combine to explain the poor showing of the JCP and other Islamist groupings in the July 2012 elections. For years, the Qaddafi regime actively suppressed all Islamic parties, including relatively moderate ones like the Muslim Brotherhood; consequently, there little in the way of an organized base for parties like the JCP to draw on. Moreover, in the years preceding the February 14 Revolution, the Brotherhood reached a political accommodation with the Qaddafi regime which was heavily criticized in many Libyan circles. Having been burdened for more than four decades with Qaddafi's Third Universal Theory as embodied in The Green Book, Libyans in the post-Qaddafi era also were suspicious of any effort to impose a new ideology or political agenda upon them. In a similar vein, there was concern among many Libyans that parties like the JCP were under the influence of outside forces like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Finally, most Libyans after a long period of isolation desired a more open socioeconomic and political system and were afraid that the Islamists would once again close them off from the outside world.

Over the last two years, the partisan performance of the Justice and Construction Party and allied parties in the General National Congress has contributed to the decline in public support for both the GNC and the JCP. Unlike in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood came to power and Tunisia where the Ennahda Party governed for a time, the overwhelming majority of Libyans have never looked to the JCP for leadership, and increasingly, they have made it clear that the Islamists are not the legitimate voice of Islam in Libya. In the September 2013 NDI/JMW public opinion survey, the number of Libyans who described the GNC's performance as poor or very poor increased from 37 percent in a May 2013 survey to 60 percent in September. Support for political parties also declined with 44 percent of respondents indicating parties are not necessary for democracy. Only one political party, the National Forces Alliance (NFA), garnered strong support among Libyans in the September poll. Widely described in the Western press as a "liberal" political movement, support for the NFA, which presented itself in the July 2012 GNC election as a moderate Islamic movement that recognized the importance of Islam in political life and favored Sharia as a basis of law and legislation, increased to 71 percent of likely voters. In contrast, support for the JCP was only 14 percent.

In late April 2014, outgoing Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni took the bold step of classifying Ansar al-Sharia and other, unnamed radical Islamist groups in eastern Libya, as terrorist organizations. Previous post-revolution governments had talked about "unknown armed groups" being responsible for violence around the country, but this was the first time a government had identified Ansar al-Sharia by name as a terrorist organization. Ansar al-Sharia is thought to have been involved in the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Ansar al-Sharia and similar groups also are assumed to be responsible for many of the bombings, assassinations, and other acts of violence over the last many months in Libya, especially around Benghazi.

In mid-May 2014, Khalifa Hafter, a retired Libyan general who defected from the Qaddafi regime in the 1980s, moved to the United States where he became an American citizen, and joined the February 17 Revolution in 2011, took direct action against radical Islamist elements in and around Benghazi, attacking Ansar al-Sharia and two linked militias, the 17 February Brigade and the Libya Shield No. 1 Brigade, with the declared aim of cleansing the city of extremist groups. On the following day, forces loyal to Hafter and his self-styled Libyan National Army stormed the parliament building in Tripoli, detaining Islamist lawmakers and officials. General Hafter and his supporters blame the GNC and its speaker, the Islamist-leaning Nouri Abu Sahmein, for allowing extremist Islamist forces to exert considerable influence throughout the country. Over the next few days, a surprising number of regular military units, irregular militias, and prominent government officials expressed support for "Operation Dignity," Hafter's offensive against Ansar al-Sharia and other Islamist groups, hoping he could bring stability to the country. Caught between support for the democratic process in Libya and the desire to see extremist Islamist forces eliminated, the United States and its European allies have taken an ambiguous stance toward General Hafter and what he represents, expressing support for the resolution of current problems through established institutions while also arguing that fighting terrorist groups like Ansar al-Sharia is essential to the creation of a free and democratic Libya.

As General Hafter's forces continued their offensive against Islamist militias in eastern Libya, a new round of political infighting broke out in Tripoli with outgoing Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni refusing to hand over power to newly-elected Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq until the Supreme Court ruled on the legitimacy of Maiteeq's election. Maiteeq was elected in a chaotic vote which critics argue lacked a quorum. In early June 2014, a court official suggested that Maiteeq's election violated Libya's temporary constitution; however, the Supreme Court had yet to issue a formal ruling. The current political crisis reflects the increasing divide between mainstream Muslims and Islamists as Maiteeq was approved by the Islamist bloc of the GNC in a contested election and later took over the prime minister's office under the protection of Islamist militias.

Limited Support for Federalism

The 1951 constitution called for a federal form of government with Tripoli and Benghazi acting as joint national capitals. It proved an inconvenient, inefficient, and expensive arrangement in which the capital alternated annually (later every two years) between the two cities. For more than a decade, separate governments sitting in two national and three provincial (Tripoli, Benghazi, Sebha) capitals governed Libya. There were 15 federal ministries with an average of eight ministries in each of the provinces, and both Cyrenaica and Tripolitania employed more civil servants than the federal government. In the 1960s, the number of government employees in Libya reached 12 percent of the labor force, the highest level in the world at the time.

In post-revolution Libya, the general insecurity, slow progress of reform, failure of politicians to put aside petty bickering and work for the common good, and widespread perception of marginalization have combined to fuel widespread resentment and generate limited support in eastern and southern Libya for a return to federalism. In both regions, federalist supporters have allied with local notables, tribal groups, Islamist elements, and militia groups to weaken the national government and draw out the political process leading to a new constitution. These disparate groups have major policy differences, but they share a common goal of keeping the government from extending its authority to their fiefdoms.

According to the November/December 2013 NDI/JMW public opinion survey, an overwhelming majority of Libyans disagree with federalist demands for regional autonomy, and while the level of disapproval varies across Libya's three regions, it is strong in all areas. Sixty-five percent of Libyans in the east disagree with federalist demands, 85 percent in the south, and 98 percent in the west. A majority of Libyans also view the seizure by armed groups of oil and natural gas production facilities in various locations, often in support of federalist demands, as unjustified.

Federalism is a minority movement in Libya, but some form of decentralization enjoys wider support throughout the country. A May 2013 survey conducted by the Libyan Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research found 57 percent of respondents hoped to see some form of decentralization in the new constitution. About the same time, a poll conducted by the University of Benghazi Research and Consulting Centre found only 8 percent of Libyans nationwide and 15 percent in the east favored a federal state but 47 percent favored at least limited local legislative and executive powers. In support of decentralization, the government promised in June 2013 to relocate the headquarters of some state firms to Benghazi, including Libyan Airlines, the Libyan Insurance Company, the National Investment Company, and the National Oil Company. To date, the general insecurity prevailing in Libya has limited practical steps toward decentralization; however, the Ministry of Oil and Gas did announce in late April 2014 that it had opened a regional office in Misrata.

A Place for Ethnic Minorities

In line with its promotion of Arab nationalism and Arab unity, the Qaddafi regime persecuted ethnic minorities, especially the Amazigh (Berber) and the Tebu. Consequently, both groups were early, enthusiastic recruits to the February 17 Revolution, and in the post-revolution era, they have expected the government to act on their long-standing demands and complaints. In contrast, the Tuareg ethnic minority generally supported the Qaddafi regime before and during the revolution; therefore, in many areas, they have been harassed by rebel militias since the revolution ended. Regardless of past history, the Libyan government over the last three years has largely ignored the grievances of all of these ethnic groups, generating in them considerable resentment and growing opposition to the political process.

What the Western media describes as "tribal clashes" more often than not are disputes over minority rights, lucrative trade and smuggling routes, or simply attempts by locals to reestablish the political order before the February 17 Revolution. The Tebu ethnic minority and the Zawiya tribe have clashed repeatedly over control of lucrative trade and smuggling routes around Kufrah. Members of the Tuareg ethnic minority have been involved in oilfield closures with protesters demanding the establishment of local councils and the granting of the national identity cards long denied them. Similarly, the Amazigh blockaded the trans-Mediterranean natural gas pipeline at Mellitah for a time to protest what they feared would be inadequate protection for minorities in the new constitution. Frustrated with the failure of the GNC to recognize their cultural, linguistic, and economic demands, the Amazigh and Tebu boycotted the February 2014 constituent assembly election, arguing that any elected body would not be truly representative.

In the face of ethnic minority demands for equal rights and privileges, a public opinion poll conducted by the University of Benghazi in early 2013 indicated that 55 percent of respondents favored granting some form of official recognition to languages other than Arabic, including those spoken by the Amazigh and Tebu. Similarly, a majority of Libyans in the September 2013 NDI/JWP public opinion survey supported quotas to insure the representation of ethnic minorities in the constituent assembly.

Support for Women's Rights

During the February 17 Revolution, Libyan women played unexpected new roles, assuming wider rights and responsibilities, but since the end of the conflict, they have struggled to retain the gains made in gender equality and the empowerment of women. In an effort to preserve if not expand newfound freedoms, prestige, and influence, Libyan women have created NGOs to advocate for women's rights. For example, the Committee to Support Women's Participation in Decision-Making, formed in June 2011, is focused on educational programs, training, and capacity-building, both to create strong advocates for women's rights and to encourage political participation by women; the Voice of Libyan Women, founded in August 2011, is dedicated to the advancement and empowerment of women; and the Libyan Women's Platform for Peace, formed in late 2011, supports and facilitates the development of women at all levels.

In focus groups conducted by NPI in April and published in May 2012, participants were broadly supportive of women playing roles in public life, but some respondents, both men and women, expressed discomfort with voting for women candidates. Some participants argued that traditional gender roles in Libyan society should be maintained in the political arena with men in particular expressing reservations about whether women could effectively represent men. Other participants maintained that women needed additional experience before they could contribute to the country's transition or that women lacked a proven track record of successful leadership. Despite an overall reluctance to vote for women candidates and discomfort with their political engagement, a smaller number of participants argued that men and women were equal, should share the same responsibilities, and should have access to the same opportunities.3

In the September 2013 NDI/JMW public opinion survey, 71 percent of Libyans agreed that women should play a larger role in the political process. When asked whether they supported a quota for women's representation in the next parliament, 52 percent of respondents supported maintaining the same quota used in the July 2012 GNC election, but 26 percent favored a higher quota. Following the February 2014 constituent assembly election, in which women were allocated only six out of 60 seats, the newly-elected head of the assembly told the audience at a UN organized workshop on empowering women in the political process that women would be an integral part of the constitutional drafting process. He also assured the overwhelmingly female audience that the new constitution would represent all Libyans, men and women.

Call for Democratic Constitution

The "Draft Constitutional Charter for the Transitional Stage," promulgated on 3 August 2011 by the National Transitional Council (NTC), a body established by the rebels to give a political face to the February 17 Revolution, presented a relatively liberal vision and inclusive approach to the rights and freedoms of all Libyans. Article 1 described Islam as "the religion of the state" but said that Sharia would be "the principal source of legislation" as opposed to the only source. Article 6 stated that all "Libyans shall be equal before the law" and "shall enjoy equal civil and political rights," "the same opportunities," and "be subject to the same public duties and obligations, without discrimination due to religion, belief, race, language, wealth, kinship or political opinions or social status." It concluded by saying that the "State shall guarantee for woman all opportunities which shall allow her to participate entirely and actively in political, economic and social spheres."4

The results of the September and November/December 2013 NDI/JPW public opinion surveys indicate that Libyans continue to favor a new constitution that expresses the democratic values outlined in the Draft Constitutional Charter for the Transitional Stage. In framing the new constitution, an overwhelming majority of respondents believe that legal experts and civil society representatives should be included in the constituent assembly, and a majority opposed the inclusion of tribal leaders and political parties. Moreover, the vast majority of Libyans believe that basic civil, economic, and political rights should be enshrined in the constitution, including the right to education, employment, health and medical care, and housing. Strong majorities also supporte provisions to guarantee the right to a fair trial and freedom from torture. Finally, 70 percent of Libyans viewed equal rights for women as very important.

The factors that contributed to the poor showing of the JCP and other Islamist parties in the July 2012 GNC election also contributed to their poor showing in the February 2014 constituent assembly election. The results of the constituent assembly election indicate that the Libyan people are opposed to the Islamists dominating the constituent assembly as they have the GNC. Islamist parties and candidates also are not expected to do well in the parliamentary election scheduled for 25 June 2014, three days before the start of Ramadan. One indication of the low state in which Islamist politicians are held was the election of Ali Tarhuna, a liberal politician and former rebel minister, to head the constituent assembly when it convened on 14 April 2014. A further indication is the level of voter registration for the upcoming parliamentary election. After 2.7 million people or 80 percent of eligible voters registered for the July 2012 GNC election, voter fatigue resulted in only 1.1 million people registering for the constituent assembly election. In contrast, registered voters for the June 2014 parliamentary election exceed 1.5 million, 25 percent more that those registered for the February 2014 constituent assembly election.


With oil reserves estimated to exceed 48 billion barrels, natural gas reserves estimated at 1.547 trillion cubic meters, and large foreign currency reserves, including a sovereign wealth fund with assets of approximately $66 billion, Libya has the financial resources in place to rebuild its war-torn economy. Even more important, general consensus exists on virtually all of the critical issues necessary to establish a modern Islamic democracy. There is widespread support for a democratic form of government which is grounded in Islamic law, inclusive, and respectful of the rights and responsibilities of everyone, including ethnic minorities and women. Conversely, there is little support for radical Islam and the Islamist groups which promote it. Federalism enjoys limited public support, but most Libyans favor some degree of decentralization of government institutions and services as a means to ensure a more equitable distribution of state resources. In support of these goals, the overwhelming majority of Libyans favor a new constitution that expresses democratic values and protects basic civil, economic, and political rights and responsibilities for all Libyans. At a time when Libya is experiencing its worst violence since the end of the February 17 Revolution, political stability and public safety remain the most immediate concerns; that said, it is doubly important at this critical juncture to recognize that widespread consensus on critical issues has laid the foundation for a modern Islamic democracy in Libya which could yet become a model for the region.

Ronald Bruce St John is the author of five books and well over 100 book chapters, articles, and reviews on Libya.


1Committed to Democracy and Unity: Public Opinion Survey in Libya, National Democratic Institute and JMW Consulting, Public Opinion Survey, Conducted November 10 to December 8, 2013 (March 2014), available at http://www.ndi.org.

2Seeking Security: Public Opinion Survey in Libya, National Democratic Institute and JMW Consulting, Public Opinion Survey, Conducted September 10-30, 2013 (November 2013), available at http://www.ndi.org.

3Citizen Views on Libya's Electoral and Political Processes, National Democratic Institute, Findings from Focus Groups in Libya, Conducted April 10-20, 2012 (May 2012), available at http://www.ndi.org.

4National Transitional Council, "Draft Constitutional Charter for the Transitional Stage," 3 August 2011, mimeograph copy.

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