What Can Libya Teach Us About Democracy


This post first and foremost is not to deal with the reality on the ground in Libya or with the cluster____ being made there by NATO, the TNC, and the Jamahiriya fighting over the nation. Instead I want to say a few words about the theory put forward by Mummar Qaddafi in his Green Book about the organization of a socialist society. In my research on the history of Libya and the current conflict I spent considerable time studying the political structure of Libya. I have to say going in I was preparing to see a dictatorial system that has nothing to teach anyone and I have surprisingly come out of it with my mind blown and as a political sociologist in marvel (at bare minimum) of the concept of Libyan democracy.

Libya and the group who brought the current regime into power introduced 3 novel institutional ideas when worked together creates a democratic system like no other. They are the idea and structure of the “People’s Congresses” and the lack of political parties and a constitution. Now as a disclaimer I won’t argue that how these institutions working in practice lives up to the theory. I want to instead look at the theoretical basis these concepts and how the contrast to (mostly) western concepts of democracy even among socialists.

Let’s first look at the People’s Congress. Gaddafi and the other generals who participated in the 1969 coup wanted to create organs of popular representation for the people of Libya based on Islamic and socialist principles. For most current “socialist” and “communist” states this meant either “the Party” exercising political and ideological power over the nation directly or by making it the only legal party or in certain other cases you had nations like Cuba where there were elections but there’s a wall beyond which you had to be part of the communist party or other relevant groups to exert political power. Libya took a radically different path. It separated the civilian leadership from the military/ideological leadership and established the Jamahiriya (“state of the masses”) and the Revolutionary sections of government. The Jamahiriya was the popular sector of the government which was functioned as much as a direct democracy as possible and the revolutionary sector as the equivalent of “the party” in other governments. It was made up of  the leaders of the coup, Gaddafi, and elected members of the revolutionary councils (grassroot chapters of the revolutionary leadership).

The basic unit of the Jamahiriya section is the Basic People’s Congress. These organs which meet in People’s Halls set up in each local is basically the equivalent of local governments. Each congress meets 3 times a year, first to decide on the annual agenda, second to deliberate and make some decisions, and the third to elect the next officials (who run local affairs) and make final decisions and votes on proposals. This forum is by all accounts run much like town hall meetings in the United States and is open to all adults in the city or town. The people elected by the Basic People’s Congresses join the General People’s Congress which along with some members of the military and revolutionary councils make up the supreme authority of Libya. This system is in stark contrast to those used by other “socialist” regimes and differ from many of the theoretical proposals of socialist theorists today. At the minimum it has been able to manage local politics and non-ideological national politics for the past 40 year so I believe it has at least proven itself as an stable collaborative body.

Now to critique the system. The first and most obvious problem that many cite and I agree with is that the separation between the two sectors of Libyan politics are far from absolute. Although Gaddafi is not head of state nor part of the revolutionary council anymore the council and the grassroots committees still participate in Libyan politics by arresting members of the BPC if they say something too out of line and also overriding decisions of the GPC on national security issues. The problem is much like what America is deal with in that the Executive and it’s organs (namely the NSA, FBI, and CIA) are outside of the control of the legislative body too much of the time. I would say if that separation was created and perhaps the revolutionary council be elected by members of the armed forces or revolutionary committees it would prove to be a more robust system. Even with the obvious flaw the Basic People’s Congresses still prove to be an ingenious way of creating public space for discussion and authority that’s open and quick cycling (no official in the state is in power for more than a year).

Now the other aspect of Libyan politics that I believe is indulging is the idea of no constitutions and no political parties. Gaddafi in his Green Book riled against the idea of both institution (which have been basic to liberal and radical democracies since the Manga Carta) and argued they hampered the democratic process. By abolishing the constitution (although the Green Book sort of serves the same purpose) one can change the political structure more fluidly (through simple legislative votes versus intensive constitutional amendments) when necessary. The assumption when it comes to rights (to speech, assembly , et al) is that since the People’s Congresses dis-encourage the rise of lifelong politicians and the national government is suppose to be made up of working class people there’s no danger of the lost of rights because why would the people take their own rights away? He sees the benefits of this system in its flexibility far outweighs it’s pitfalls.

Now when it comes to political parties his argument is similar to the one against constitutions in that they inhibit democracy. There have been other nations and individuals who also disliked political parties and thus these arguments might be recognizable to some of you. The first problem he cites is political parties as a means of establishing political elites and that in his eyes that parliamentary politics is much like “predators fighting over prey” with the populace being simple pawns of the political elite. The People Congresses and how they work forces people to argue the issue as a citizen not as part of “X Party” and in Gaddafi’s eyes prevents the destructive political battles that are waged in western nations (debt ceiling discussion anyone?).

Now taking in all these arguments and thesis I see potential for adapting many of these ideas into the mainstream of the discussion on what socialism will look like. We can argue all day about the veracity of Qaddafi’s statements and whether democracy really exists in Libya and of course the civil war (I did myself here) but we can at least all agree that there’s something to these ideas that are unique and refreshing. Moving forward I hope the Libyan people preserve much of the political structure they have built over the past 40 years and add to their democratic institutions. For us socialists in the west I think we need to question some of the assumptions of political systems which we run with. As an example and final statement i’ll give you an example, taken from the Final Call concerning Qaddafi’s views on parliamentary systems (and more so “first to the post” systems like the one in the US):

“Qaddafi says political decisions in which one candidate is granted victory, simply because they obtained the highest percentage of the vote by the electorate effectively “establishes a dictatorship in the seat of power garbed in the guise of democracy.” Especially when three or four losing candidates, whose votes combined would equal a higher total than the perceived winning candidate, split the vote.

He then takes on the parliamentary governmental structure. The mere existence of such, Qaddafi says, “underlies the absence of the people, for democracy can only exist with the presence of the people, and not in the presence of representatives of the people. Parliaments have become a legal barrier between people and their right to exercise authority. They exclude the masses in order to prevent them from practicing politics, and monopolize the control of politics in their name.””

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