Authoritarian Nostalgia in Libya

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Jon Alterman: Robert Worth is a contributing writer to the New York Times magazine. He recently wrote an article about his interview with Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi. Robert, welcome to Babel.

Robert Worth: Thank you for having me.

Jon Alterman: In May, you did an interview with Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, the son of Libya’s long-standing dictator. What did you expect going into that interview?

Robert Worth: I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that he was someone who had political ambitions. We had talked about that during the course of the preparations for our interview. I knew that he was working to rebuild his father’s political movement. What I didn't know was whether he had changed—whether he had learned something from his experience. I think that was the thing I was most curious about.

Jon Alterman: There is the issue of what he learned from his own personal experience, and there's also the question of what he learned from the broader trajectory of the Arab Spring throughout the region—what happened in neighboring countries. What lessons do you think he did draw from the last ten years?

Robert Worth: My sense is that he continued to see those events entirely through the prism of his own family and its political role. Maybe it was unrealistic of me to imagine that he might have seen it all from a wider perspective, but I think he was deeply affected by the killing of his father and his brothers. Before 2011, he'd spoken a lot about democracy and about the direction of the region. He presented himself as someone who could see things in a wider way, but I think he essentially saw it as “the people who supported us” and “the people who betrayed us.” He had a very tribal way of seeing it all.

Jon Alterman: I don't know if you met him before this. I certainly met him before 2011. He was an interesting character. Had you had an opportunity to connect with him before?

Robert Worth: I had not.

Jon Alterman: Had you met with any of the reformers around him? Because, there were several—some of whom seemed quite serious.

Robert Worth: Yes—I met a number of them during my time in Libya in 2011 and 2012. Some of them had worked with him, and that was part of what made me so curious about him. This was a guy who was at the center of the Gaddafi regime but also had these long-standing relationships with a variety of people who were real reformers—who really wanted to see a different kind of Libya—as well as people of the London School of Economics and people in the West who were deeply interested in the possibility of a more democratic Libya.

Jon Alterman: He got a PhD from the London School of Economics, controversially. I met somebody once who said, "I didn't write his dissertation, but I know the person who did," and I don’t presume he was referring to Saif himself.

Robert Worth: Yes, I think that's safe to imagine.

Jon Alterman: Based on this conversation, do you think any of the reform talk in Libya ever was real? Given what you concluded about Saif, do you think a discussion about reform in Libya was always deeply misguided?

Robert Worth: I think the expectations for change were so different prior to 2011. I think that Saif himself probably did want to change. I'm pretty sure that he wanted to change Libya. I think he imagined something closer to the UAE. I think that he imagined the country would remain very authoritarian—that he would be at the helm but that there would be a little bit more margin for rights of some kind. Economically, for sure, he imagined a more functional private sector and more open relationships with the rest of the world. In the broadest sense, he wasn't interested in elections, but he was interested in a country that was more functional and in certain respects worked more with institutions than his father's country had done.

Jon Alterman: You wrote a book in 2016—an excellent book—on the Arab Spring called A Rage for Order. Does what you discovered in your conversation with Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi fit in with what you concluded about that? Did it enrich what you concluded about the course of the Arab Spring and the future of governance in the Arab world?

Robert Worth: For me, I think it just underlined the extent to which if you don't have the kind of foundation that you need to build a new society—that there's nothing in the short term that can happen. It's so difficult to build those things, and Libya was probably the worst of all those countries in the sense of its existing structure being ready for something different. It was poignant especially because after that brutal year of civil war and the NATO intervention in 2011, there were elections in July 2012, and they seemed promising. There were a lot of figures who seemed appealing—at least to us in the West. And then the whole thing fell apart because more than anywhere else, the country was fragmented along geographic lines and there were just so many people with guns.

Jon Alterman: In the past, you've been optimistic about the Tunisian political experiment, which looks a lot less certain after the president dismissed the parliament this summer. What do you think we should conclude from Tunisia—which seemed very promising? What do you think that should tell us about the prospects for Arab reform, generally?

Robert Worth: I've remained fairly optimistic about Tunisia simply because it doesn't have so much of the gun power of the countries around it. It doesn't have a deeply broken society with armed militias all over the place. It doesn't have oil. It doesn't, at least for now, have a politicized military. It’s true that they've broken with their constitution and with some of the norms that they had painfully set up, but I still think it is more a country of institutions than Libya. I think they're still on a better track. There were a lot of people, both in Tunisia and outside of it, who were deeply worried about what's happened in the past few months in Tunisia. I should say that I am too, but I still think it can recover. I don't think the damage is that lasting. In terms of the long-term prospects in that country—to me, a big part of what was so poignant about the Arab Spring writ large was that our attention spans had gotten so short because of social media. After all, that was partly what made these uprisings happen. Right? They spread so quickly, but we forget that it takes an awfully long time to build something viable. That's true in Tunisia as well.

Jon Alterman: Lisa Anderson famously wrote a book that argued that the difference between Libya and Tunisia is that the Libyans were colonized by the Italians, and the Tunisians were colonized by the French, and the French tried to create a better fabric for governance when they were there. Do you think it goes back to that? Do you think it goes back earlier? Do you think it's more recent? What would differentiate a country like Libya and Tunisia, and how long do you think it would take to get them into a different place?

Robert Worth: I do think that with the Italian legacy in Libya there was just a lot of brutality and a lot of suffering that helped tear apart whatever social fabric was there. However, I also think that Libya before European colonialism was just a less unified area. The south was very cut off from the north, and the east was very cut off from the west. That limited the ability to build a unified state. It's funny, though. There was a real pride among Libyans. First, there was pride for the fact that they fought so hard against the Italian colonists—but there was also the sense that, culturally, they remained who they are. If you talk to some Libyans, they'll say, "Tunisia, you know, they're just a bunch of pretentious people who imitate the French. They don't really have a strong identity.” Maybe to some extent it's defensive talk by people who are—in the political sense—a basket case as compared with the Tunisians, but it’s true that Tunisia, in a lot of ways, remains very imitative of France. I think that’s part of what Ennahda, the Islamist group in Tunisia, has pushed back against. There was this feeling that there was a rigid imitation of France—politically and socially—going on in that country, and they didn't like it. They liked the more Anglo-American model—which Ennahda picked up on because many Ennahda members, including Rachid al-Ghannouchi, spent their years of exile in London.

Jon Alterman: Your argument is that contributes to creating a greater climate of liberalism, or at least potential toward liberalism that Libya doesn't have.

Robert Worth: Yes, I think that's true. Tunisia also had a much deeper history of contact with Europe and with the rest of the world. That probably helped to some extent. At least in the recent centuries, it also had a slightly less violent history.

Jon Alterman: For decades under Muammar al-Gaddafi, Libya was completely sui generis. It was the most unique place I've ever been. Do you think Libya is becoming less unique? Or, do you think that its history of violence combined with the competition for oil wealth makes Libya a very unique place in the world?

Robert Worth: It still seems very unique to me. Again, I don't know how much they want to hold on to that particular uniqueness. I think what Libyans might do is turn their own question around and say, "Is eastern Libya really very distinct from western Libya, and can those differences be reconciled?" This goes even at the level of different cities. Misrata is so fiercely independent, and it's been very difficult for those city-state identities to meld themselves into one country. I think that’s a huge challenge going forward. I wish I could see a quicker path for Libya to organize itself and build a really functional central state, but I don't see one any time soon.

Jon Alterman: Do you think Saif is correct, that there's this sort of nostalgia for authoritarianism in Libya after a decade of chaos?

Robert Worth: I do think he's correct about that. I think it's largely a misguided nostalgia because a lot of it takes place among younger people who didn't really know what it was like—at least not as adults—in Gaddafi's Libya. They didn't see how rigid the system was or how pretty much incapable of change it was. They didn’t see how much violence there was, and how little real institution building took place.

Jon Alterman: Throughout the region, we see a lot of nostalgia for authoritarianism. We certainly see it across North Africa. As you think about the Middle East, do you think that is likely to be a phase until some sort of more liberal polity is consolidated, or do you think that's likely to prove a more permanent feature of regional life?

Robert Worth: I wouldn't be surprised if more autocratic structures take hold in these places, because it seems—for the moment—that people prefer the injustice of autocracy to the absolute chaos of what Libya has seen over the past ten years. You saw the passion with which people embraced President Sisi in Egypt. Obviously, Egypt is its own particularly distinct identity, but I think some of that is true in some of these other countries. There's a feeling like “at least we have some sense of law and order.” A lot of people really feared veering off into something frighteningly new and different with an Islamist presidency. Even more than that, they feared real chaos.

Jon Alterman: So, that would seem to suggest that Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi may actually have a political future in Libya.

Robert Worth: He may. One of the questions I was looking to answer for myself was, "Is this guy smart enough to play his cards right?" If he could play his cards right, I think he really would have an excellent chance because he's got the name recognition, and that counts for a ton in Libya. If he had the ability to reach across the aisle and say, "Look, I have experienced what you've experienced. I sympathize with what you went through, and I sympathize with your aspirations back in 2011. I know this country, east and west and south. I can bring you guys together." You can imagine the kind of speeches he could give. He doesn't. He remains vengeful and very narrow in the sense of who he is. He's trying to appeal to the old guard Gaddafists and the younger Gaddafists—but not to anyone else. For anyone who identified at all with that revolution—like all those people in Misrata—he's really just flipping them the bird. He sounds still like someone who has, private scores to settle and who is interested in his own position and power, so he's just not an impressive political mind.

Jon Alterman: Robert Worth, thank you for joining us on Babel.

Robert Worth: It's been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.