On the eve of the Libyan elections, it is easy to forget that just one year ago parts of the country were still in the grip of one of the most unusual dictators of the contemporary era. Yet while the giant portraits and revolutionary slogans have been torn down, the specter of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's four decades at the helm still hangs heavy over the country.
On July 7, Libyans will go to the polls to elect members of a General National Congress, which will replace the National Transitional Council that has ruled since Qaddafi's overthrow. The congress will not only be charged with ruling the country -- it will form the body that will draft Libya's new constitution. But the poll will be held under the colonel's long shadow: Libya's post-Qaddafi existence has been bedeviled by regional divisions, out-of-control militias, and inexperienced political leaders. Indeed, the new congress is likely to turn out to be a bizarre mishmash of tribal chiefs, nascent political parties, militia leaders, Islamists, and former jihadists. It is difficult to imagine how such a mixed bunch will be able to reach a consensus, let alone run the country.
The self-styled Brother Leader's legacy may have stripped Libya of its political consciousness, but in truth, the country's politics were not particularly developed under the monarchy that preceded him. Libya had an elected parliament after independence in 1951, but political activism was confined largely to the urban elite and the monarchy, which ensured that the palace held the keys to power. In any case, the country's experiment with democracy was cut short by Qaddafi's 1969 coup.
After coming to power, Qaddafi sought to shake the country out of its political apathy -- to rouse an entire nation to a political and cultural awakening. This mass mobilization, however, was to be harnessed completely to the evolving and peculiar vision enunciated in his Green Book. When Libyans proved reluctant to engage in his new "state of the masses" -- what he termed the Jamahiriya -- the colonel declared in 1971 that he would "take the people to paradise in chains."
Qaddafi made good, at least, on the latter part of that promise. His mass mobilization became synonymous with mass repression: All opportunities for political and economic advancement outside the framework of his rule were prohibited. Political parties were banned, and setting up or joining any organization was made punishable by death. Although neighboring regimes in Egypt and Tunisia were authoritarian, they at least allowed some space for opposition parties. Qaddafi's Libya was the enemy of any genuinely independent civil society or professional organizations -- the entire public arena became an outward manifestation of his bizarre political vision.
The results are clear for all to see. Post-Qaddafi Libya is a land where suspicions of the democratic process, of political parties, and of liberalism more widely still linger. Although some Libyans have rushed to form political parties, the population at large tends to view such institutions with distrust -- a senior Muslim Brotherhood member told me recently that Libyans will vote for personalities over parties. As one Libyan political activist explained, "A large section of the Libyan population is still under the influence of Qaddafi's ideological legacy and his hostility to anything related to political organization."