The Revolution and Social Change

Libya Table of Contents

In their September 1969 revolution, Qadhafi and the young officers who provided most of his support aimed with idealistic fervor at bringing to an end the social inequities that had marked both the colonial periods and the monarchical regime. The new government that resulted was socialist, but Qadhafi stressed that it was to be a kind of socialism inspired by the humanitarian values inherent in Islam. It called for equitable distribution to reduce disparities between classes in a peaceful and affluent society, but in no sense was it to be a stage on the road to communism.

On the eve of the 1969 revolution, the royal family and its most eminent supporters and officeholders, drawn from a restricted circle of wealthy and influential families, dominated Libyan society. These constituted what may be termed the traditional sociopolitical establishment, which rested on patronage, clientage, and dependency. Beneath this top echelon was a small middle class. The Libyan middle class had always been quite small, but it had expanded significantly under the impact of oil wealth. In the mid- l960s, it consisted of several distinct social groupings: salaried religious leaders and bureaucrats, old families engaged in importing and contracting, entrepreneurs in the oil business, shopkeepers, self-employed merchants and artisans and prosperous farmers and beduin. Workers in small industrial workshops, agricultural laborers, and peasant farmers, among others, composed the lower class.

Most of the urban population consisted of the families of first-generation workers, small shopkeepers, and a horde of public workers. Above them were thin layers of the newly rich and of old, prosperous families. An urban working class, however, had largely failed to develop, and the middle class was a feeble one that in no way resembled the counterpart element that had become a vital political force in many other countries of the Arab world.

At the top of the rural social structure, the shaykhs of the major tribes ruled on the basis of inherited status. In the cities, corresponding roles were played by the heads of the wealthy families and by religious figures. These leaders were jealous of their position and, far from concerning themselves with furthering social progress, saw modernization as a threat. In no way, however, did the leaders present a united front.

The development of the petroleum industry was accompanied by profound technical and organizational changes and by the appearance of a younger elite whose outlook had been greatly affected by technological advances: among their number were technocrats, students, and young army officers. Not the least notable of the factors that set this new element apart was age. The civilians of this group, as well as the military officers, were for the most part in their thirties or younger, and their views had little in common with those of the aging authorities who had long controlled a swollen bureaucracy (11 percent of the 1969 labor force). More urbanized and better educated than their elders, this new group entertained hopes and aspirations that had been frustrated by the group surrounding King Idris. In particular, resentment had been aroused by the arbitrariness, corruption, and inefficiency of Idris' government as well as by its questionable probity in the distribution of oil-funded revenues.

The young officers who formed the Free Officers Movement and its political nucleus, the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), showed a great deal of dedication to the revolutionary cause and a high degree of uniformity in political and economic outlook. In Libya, as in a number of other Arab countries, admission to the military academy and careers as army officers were options available to members of the less privileged economic strata only after national independence was attained. A military career, offering new opportunities for higher education and upward economic and social mobility, was thus a greater attraction for young men from poorer families than for those of the wealthy and the traditional elite. These youthful revolutionaries came from quite modest social backgrounds, representing the oases and the interior as opposed to the coastal cities, and the minor suppressed tribes as opposed to the major aristocratic ones.

The officers of the RCC--all captains and lieutenants-- represented the forefront of a social revolution that saw the middle and lower middle classes assert control over social and political prerogatives heretofore denied them. They quickly displaced the former elite of the Idris era and became themselves the prime movers of the Libyan state. Numbering only about a dozen men, they were gradually joined by sympathetic civilian and military personnel in constituting a new elite.

By the late 1980s, this governing class consisted of Qadhafi and the half-dozen remaining members of the Free Officers Movement, government ministers and other high state officials and managers, second-echelon officers of the Free Officers Movement, and top officials and activists of local mass organizations and governing councils. Civilian officials and bureaucrats as a whole were considerably better educated than their military colleagues. Many of them possessed college degrees, came from urban middle-class backgrounds, and were indispensable for the administrative functioning of government and the economy. Below this elite was the upper middle class composed of educated technocrats, administrators, and remnants of a wealthy commercial and entrepreneurial class. The lower middle class contained small traders, teachers, successful farmers, and low-level officials and bureaucrats. This new and small revolutionary elite sought to restructure Libyan society. In broad terms, the young officers set off to create an egalitarian society in which class differences would be minimal and the country's oil wealth would be equally shared. Their aim was to curb the power and wealth of the old elite and to build support among the middle and lower middle classes from which they had come and with which they identified. The policies they devised to remold society after 1969 entailed extension of state control over the national economy, creation of a new political structure, and redistribution of wealth and opportunity through such measures as minimum wage laws, state employment, and the welfare state.

The Arab Socialist Union (ASU) created in 1971 was thus intended as a mass mobilization device. Its aim was the peaceful abolition of class differences to avoid the tragedy of a class struggle; the egalitarian nature of its composition was shown by a charter prescribing that, at all levels, 50 percent of its members must be peasants and laborers. At the heart of the cultural revolution of 1973 was the establishment of people's committees. These were made up of working-level leaders in business and government, who became the local elites in the new society. That same year brought enactment of a law requiring that larger business firms share profits with their personnel, appoint workers to their boards of directors, and establish joint councils composed of workers and managers.

At the same time, the government launched a long-term campaign against a new privileged class pejoratively identified as "bourgeois bureaucrats." Multiple dismissals at this time included top university administrators, hospital directors, and oil-industry officials, as well as numerous lower ranking employees. However, in 1975, public administrators, including educational and public health service, made up nearly 24 percent of the labor force---more than twice the proportion at the time of the monarchy's demise. Late in 1976, a newspaper editorial complained that the labor force still contained tens of thousands of administrators and supervisors--most of them in the public sector---while in other countries this element seldom exceeded 2 percent of the total.

Having attacked the bureaucracy and concentrations of wealth and privilege, the regime in the later 1970s dealt with the entrepreneurial middle class. The first restrictions on private traders appeared as early as 1975, but the real blows came a few years later. A 1978 law struck at much-prized investments in private property by limiting ownership of houses and apartments to one per nuclear family, although the government promised compensation to the dispossessed. New restrictions were placed on commercial and industrial establishments, foreign trade became a monopoly of public corporations, workers assumed control of major industrial and commercial enterprises, and private wholesale trade was abolished. Finally, state investments and subsidies were shifted away from small businesspeople.

Although the Libyan middle class was suppressed by the abovementional restrictions in the late 1970s, it was not destroyed. Indeed, a significant number of its members adapted themselves to the social dictates of the revolutionary regime by cooperation with it or by recruitment into the modernizing state apparatus. Its ranks still contained educated technocrats and administrators, without whose talents the state could not function, as well as remnants of the commercial and entrepreneurial class, some of them well-to-do. A separate category of small traders, shopkeepers, and farmers could also be identified. They, too, sought careers in the state sector, although many of them continued to operate small businesses alongside public enterprises. Those who could not adapt or who feared persecution fled abroad in significant numbers.

In contrast with the old regime, it was now possible for members of the middle and lower classes to seek and gain access to positions of influence and power. The former criteria of high family or tribal status had given way to education to a considerable degree, although patronage and loyalty continued to be rewarded as well. But in general, social mobility was much improved, a product of the revolutionary order that encouraged participation and leadership in such new institutions as the Basic People's Congress and the revolutionary committees. Only the highest positions occupied by Qadhafi and a small number of his associates were beyond the theoretical reach of the politically ambitious.

The core elite in the 1980s, which consisted of Qadhafi and the few remaining military officers of the RCC, presented a significant contrast of its own with respect to the top political leadership of the Idris era. This was the result of a commitment to national unity and identity, as well as of common social background. Within this small group, the deeply ingrained regional cleavages of the past, particularly that between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, had almost disappeared and were no longer of political significance. Similarly, the ethnic distinction between Arab and Berber within the elite was no longer important. The old urban-rural and center- periphery oppositions, remained very important, but they did not characterize the core elite itself. Rather, they differentiated the core elite from the country's former rulers, because the revolutionary leadership was deeply rooted in the rural periphery, not the Mediterranean coastal centers.

The rest of society, including government officials immediately below Qadhafi, appeared to be a good deal less unified. Despite the exertions of the core elite, a sense of national unity and identity had not yet developed in the late 1980s, and loyalty to region, tribe, and family remained stronger than allegiance to the state. There was much alienation from the regime, often expressed in terms of lethargy and passivity. Incessant pressures on the part of the regime to enlist as many people as possible in running public affairs had provoked much resentment and resistance. Many adults did not participate, despite the exhortations and oversight of the revolutionary committees, themselves a source of uncertainly and anxiety.

All of these pressures applied to the educated middle class, estimated to number perhaps 50,000 out of a total population of 3.6 million. Many were clearly alienated by the shortages of consumer goods, the militarization of society, and the constant demands to participate actively in the institutions of the jamahiriya, sentiments that characterized other social classes as well. Like their fellow citizens, the educated sought refuge in the affairs of their families, demonstrating yet again the strength of traditional values over revolutionary norms, or in foreign travel, especially in Europe.

The country's youth were also pulled in opposite directions. By the mid-1980s, the vast majority knew only the revolutionary era and its achievements. Because these gains were significant, not surprisingly young people were among the most dedicated and visible devotees of the revolution and Qadhafi. They had benefited most from increased educational opportunities, attempted reforms of dowry payments, and the emancipation of young women. Libyan youth also enjoyed far more promising employment prospects than their counterparts elsewhere in the Maghrib.

With few outlets such as recreation centers or movies for their energies, a large number of the youth were found in the revolutionary committees, where they pursued their task of enforcing political conformity and participation with a vigor that at times approached fanaticism. Others kept watch over the state administration and industry in an attempt to improve efficiency. Not all were so enthusiastic about revolutionary goals, however. For instance, there was distaste for military training among students in schools and universities, especially when it presaged service in the armed forces. In the 1980s, some of this disdain had resulted in demonstrations and even in executions.

By the late 1980s, Libyan society clearly showed the impact of almost two decades of attempts at restructuring. The country was an army-dominated state under the influence of no particular class or group and was relatively free from the clash of competing interests. Almost all sources of power in traditional life had been eliminated or coopted. Unlike states such as Saudi Arabia that endeavored to develop their societies within the framework of traditional political and economic systems, Libya had discarded most of the traditional trappings and was using its great wealth to transform the country and its people.

With its highly egalitarian socialist regime, Libya differed considerably in its social structure from other oil-rich states. Salaries and wages were high, and social services were extensive and free. There was much less accumulation of private wealth than in other oil states, and social distinction was discouraged as a matter of deliberate public policy. But Libyan society was deeply divided, and entire segments of the population were only superficially committed to the course that the revolutionary regime had outlined. And while the old order was clearly yielding to the new, there was much doubt and unease about where society and state were headed.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress