Libya Tribune

By Mary Fitzgerald and Tarek Megerisi

The question of housing, land and property rights is so difficult—and so important—because it touches on the fundamental question facing post-2011 Libya: what do Libyans want the new Libya to look like?

This paper will examine both the history and the current impact of Qaddafi’s redistribution laws. In addition, we will ask what we can learn from the failed efforts to resolve these property conflicts since 2011.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

In 1978, Muammar Qaddafi decreed that no Libyan could own more than one house. All rental properties were subsequently reallocated to tenants or confiscated by the state. In 1986, he abolished land ownership altogether. These and other sweeping redistribution policies had far-reaching consequences, creating the profound grievances, administrative chaos and economic imbalances that have hampered the reconstruction of Libya since 2011.

Without an understanding of the history of Libyan property rights, both before and after the revolution, it is impossible either to understand how Libyan politics came to deteriorate so quickly, or to design a realistic path out of the current crisis.

Disputes over property helped spark the post-revolutionary fighting, and they continue to fuel conflict today.

The resolution of property rights issues also has a deeper significance. Before peace and prosperity can have any chance of succeeding in Libya, the country’s citizens will have to resolve longstanding historical grievances in a manner which all perceive to be just.

The conversations that will be required to fix the chaos over land and housing are the same kinds of conversations that will be required to create a stable political and economic system.

1- History and context of Qaddafi’s redistribution policies

Qaddafi used property to mobilise support and dismantle his opposition; he created weak, ad-hoc institutions that would not threaten his power. These policies created social conflict and economic damage.

By the time Qaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam tried to undo these policies in the 1990s, it was too late.

2- Attempts to reform Libyan property laws after the 2011 uprising

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, property rights were considered a high priority. But without a wider reconciliation framework, a fully functioning judiciary, and state monopoly of force, Libya’s neophyte lawmakers failed to make any progress. Quickly, disputes over property fuelled new violence. An examination of the failure to reform property laws helps explain why other reforms have failed too.

3- Policy recommendations

Despite the ongoing violence and political turmoil, some steps can be made—now—towards the establishment of institutions that can resolve property issues in the future. Libyans can begin to collect and verify property claims, raise awareness, and establish the principles of this future process.

By providing some faith in the possibility of a solution, the debate about property rights could even become part of Libya’s recovery. Later on, a careful dialogue among owners, occupants and other stakeholders could give Libya its best chance to tailor a bespoke solution that satisfies more people than it harms.

The creation of a purpose-built institution would streamline efforts to tackle the issue without hindering the day-to-day workings of the already over-burdened judiciary and transitional authorities.

4- Conclusion: the destructive legacy of Qaddafi’s policies still haunts Libya today

The lack of trust in any institution or the rule of law, the cycles of vengeance and tribal rivalries, the lack of economic opportunity and ownership over the political process, all of these are Qaddafi’s legacy. Ultimately, the question of housing, land and property rights is so difficult—and so important—because it touches on the fundamental question of post-2011 Libya: what do Libyans want their new Libya to look like? There will be no long-term stability until Libya finds a way to deal with its past, and talk about its future.

INTRODUCTION

In 1978, Muammar Qaddafi decreed that no Libyan could own more than one house. All rental properties were subsequently reallocated to tenants or confiscated by the state. In 1986, he abolished land ownership altogether. These and other sweeping redistribution policies had far-reaching consequences, creating the profound grievances, administrative chaos and economic imbalances that have hampered the reconstruction of Libya since 2011.

In the current context, any discussion of these land, housing, and property rights can seem irrelevant. Four years after the hopeful uprising that deposed Qaddafi, the elected government controls just a faction of the country, a rival rump government sits in the capital, and the Islamic State is gradually making its presence known.

Weapons abound, militias do as they please, and the oil-rich nation is nearly broke. As of March 2015, some 400,000 Libyans are internally displaced and more than a million are estimated to have fled the country (out of a population of about six million). 1

In this environment, there is little political will or capacity to reform Qaddafi-era laws, address historical wrongs or take the hard steps necessary to prepare the ground for foreign investment.

Yet without a deep knowledge of the history of Libyan property rights, both before and after the revolution, it is impossible either to understand how Libyan politics came to deteriorate so quickly, or to design a realistic path out of the current crisis. Disputes over property helped spark the post-revolutionary fighting, and they continue to fuel conflict today.

Without a settlement of property disputes, it will be difficult if not impossible to re-establish a legitimate government, let alone the rule of law.

The resolution of property rights’ issues also has a deeper significance. Before peace and prosperity can have any chance of succeeding in Libya, the country’s citizens will have to resolve long-standing historical grievances in a manner which all perceive to be just. The conversations that will be required to fix the chaos over land and housing are the same kinds of conversations that are required to create a stable political and economic system.

This paper will examine both the history and the current impact of Qaddafi’s redistribution laws. In addition, we will ask what we can learn from the failed efforts to resolve these property conflicts since 2011.

Indeed, Libyans’ inability to resolve this smaller dispute helps explain why they have been unable to resolve their broader legal and political crisis.

NOTES

1- UNHCR, “Fresh fighting in the New Year triggers displacement in Libya,” 16 January 2015, available online: http://www.unhcr.org/54b918396.html

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The Authors

Mary Fitzgerald is a journalist and analyst specialising in post-Qaddafi Libya. She has reported from Libya since February 2011 for media including the Economist, the BBC, Foreign Policy, The New Yorker, the Financial Times and the Guardian. She lived in Libya throughout 2014. She is a contributing author to The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath published by Hurst/Oxford University Press.

Tarek Megerisi is a political analyst and consultant specialising in Libya and the wider Middle East. He has worked closely in an advisory capacity on Libya’s post-revolutionary transition with Libyan political bodies and international organisations. Currently based in London, he has contributed commentaries on Libya to the Carnegie Endowment’s SADA centre, Italy’s Limes magazine, Muftah magazine, and the Fair Observer among others.

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The Contributers

Rhodri C. Williams is the Rule of Law Program Manager for the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC). Based in Stockholm, Williams coordinates a large, integrated set of rule of law programs supporting partners in seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa region. Prior to working for ILAC, he worked for ten years as a consultant on humanitarian, human rights, rule of law and transitional justice issues in fragile and post-conflict settings such as Bosnia, Cambodia, Colombia, Cyprus, Georgia, Kosovo, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Serbia and Turkey.

Peter van der Auweraert works as Head of the Land, Property and Reparations Division at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva, Switzerland. He has worked on rule of law, post-crisis land and victims’ reparations issues in a number of countries and was part of a small UN-team engaged in mediation on land and property issues among local political actors in Kirkuk, Iraq. Prior to joining IOM, Peter Van der Auweraert was Executive Director of Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF).

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