Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Gaddafi: The Political System

Gaddafi poststamp / Photo Shutterstock
Gaddafi poststamp / Photo Shutterstock

The Jamahiriya was institutionalized in a system unique to Libya. This was designed to put into effect the Third Universal Theory, as outlined in the Green Book, whose first volume was ‘The solution to the problem of democracy: The authority of the people’. In it Gaddafi proposed a system of direct democracy to replace traditional structures such as Parliament, political parties, and referenda. Parliament, it said, is a form of dictatorship because the process of representation removes power from the people by speaking on their behalf, rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. Political parties are the instruments of this alienation of the population from power, so they should be abolished. And referenda reduce decisions to single one-time yes-or-no votes. Democracy could be achieved only by creating a structure that reflected the population as a whole rather than acting in its name.

The structure that Gaddafi set up to embody this was a hierarchical structure of people’s congresses and committees: ‘management becomes popular, control becomes popular, and the old definition of democracy as “control of people over the government” is replaced by its new definition as “the people’s control over itself”.’

The entire population was divided into ‘basic people’s congresses’. These elected a secretariat to form a people’s committee at the municipal level and other people’s committees that oversaw public affairs (e.g., roads, sewage systems, water-supply systems, and public clinics). Every adult also belonged to a group of workers or professionals: labourers, peasants, merchants, students, and craftsmen who were members of trade unions and professional organizations.

The peoples’ committees in turn elected ‘state committees’, which were the equivalent of ministries. Ultimate authority lay with a national General People’s Congress (GPC), which consisted of delegates elected by people’s congresses, people’s committees, trade unions, and professional organizations. The GPC consisted of approximately 1,000 members who chose the secretaries (equivalent to ministers) of the General People’s Committee, which acted as a cabinet. For each field of policy there was a different committee. The GPC was chaired by a general secretary, the Prime Minister.

There were both theoretical and practical deficiencies. It was never explained how this system of delegation differed in practice from the system of representation it supposedly replaced. Sensitive issues such as defence, oil, and foreign policy were difficult to discuss. The new system quickly produced either apathy or decisions of which Gaddafi disapproved. In order to maintain momentum, in 1978 Gaddafi announced the establishment of a revolutionary authority that was to be separated from the political authority of the people. It took the form of revolutionary committees consisting of enthusiasts for his policies. Gaddafi and the remaining members of the RCC resigned from the GPC, leaving it to manage affairs while revolutionary doctrine was developed and maintained by the revolutionary structure. The revolutionary committees were supposed to stimulate political awareness but they quickly grew into a state within a state with revolutionary courts replacing the existing legal system. All this left little space for public political expression, so alternative views found an outlet in mosques and religious activity (see Administration & Politics).