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 all together.

The aim of this forcible redistribution of property was to help Qaddafi establish control over the population and to build a large-scale patronage system. He created parallel, temporary institutions to implement these policies, and, together with the formal institutions of the state, used these to distribute favours and salaries to the population. Instead of the state being accountable to its citizens, citizens became entirely dependent on Qaddafi’s personal network.

After the 2011 uprising, the anger created by these policies re-emerged. Those who had lost their property under Qaddafi wanted it back. Those who had lived in confiscated homes for decades felt they had rights too, but were afraid to speak out. Those who had remained in Libya resented the returned diaspora. Those who were expelled from their homes during the revolution felt abandoned. The question of property rights exposed many fault lines: class, tribe, regime-affiliation and revolutionary credentials, to name just a few.

In the power vacuum that followed, land was up for grabs. Individuals hired militias to try to reclaim their land, sometimes violently. Others forged claims. Despite a number of shiny conferences advertising Libya’s suitability for business, foreign companies were wary of investing in a country where property rights were so uncertain. Worse, there was no discussion of how people with competing claims and grievances could ever live together again. This lack of consensus continues to fuel conflict in Libya: most people still believe that power is a zero-sum game, where the winner takes everything, including property.

Libya’s long-term recovery will take more than a negotiated settlement among the current warring factions. It will take dialogue, transitional justice, and a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between the state, its citizens, and the land on which they live.

Anne Applebaum, Director of the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute, moderated the discussion with Mary Fitzgerald, co-author of the report Libya: Whose Land Is It?; Abdul Rahman al-Ageli, co-founder of the Libyan Youth Forum and former security adviser in the Libyan prime minister’s office; and Rhodri Williams, a rule of law expert with experience in transitional justice and property rights issues in fragile and post-conflict settings.

Report

  • Libya: Whose Land Is It? [PDF]
  • By Mary Fitzgerald and Tarek Megerisi
  • With contributions from Peter van der Auweraert and Rhodri C. Williams
  • April 2015
  • Published by the Legatum Institute

Podcast—Rhodri Williams and Anne Applebaum

About Libya: Whose Land Is It?

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 which have hampered the reconstruction of Libya since 2011.

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.

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 kinds of 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.

The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.