In the paper, the authors take a step back from the current fighting and explore some of the deep-rooted reasons why the past four years have been so difficult. Looking at housing, land, and property issues, their paper tells a much bigger story: that of profound grievances, administrative chaos and economic imbalances which have hampered the reconstruction of Libya since 2011.

  • 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

This paper was launched at the Legatum Institute on Thursday, 16 April 2015 [Details]


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