The cherry blossoms were in full bloom on the beautiful spring day in Tokyo in 2010, and I was working as a diplomat in the U.S. Embassy. I had just accepted my follow-on posting to Libya and had decided to make a call on Libya’s cultural attaché to begin to learn more about my next host country. Friends and colleagues had cautioned me about the assignment to a country that, notwithstanding a recent rapprochement with the U.S., had entered its fifth decade of dictatorial rule under Moammar Gadhafi. I would not be able to accomplish much, they said, and Libyans would be afraid to work with me.
I was ushered into the office of the cultural attaché, an intense young man who sat at a desk flanked by Gadhafi’s portrait and the green flag of Libya. He immediately unleashed a flood of grievances about U.S. policies in the Middle East and around the world. Only after listening to this was I able to broach the possibility for cooperation in areas such as student exchanges between the U.S. and Libya. At the conclusion of the meeting, he gave me an English version of Gadhafi’s “Green Book,” a rambling revolutionary manifesto and blueprint for Libya’s unique system of government that called for popular sovereignty (Jamahiriya), of which there was of course almost none in Libya at the time. I subsequently learned that the attaché had inherited the job from his father. The family was part of a fervently pro-Gadhafi tribe.
Almost a year later, at the beginning of 2011, I was immersed in studying Arabic to prepare for my posting to Tripoli when, seemingly overnight, everything changed. The Libyan revolution began in February 2011 against a backdrop of popular uprisings in the region. In eastern Libya, Benghazinos took to the streets in opposition to the arrest of a human rights lawyer. Soon violence flared, Gadhafi lost control of Benghazi to the rebels, and a chain of events began that would end both his rule and his life.
I arrived in an entirely different Libya in 2012 than the one I had initially signed up for. It was an extraordinary place and time to be an American diplomat. There was widespread euphoria among Libyans as they prepared to vote in the first free elections held since the 1960s and a healthy reservoir of goodwill toward the U.S. On one of my first days in the country, I attended a rally-like event at the horse-racing track in Tripoli. A Libyan man waving the new tricolor revolutionary flag approached. “Do you remember me?” he asked, “we met at the Libyan embassy in Tokyo two years ago?” Then I recognized the former cultural attaché.
“Yes, so you are back in Tripoli now?”
“Yes, I am working at the foreign ministry.”
He was the first of many Libyans I would meet who successfully made the transition from working for the Gadhafi regime to working in the civil service of post-Gadhafi Libya. Some had joined the revolution early on, but many others never did. Of course, there were those from Gadhafi’s inner circle, or tribal groups who had fought on his behalf, who did not dare stick around in Libya after the strongman’s demise. Revolutionary street justice was meted out to those who did, sometimes employing tactics that came straight from the toolbox of the former regime’s thugs.
I met businesspeople who had accumulated enormous wealth thanks to their inroads with the ancien régime and continued to make money in the new system, striking deals with militias and Islamists alike. Then there were those Libyans such as Mahmoud Jibril who had held senior technocratic positions under Gadhafi and then served in the transitional government. There was a sharp irony to the position in which they found themselves after the old regime’s collapse: In the eyes of members of Gadhafi’s former hard-line inner circle, they were seen as dangerous revisionists, yet in 2012, the well-armed thuwwar (revolutionaries) who roamed Libya’s streets viewed them as irredeemable Gadhafist holdovers, or tahloub (literally, “algae,” a derogatory term for Gadhafi supporters). Thus, they were simultaneously despised by the young revolutionaries and by Gadhafi’s old-guard comrades.
But they were also indispensable to the new order. The Gadhafi-era technocrats and businesspeople, in particular, were the ones with the know-how, networks, and language skills that were desperately needed to rebuild the new Libya. They were the ones who had spearheaded some of the political openings that allowed opposition groups to take shape in the first place. And thus, even in the revolutionary fervor of the immediate post-Gadhafi period — and among efforts to remove anyone associated with the former regime from public life — the holdovers survived, and even thrived. They were, above all, political opportunists, men (I can think of no women among them) who believed in no particular ideology and yet could embrace any. Their greatest asset was their ability to move seamlessly between two or more worlds, from Gadhafi’s Jamahiriya ideology to Western democracy and capitalism, and be at ease in all of these worlds and speak all of their languages.
In March 2021, a United Nations-brokered interim unity government was sworn in after seven years of conflict and division. The new prime minister of the so-called Government of National Unity, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, a wealthy construction tycoon from the “revolutionary” city of Misuratah, is a poster child of such political opportunism. He and his entire family are wealthy economic elites who have successfully played all political allegiances and managed to survive and prosper through a period of extraordinary change. They prospered under Gadhafi, flipped to support the revolutionaries in 2011, and then skillfully navigated the vagaries of post-Gadhafi Libyan politics.
Dbeibah was born in 1959 in Misuratah. He moved to Canada early in his career to pursue a graduate degree in engineering at the University of Toronto, before he moved back to Libya in the midst of a political opening and a construction boom. His expertise soon earned him the trust of Gadhafi himself, who in 2007 appointed Dbeibah the head of the state-owned Libyan Investment and Development Company, making him responsible for some of the country’s biggest public works projects.
This brand of political opportunism is not always a bad thing. Indeed, it can be of great benefit to successful transitions and peace processes in divided societies. In Dbeibah’s case, it has made it easier for him to bridge the East-West divide. His association with the former regime also gives him potential inroads with pro-Gadhafi groups, tribes, and individuals. He has skillfully composed a government of ministers from across the country and political spectrum.
Opportunists have little incentive to dismantle old structures and networks.
But political opportunism also has costs. Opportunists have little incentive to dismantle old structures and networks from which they benefit politically and economically. Former communists in Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union masterfully used their connections and access to plunder state resources and become successful capitalists. Witness the Russian oligarchs.
In the worst cases, political opportunists can become dangerous demagogues. I saw this firsthand in the Balkans, where I also served as a diplomat. Former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, who died during his war crimes trial in The Hague, was once a firm believer in Titoist Yugoslav communism, a loyal member of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, and an opponent of nationalism. After the collapse of Yugoslavia and communism, he became a nationalist strongman blamed for fomenting ethnic animosities and a series of tragic wars.
Political opportunists can thrive on the penchant of people to long for the old authoritarian system and forget its dark sides. Many Libyans — although they are reluctant to admit it publicly — increasingly look back at the stability and relative prosperity of the later Gadhafi years with some nostalgia, even if they fervently supported the 2011 revolution. East Europeans also began expressing nostalgia for communism not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as they faced immense economic hardship and uncertainty associated with newly instituted capitalism. Former communist political opportunists successfully harnessed the anxiety and soon came back to power as “social democrats.” In the Libyan case, the post-Gadhafi period has been rife with not only economic hardship but also war, displacement, corruption, and endless insecurity. The fact that there has not been a massive public outcry about the close association of some members of his cabinet with the Gadhafi regime is a sign of how far public opinion has shifted on the matter. The political opportunists have triumphed.