Libya: Whose Land is it?

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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.

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