Basic People’s Committees

Also translated as People’s Popular Committees, these have been created at any point in Libyan society where the people interact socially or economically. This covers just about any economic activity (factories, banks, small workshops, national oil companies) or any political activity. Since there is no political party in Libya, the Basic People’s Committees also act as a conduit to and from the top leadership. No one can belong to a union or a professional organization without being a member of a Basic People’s Committee. (This resembles closely Boumedienne’s FLN tactic in Algeria after 1976.) By 1980, there were over 1500 committees throughout Libya, forming village councils as well as providing leadership for factories. The Basic People’s Committees chose their representatives to the People’s General Congress (PGC), a kind of parliament. This national congress in turn chooses a General Popular Committee — what in other countries would be called a council of ministers.

No analyst has ever figured out precisely how the system works. Even Libyans I interviewed were at a loss to explain. There is considerable confusion as to each level’s power and competence. Size of the committees is determined by size of the enterprise, and so is the number of representatives they can send to the People’s General Congress. But there are no fast rules here.

In theory, the members of the General Popular Committee can be questioned and sacked by the People’s General Congress members. In reality, the Revolutionary Command Council and a small circle of trusted technocrats pretty much run economic and political matters. The whole procedure is remarkably smooth. Qaddafi usually intervenes personally if there is a real issue to be resolved. It is resolved beforehand, even though the Libyan leadership usually makes a real effort to put their case before the PGC as part of their “legitimating” strategy.

In theory, the popular committees can decide on anything — even on military matters. The only real exception seems to have been foreign policy, where no discussion has been allowed. Debates on matters considered sensitive to national security — and that now covers a wide area — is off limits.

There is no information available on members’ origins. This is a touchy subject, since Cyrenaicans and Fazzanese have always felt like country bumpkins in the presence of Tripolitanians. Himself from Fazzan, Qaddafi has tried to make sure that the regions are equally distributed. In practice this doesn’t work very well, since Tripoli and Benghazi and the coastal strip hold most of the population.


There is very little evidence of countervailing forces to the People’s Popular Committees, mostly manifested as apathy where people are not members. There is no evidence so far of concerted opposition to the People’s Popular Committee system, nor of profound dissatisfaction.

From 1980 on, there have been regular rumors of assassination attempts. The real opposition started after 1975, when Muhayshi left the country. In my last count I came up with at least 18 opposition movements throughout the Arab world and in the West. The best known is the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) which publishes a newsletter in both the US and Great Britain. Until recently it was housed in Khartoum, headed by Yusef Mugharyef, once Libya’s state comptroller and ambassador to India. Other groups include: Islamic Opposition to Libya, The Libyan National Grouping, the Libyan National Democratic Movement, the Libyan Constitutional Union. The NSFL also supposedly has a military wing, the Salvation Forces.

The Libyan opposition has little impact. Its leaders, except for Muhayshi and Sulayman Maghribi, were never leaders of national stature. Most of the opposition groups disagree quite strongly among themselves, mostly reflecting the time period in which they left Libya.


There is extremely little evidence of financial corruption. This is perhaps the most striking fact considering Libya’s rapid development under Qaddafi. No evidence was ever uncovered of Swiss accounts, and no gossip in the business world about payoffs to certain Libyans to obtain contracts. The legal setup is quite strict and seems to be supervised closely. The absence of corruption may have something to do with the fact that few people ever leave the country for long periods, and at home they are subjected to a rather austere code of behavior.

“Moral” corruption also seems less than in most other Middle Eastern countries. There are no lurid tales about Libyan officials that can pass muster. The country has relatively so few people and so much money (until recently) that many of the traditional patterns of extended families could be preserved, even in the cities. You don’t find Libyans drooling around Cairo five star hotels; no wonder Libyans consider Saudis uncouth.

How to cite this article:

Dirk Vandewalle "Libyan Politics: A Primer," Middle East Report 143 (November/December 1986).

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