After Qaddafi's 'socialism,' Libya tries to untangle who owns what

'No one has the right to build a house, in addition to his own and that of his heirs,' Qaddafi once proclaimed. Now, those who had land confiscated are pressing their claims.

The late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi reads from the 'Green Book' in this file photo, which among other things authorized a wholesale redistribution of land.

Brandishing a yellowing piece of paper dating back to the period when Libya was an Italian colony, Haitham Mokhtar Horria nervously proclaims his family’s claim to 2.7 acres of the capital’s best real estate – across the street from the office of Libya’s prime minister.  

But Mr. Horria has never lived here. One day, nearly 30 years ago, men from the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi's clan turned up to claim it from his father – commandeering the property because of its prime location.

“In 1987, men with guns came to threaten my father,” Horria says. “They told him that from [then] on, the land belonged to them. Several friends of Qaddafi built their villas there [after that].”

Now, with Qaddafi gone, Horria has returned to reclaim his father’s land – along with the seven homes that have since been built on that soil. “We won our freedom in the revolution,” Horria says. “But now we want to be able to go home.”

Until the revolution, Horria’s family had no way of rectifying what they call an injustice of history. In 1978, Qaddafi authorized Law #4, which targeted the rich.

“No one has the right to build a house, in addition to his own and that of his heirs,” wrote Qaddafi in his Green Book, the Bible of his Libyan socialism. 

The law, which also applies to land and cars, allowed those who did not themselves own property to seize land, real estate, or vehicles – by force if necessary – and provided that the property’s owner held more than one piece of real estate, that seizure was legal. Afterward, that land belonged to those who had seized it, not the state. But in practice, the supposedly socialist law often served the interests of Qaddafi and his clan, says an association representing property owners.

The tangle of claims now falls to the Libyan government, which estimates it will take at least two years to even begin to clarify who owns what in Libya. This has created a chaotic situation that is scaring away the investors which Libya so badly needs after its civil war.

“This [situation] is putting a brake on investment,” says Yannil Belbachir, a member of a Franco-Libyan legal practice in Tripoli. “When a foreign company wants to set up operations, it has to make enquiries to find out if someone will demand that land back later on.”

Large numbers lost out

Around 80,000 families lost out under that law, according to Chaker Mohamed Dakhil, president of the Association of Owners Affected by the Rule of a Tyrant, which has around 7,000 members. “There’s pretty raw anger among some of … our members. But we won’t use violence to obtain justice like before [under Qaddafi] – we just want the law to be enforced.”

The association is calling for the government to revoke the legislation and give property owners back their real estate.

Around 30 members of the association turn up per day with documents proving their ownership of particular property, many of them traumatized by their losses, says Ben Bashir, who is tasked with compiling those files at the organization.

One of those distraught property owners is Abdullah Ahmed Shagli. His father’s three stores in Gurji, a district of Tripoli, were seized in 1987.

“It’s tough knowing that someone else is running my father’s business,” he says at a meeting with Bashir. “He worked himself to death to pass on the fruits of his labor to his children.”

In memory of his father, Abdullah is now demanding those stores back – and compensation from the government so he can buy himself a truck to replace the one stolen from his father.

A complex tangle

Yet, lawyers point out, post-Qaddafi Libya suffers from a legal vacuum. Few laws have been passed here since Qaddafi’s death and Qaddafi’s Law #4 is still officially in force, so those who seized property still legally own that land. At the same time, it is now illegal to seize property by force even as the tenants and owners of those properties still have the right to live in them.

This leaves the status of Qaddafi-era property unclear. Moreover, some properties were also sold on after their initial acquisition in pre-revolution days, which means that some houses in Libya have multiple owners.   

“We have to gather a lot of information to determine who is the owner of a piece of land or a house,” says Mohamed Younes Bechir, president of the parliamentary housing and planning commission. “That will be the job of the next assembly.”

But, as the Libyan housing authority admits, the government may not be able to put off deciding who owns property here for another two years. The property market in post-revolutionary Tripoli is in high demand.

Poor beneficiaries worried

And that only increases the difficulties suffered by poor families who benefited from Qaddafi’s law and now live in confiscated houses. Dakhil’s homeowner’s association wants them out of their home within three years. And in the interim, he is demanding the state pay rent to the property’s true owners. 

But not all of the owners are prepared to wait for the government to change the laws. Some, say authorities, are preparing to take justice into their own hands.

“We have to move quickly,” says Hatem Benfayed, the head of the Libyan housing authority. “Property owning families are starting to take up arms to make [current] inhabitants clear off.”

Aziza Kasah is just one of many who had her home seized by its pre-revolutionary owner. Last April, a man came to expel the single mother of five from her dwelling.

“He turned up with papers showing that the house belonged to him,” says Ms. Kasah. “But I had bought it for 12,000 dinars [$9,231] from someone else.”

Kasah, whose leg is amputated at the knee due to diabetes, now lives in old barracks amid the ruins of Qaddafi’s former military headquarters in southern Tripoli.

Still, some property owners say they can wait until the right to property is enshrined in Libya’s new constitution. Horria is a member of a powerful militia and could take back his father’s land if he wanted. But he prefers to wait – and take his German car for a spin around his father’s land.

“Thanks to the superb villas that Qaddafi’s clan had built [here], Horria is possibly a millionaire,” says Owis Zahaf, one of Horria’s potential neighbors.

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