Why Libya's promise of success never materialized

Diplomats threw up their hands in despair after a meeting last week to discuss how to pull Libya out of its stalled transition. 

By , Correspondent

Libya should be a success story. Its small, mostly urban population sits on vast oil wealth, and it is free of the quixotic repression of former leader Muammar Qaddafi. So why does the country seem headed for breakdown?

Key oil facilities have been blockaded by militias that the central government is powerless to stop. Unemployment is high, especially for youth. Last week Ali Zeidan, the second post-revolution leader, also became the second to be removed by vote of no confidence.

Libya’s competing political forces, militias, sclerotic public services, and weak state institutions appeared to confound diplomats who met last week in Rome to try to resolve the faltering transition. The meeting produced hand-wringing, but no solutions.

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Yet Libyans are starting businesses, forming civil society groups, developing media, and pursuing education. While leaders stress the need for international assistance, Libya’s saving grace may turn out to be its citizens’ ability to soldier on.

“It’s about people,” says Mohamed Hammuda, an architecture and urban planning student who heads H20, a transparency advocacy group that monitors Libya’s interim parliament. “When they start to believe that they have to work, not simply rely on oil revenues, we can make change on the ground.”

Jaded voters

Libyans used to have hope in politics. In July 2012, Libyans voted for the first time in more than four decades to create the General National Congress (GNC), an interim parliament charged with overseeing the drafting of a constitution. Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli, where Qaddafi had harangued crowds and his gunmen opened fire on protesters, was a sea of smiling faces and Libyan flags.

But GNC members bickered for months over whether a constitutional drafting committee should be appointed or elected, and later over the electoral law. Increasingly, they have traded finger-pointing with the executive branch over problems ranging from insecurity to the slow pace of transition.

“When we see conflicts among the authorities, when we see money misspent – all that sounds an alarm,” says Lubna al Muntasser, a women’s rights activist in Tripoli who ran in constitutional drafting committee elections on Feb. 20.

By then, most Libyans were too jaded to bother voting. Yet many turned out to protest two weeks earlier, on Feb. 7, when the GNC extended its time in office past its mandate.

For Mohib Abuhol, a burly, good-natured former rebel fighter from the mountain town of Yefren, Feb. 7 was his cue to resign from the Libya Shield forces, local militias contracted by the defense ministry.

“I was a revolutionary fighter, then I voted to elect the congress, but today we see no new companies, no new hotels, and young men have nothing,” he says. “Why extend [the GNC] when it has done nothing good?”

Money can't fix it 

Progress takes time, argues Said Khattaly, a GNC member and chairman of its foreign affairs committee. Especially in Libya, where local militias outgun state security forces. Some have threatened lawmakers into passing legislation; others have seized eastern oil ports. State institutions inherited from Qaddafi’s regime are largely shells.

Leaders, however, have tended to respond to problems by throwing money at them. Efforts to buy militia obedience through structures such as Libya Shield have had mixed success; last November, grudge-fueled skirmishing in Tripoli among militiamen on the government payroll escalated, killing dozens of civilians.

In hopes of appeasing the public, leaders have poured most state spending into goods subsidies – gasoline in Tripoli is cheaper than bottled water, at $0.12 a liter – and what critics describe as a bloated public sector.

“The true problem is that Libya’s government fails to restructure the budget,” says a central bank official who asked not to be quoted because he was unauthorized to speak to media. “Salaries grow, subsidies grow, all at the expense of investment.”

Such spending impedes private sector growth that might give young men employment options other than militia work, the bank official says. It also leads to unnecessary bureaucracy at the expense of quality public services.

State hospitals epitomize that problem. While doctors are typically well-trained, administrative procedures are labyrinthine and hospitals under-equipped, says a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Azzedine Zwari, a young father of two who lives down a muddy alley in Tripoli’s old city, can vouch for that. About six months ago, a shotgun blast in an altercation with other men broke his upper left arm. State doctors in Tripoli patched him up and affixed a metal brace, but said he needed treatment unavailable in Libya. Last month he traveled to a private clinic in Sfax, Tunisia, for care.

“This is why I’m not voting,” he says defiantly, referring to the Feb. 20 elections.

According to Hedi Mezghani, the Tunisian doctor who treated Zwari, he still needs a bone graft. For now, Dr. Mezghani has removed his metal brace, cleaned his wounds, and fitted him with a padded neck-sling. Zwari is back in Tripoli, with bandages and antiseptic liquids that he keeps under his bed, wondering how he’ll pay for more treatment.

Self starters

Still, there are signs of Libyans moving forward and dragging their country with them: the new internet company offering satellite connections; the TV news reporter who worked his way up from hotel night clerk; Mr. Hammuda’s NGO, which has grown from three to 80 members, he says.

There is Majda Shtewi, an energetic obstetrician who is shifting her career to teaching graphic design. Three months ago she took a six-week course on small business development put on by the Libya office of Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), a Canadian NGO, with funding from US Agency for International Development and support from other Libyan NGOs. In June, she hopes to win prize money to launch her project: a small teaching workshop equipped with rows of tables and computers.

In her own computer she keeps her drawings. One of her favorites shows a man heaving himself up a suspended Libyan flag, like a rope, whose bottom corner is knotted to a white cloth. The cloth, says Ms. Shtewi, represents all the empty ideologies that Libyans, through revolution, can transcend. The image, in essence, is one of renewal.

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