How ready are Libya's new leaders?

Libya's new leaders responded well to the water crisis earlier this month, making sure citizens had water even as pro-Qaddafi forces turned off access to drinking water supplies. But trouble may yet loom.

Anis Mili/Reuters
Fighters loyal to Libya's transitional leaders celebrate on a tank they said they captured from pro-Muammar Qaddafi forces, about 1.8 miles from the center of the toppled leader's hometown of Sirte on Tuesday, Sept. 20.

As temperatures soared above 105 degrees F. and rebels took control of the Libyan capital in August, the failing dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi had one last weapon: thirst.

Deep in the desert, pro-Qaddafi loyalists shut off the wells and pumps that provided one-third of Libya’s parched population with water from desert aquifers, part of the vast underground “Great Man-Made River Project” that Colonel Qaddafi dubbed the eighth wonder of the world.

Suddenly, Libya’s long-expected post-revolution humanitarian emergency turned critical, with a desperate deadline. The United Nations raced to provide 11 million bottles of water to Tripoli by road, sea, and air. But much more needed to be done.

How Libyans coped with the crisis, alongside the interim leaders of the National Transitional Council (NTC), is one illustration of how Libya may deal with the challenges of turning revolution into credible rule in the coming months. Still, there are signs of factionalism, uncertain planning, and even questionable relationships among some of Libya's new leaders that have prompted criticism and may hinder progress.

“We had a nightmare scenario ... people dying of dehydration,” recalls Panos Moumtzis, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya. UNICEF set up an emergency hub in Tunisia to deal solely with the water crisis. “What is interesting is to see the coping mechanism of the Libyan people. They went back to old wells in their neighborhoods; there was an incredible feeling of solidarity.”

Libyans say they hope that feeling grows, after Libya’s historical flag – the green, black, and red banner that has come to symbolize the revolution – was raised at the UN on Tuesday for the first time in 42 years.

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'Our needs are many'

NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, speaking at a high-level meeting at the UN on Libya, warned: “The road before us is still long, and there are many challenges at many levels, in the short and long term, either because of the presence of Qaddafi, or because of challenges related to launching the developmental process to rebuild and reconstruct the state. Our needs are many…”

But Mr. Jalil added that early signs were good: “Stability and security have spread in a manner that proved the Libyan people bore their full responsibility,” he said.

President Barack Obama also addressed the meeting, praising Libyans for emerging from the “darkness” to walk the streets free of a tyrant. He called for “a democratic transition that is peaceful, inclusive, and just.”

“None of this will be easy. After decades of iron rule by one man, it will take time to build the institutions needed for a democratic Libya,” said Mr. Obama. “But if we’ve learned anything these many months, it is this: Don’t underestimate the aspirations and the will of the Libyan people.”

Dispatching teams to help the thirsty

In Tripoli, the water crisis after the Aug. 21 fall of the capital is a case in point. Some Libyan bottling factories distributed for free; farmers carried tankards of water into the city from their farms. Brainstorming with Libyans, the UN decided to ask the 685 mosques to send one truck each, to collect and then deliver 12 bottles to every family in their area.

The NTC suggested supplying water first to pro-Qaddafi neighborhoods and the poor, says Mr. Moumtzis. The charity Medecins Sans Frontieres delivered water to prisons and African migrants under threat, who had collected in camps; the NTC insisted that Libyans join them, to ensure a Libyan face on deliveries.

“Was it perfect? No. Some people behaved in an undignified way; others were very disciplined,” says Moumtzis. The UN also worked to negotiate with Tunisian suppliers, to facilitate a deal for delivery of $1 million worth of raw plastic, to make bottles, for two Tripoli companies that normally meet 60 percent of local bottled water needs.

In the meantime, the NTC quietly dispatched teams to the southern desert, to negotiate with tribal leaders to get working again the four water collection centers – which harness the flow from 580 wells – that are critical to Tripoli.

“There is an incredible will and drive to find solutions to fix it, that goes beyond being paid, and comes from deep in the heart,” says Moumtzis. A handful of nongovernment organizations created and funded by Libyans living abroad worked for months alongside the UN, and with the NTC Stabilization Team on forward planning.

“They kept telling us they do not want to make the same mistakes of Iraq, the de-Baathification and everything else,” adds Moumtzis. “Where there is still a gap is linking this goodwill of the team with technicians or ministries and specialists.”

Other problems loom

But that's not all: Already divisions have emerged between Libya’s new civilian and military leaders; between eastern tribes who seized the east of the country – and weighted the tools of interim government in their favor – and those of the west and Tripoli who joined the fight later.

“Every Libyan had his own war with the regime…. Everybody was the NTC,” says Tripoli businessman Husni Bey Husni, who was banned from travel during the six-month conflict. Pro-Qaddafi security forces sought Mr. Husni twice at his house, thrice at his office, and finally broke into a company warehouse. In decades past, he says, he was jailed seven times.

Husni and his close associates worked clandestinely, while still in Tripoli, to undermine the regime’s fight – by helping sporadic supplies to reach Misurata port when the city was besieged, for example – and to plan for the post-Qaddafi future using a two-way satellite communication system.

Despite the planning efforts that they took part in, say Husni and an associate, big problems and infighting remain.

“They have difficulty managing,” says Husni about the NTC. “They don’t have time to micro-manage, and don’t have the team to macro-manage. And they are afraid of the power vacuum now. I don’t think there was any planning, in the sense that plans kept to a small circle are not plans.”

In recent months, before and after the fall of Tripoli, Husni and his associates have also been engaged in establishing systems and procedures to account for and spend money coming to Libya’s new rulers, as well working out finance options. But interim officials, including the Stabilization Team run by Aref al-Nayed have gone hot and cold on such mechanisms.

“There is a real problem with management and planning,” says a European diplomatic source who has dealt with NTC organization efforts. Key positions, he notes, have sometimes been filled by relatives at the expense of experts – one of the several complaints heard publicly from opponents in Tripoli of Mr. Jibril.

Falling into old traps?

“This is a shame; this is not what we want … but we are just falling into the old trap of nepotism and tribalism,” says Husni. “It can be fixed. As Libyans paid this very high price in blood, nobody can cheat the Libyans any longer. Nobody will be allowed to rob it. The revolution was by all the Libyans, and the Libyans will not shut up.”

Making the water flow in Tripoli again – the ultimate result of NTC-orchestrated negotiations with tribal leaders in the desert – ended the water crisis in the capital. But the creative work and goodwill gestures exhibited by Libyans, and the NTC, to fill the emergency gap, must still be more broadly applied.

“There’s been a very impressive organization; they have mobilized the best of their people, those who are experts in their field,” says Moumtzis of the UN. “Anything we do at the UN is 80 percent planning for success, and that is what they have done. The real challenge now is to pull it all together in a political way, for reconciliation and national buy-in … still the verdict is out – they must convince Libyan hearts and minds.”

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Aref al-Nayef is the cousin of Mahmoud Jibril. The two Libyan interim officials are not related.]

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