Nouri Abusahmain, the new head of Libya’s General National Congress, raises the signature sheet for a law calling for elections for a constitutional assembly.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Libya stumbles as it strives for stability

Two years after Libyans ousted Muammar Qaddafi, law and order remain elusive, stymieing rebuilding efforts. 

Debris smoldered on the road and, for no reason that Ebtehaj Zariba could discern, stones hurtled from the evening gloom onto her family's car. Her hands flew to her ears, and as she leaned forward, she heard herself start to scream.

Ms. Zariba, a university student in Tripoli, Libya, was en route to a wedding in May when her family's car strayed into the aftermath of fighting between police and drug dealers in a Tripoli suburb. By then the police had withdrawn.

"I felt we would die, because there was no one to help us," she says. "I felt there was no security at all."

The overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 has offered Libyans the chance to build a vibrant democracy after four decades of arid dictatorship. The process has begun, but success requires a fully functioning state, and so far, there isn't one. Libyans are losing patience with the resulting instability. Authorities in Libya and elsewhere fear the country may become a hub for militants.

Elections have been held and an interim government is in place, but the new leaders lack experience and firepower. Militias of varying loyalties operate freely. While life usually goes ahead normally, trouble flares up enough to deter investors and delay political progress. A constitution is long overdue. And leaders have been slow to spend ample oil revenue on improving Libyans' lives.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said in late July that he would reshuffle his cabinet in response to a spate of violence in Benghazi, Libya's second city. In just one weekend, a noted activist was shot dead, violent demonstrations broke out, hundreds of prisoners escaped from a jail, and bombs exploded outside judiciary buildings.

"My only source of optimism is the absence of certain negatives. There's no single force that could consolidate power in an antidemocratic way," says Duncan Pickard, a Tripoli-based fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, a research institute in Washington. "There's been no progress on consolidating democracy; it's just been puttering along."

A 'bureaucracy we can do without' 

The revolt that toppled Mr. Qaddafi put Libya on a path toward democracy. Less than a year later, Libyans elected the General National Congress to serve as interim legislature and usher in a new constitution. But then the GNC ditched plans to appoint a drafting body in favor of having one elected, triggering months of arguments over an electoral law.

Last month the largest bloc in the GNC, the National Forces Alliance coalition, said the congress was wasting time and vowed to boycott all meetings save those related to the constitution. An electoral law for the drafting body has since been passed, but it will most likely be months before elections are held.

"They're responding to problems they created for themselves," says Mr. Pickard. "If they had stayed with Plan A, we'd have a constituent assembly already."

Many Libyans also note a lack of improvement in public services and infrastructure. The government has plenty of cash, thanks to vast oil reserves. But last year interim authorities spent only 39 percent of a 68.5 billion dinar ($54 billion) budget.

Former interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim al-Keib, whose term ended last November, said in January that his government had spent conservatively to guard against corruption and waste. But some business leaders say public administration is hamstrung by red tape that slows the disbursement of funds.

"There's a certain bureaucracy we can do without," says Mohamed Bala, Libya director for Alcatel-Lucent, a French telecommunications company. "The government and each ministry need to refine the procedures. I'm optimistic, but it will take time."

Meanwhile, militias that overthrew Qaddafi have morphed into what many Libyans see as little more than self-serving gangs. Some have accepted government oversight in return for pay, but even these still get into shootouts with rivals. Others menace the state itself.

Armed protesters have barged into the GNC to voice various demands, and in the spring, militiamen parked outside the Foreign and Justice Ministries to pressure the GNC into approving a controversial law that bars Qaddafi-era officials from politics.

In response, the GNC has become less transparent, says Mahmoud Bader, a young lawyer and cofounder of H2O, a fledgling nongovernmental organization that monitors the GNC. In an apparent effort to protect lawmakers who might be attacked for their views, the congress no longer publishes videos of meetings. Attendance and voting records are hard to pin down.

"The street doesn't know what the people they elected are doing," says Mr. Bader. "We're trying to fill that gap."

Stability and risk

Active civil society is part of Libya's new openness. So is the emergence of young journalists such as Salah Zater, a reporter for Al-Asima ("The Capitol") TV in Tripoli, who has made a habit of tackling taboo subjects such as begging and drug use.

Still, fear of retribution coupled with the absence of law and order keep him awake at night, Mr. Zater says. "Outside Libya, maybe I could work freely. Here, I could be killed."

Regardless of whether anyone might go after Zater, the danger of targeted attack is real. Gunmen have opened fire on politicians. US officials have said that mob violence that killed four American diplomats in Benghazi last year was planned. Libyans worry increasingly that such incidents will frighten the world into avoiding their country.

One April evening, Mr. Bala, of Alcatel-Lucent, attended a meeting with French diplomats and businessmen. The mood was optimistic. The next morning he stood outside the French embassy, inspecting damage from a car bomb.

It was the sort of attack that would prompt many foreign companies to leave. Bala says it illustrates why they should stay: to help create jobs for the young men who are typically behind violence.

"I'm not advising companies to take risks, but to evaluate realities," he says. "We don't need to stop development until there's security; they go together."

A new Libya?

For many Libyans, the basic question is how long they can keep despair at bay. Zariba's hopes for a stable Libya were shaken by that brush with violence her family endured en route to the wedding in May.

They were in a car on the way to a wedding at her great-uncle's house when they came upon the remnants of a police battle with local drug dealers: Stones, sticks, and metal bars littered the road.

"Let's go back. It looks like something's going on here," Zariba recalled calling out from the back seat.

"God willing, it's nothing," her father said, and drove on.

Within minutes they were trapped beneath an overpass as unseen assailants showered their car with stones, which thudded onto the roof and crashed through windows.

Later, at her great-uncle's house, she iced her leg where a stone had bruised it. The wedding took place as gunfire echoed in the background.

Zariba's hope is now tempered with resignation. "I feel I won't see Libya as it should be while I'm still young," she says. "But when I'm old, yes, and the next generation will grow up in it."

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