A Balanced View of Libya

I’m optimistic about Libya’s future. But it’s always wise to take a step back and reconsider those factors that hold a country back.

The Washington Post published a glowing editorial yesterday about Libya.  The authors admit the country is “awash in militias and weapons” but emphasize the oil sector’s recovery, local elections in major cities, and preparations for this summer’s elections. Those elections, which were originally scheduled for this month, are now delayed, the Washington Post claims. According to the editorial, the delay is due to technical reasons. It is not a result of increased militia activity or ethnic strife–even though recent headlines have been full of both. (I couldn’t find any official statement on the elections. Can someone help me out?)

“[S]enior officials are now saying they won’t complete the process of vetting candidates and printing ballots by then [i.e. the originally scheduled election day–June 19]. Mustafa Abushagur, a deputy prime minister visiting Washington this week, said the vote would be delayed by at least a few days but added that it would be held before the beginning of the Ramadan holiday in late July.” The Post‘s editors referred to this delay as the “greatest danger” facing Libya, because the country desperately needs a government with a mandate (see again my April post on the NTC’s lack of “political will”).

I’ve got two articles on Libya to share. Both are by Nicolas Pelham, who dissects overlapping conflicts in the south that threaten Libya’s integrity, any future government’s authority, and African stability more generally. The first article (see “Is Libya Cracking Up?“) captures just how hard it will be to centralize authority in the coming years. Pelham writes:

While separately none of the communal battles alone poses an immediate threat to Libya’s unity, the border skirmishes risk stirring broader upheavals that could pick apart Libya and its neighbors. Riqdaleen sees itself as a potential bridgehead for tens of thousands of Qaddafi supporters who have sought refuge in Tunisia and may return. Kufra’s feuding parties are attracting supporters from opposite ends of the Sahara, from the Mediterranean to the northern scrub land of Chad. Arab militiamen in Benghazi see a cause and an opportunity to fly the Prophet Muhammad’s black flag of jihad; the Toubou in Chad are anxious to repel an Arab attack on their fellow tribesmen. As the contents of Qaddafi’s armories spread across the region, gun markets are sprouting across middle-class Tunisia and fueling the low-level insurgency that Sinai’s Bedouin are waging against their Egyptian overseers. Equipped with their extensive bullion, Qaddafi’s surviving children—his son Saadi in Niamey, Niger, and daughter Aisha, in Algiers—stir up their old followers. Libya’s turmoil is acquiring continental significance.

On Benghazi’s condition:

Nowhere are the militias stronger than in Benghazi, the eastern city where Libya’s “rebelution” began. After a year of paralysis, the goodwill that still keeps the wheels of central authority turning in Tripoli has evaporated here. The courthouse, beneath which tens of thousands gathered to hail the new rulers in the first days of the uprising, is boarded up. Its leaders have long since left for the plusher world of Tripoli, lured by free accommodation in the marble decadence of the city’s Rixos Hotel. Left behind, Benghazi languishes, as before the revolution, in a perpetual ghayla—the siesta that Libyans take between the midday and late afternoon prayers. The dirt and dust of abandonment coat the city along with smoke from a thousand burning refuse piles. “At least there was a system before,” I was told by a middle-aged soccer fan, whose al-Ahli team shut down after its chairman fled to Egypt with the company’s proceeds. “Now there is nothing.”

And the resentment it breeds:

With the collapse of central authority, militias rule in and around Benghazi. The day I arrived there hundreds of militia members had converged on the city for a congress aimed at unifying their ranks and reclaiming what they see as their rightful inheritance from the NTC and whatever elected authority might follow. “Benghazi paid the price, and Tripoli takes the profits,” declared the organizer, as he spoke from the podium after the militiamen had feasted beneath a golden canopy, regaling each other with past exploits.

The second article, titled “Libya’s Restive Revolutionaries” covers similar territory. In this article, however, Pelham explores the gap between Libya’s politicians and the revolutionaries who made their ascent possible. Pelham, like the Washington Post‘s editors, argues that a new constitution and national elections are essential. “As critical to filling the security, economic and judicial vacuum is the realization of the constitutional agenda,” he writes. “If central authority is to take root and Libya transit from revolution to reconstruction, it will need a government with sufficient legitimacy to withstand the centrifugal forces of the militias. An elected government will enjoy a popular mandate to overhaul Qaddafi’s inheritance that the NTC has largely shunned for over a year.”

Time will tell if the revolutionaries are capable of making the transition from the streets to the halls of power. But they may also be satisfied–or pacified–another way. A constitution is a good start. But we should remember that even a great document cannot change the hearts of men. Libya’s democratic project must be matched with an equally ambitious public spending effort. The goal should be to share Libya’s wealth, improve services everywhere, and incentivize social stability so that no province or group wishes to upset the post-revolutionary order and forfeit its share. Elections are needed just as much as the constitution. I’ve argued that before on this blog. But the speed at which Libya’s new rulers build a welfare state may prove just as important.

Pelham’s articles throw some cold water on Libya’s immediate future. But he ends the second article with a dash of optimism. “For all the hand wringing and post-civil war bloodletting,” he writes, “Libya might just pull through.”

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