After a few days in Tripoli, I knew just what I would say about it: Libya is doing much better than you think. As my plane took off twenty days later, I prepared to say something very different: things are much more dangerous than you think. In truth, both articles could be written, and both could be sensibly argued. But as always, the reality of Libya is far more messy than that.
I arrived in Tripoli in early April, having last been there in August 2012. From London, I saw Libya through the news reports I read - alarming news reports, especially after the Benghazi attacks on 9/11.
But my first impression was surprisingly positive. Checkpoints were now manned by people in sleek new uniforms, the trees in the city center were trimmed into perfect cubes, the cafes were bustling. I knew there were security incidents but it didn’t feel like the streets were “prowled” by anything, to use the imagery found in so many articles about Libya.
I stopped in Sirte—the former Gadhafi bastion—on my way to Benghazi, expecting a city in ruins. Yes, large buildings were still rubble, but the streets were relatively clean (trash collection is a major issue in the country), the trees again well-trimmed, and private houses mostly patched-up. I ate a delicious shawarma sandwich in front of a billboard which showed two men hugging, a Kalashnikov in between them. The caption said: “Let’s rebuild our city and forget the past.” What to do with the past is very much on everybody’s mind these days: the General National Congress (GNC) just passed a sweeping Political Isolation Law banning thousands of people who served under Gadhafi from public office.
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(Billboard that reads “Let’s rebuild our city
and forget the past” in Sirte)
(Benghazi. Candles were set afloat on this lake for the Benghazi 2013 Capital of Culture Carnival)
Crossing into Cyrenaica, eastern Libya, little black flags with only a crescent and star, the “federalist flag”, popped up alongside the Libyan national flag. “What to do with the past” also means coping with the legacy of Gadhafi’s excessive centralization.
The people I met in Benghazi were eager to tell me that their city was neither Kabul nor Baghdad. Most foreigners had packed up and left Benghazi after the attack on the US consulate on September 11, and many felt abandoned. After all, that attack had been followed by a massive “Save Benghazi” march. Some 30,000 demonstrators had called for the disarmament of armed groups and denounced terrorism in their city. But the harm was done, and no amount of convincing—not the sparkling new stores and restaurants, not even celebrations of Benghazi as the Libyan Capital of Culture for 2013—seems likely to bring the foreigners back. For a city that prides itself on being “the spark of the revolution”, this is a major blow.
Back in Tripoli I was invited to speak about the Legatum Institute’s www.libyamediawiki.com project to a training session for a group of bloggers writing on the www.Libyablog.org platform. The blogging project is coordinated by The France24 Observers and RFI Media Workshop, with the support of the European Union. This is a creative, effective, low-cost programme bringing together Libyans from all over the country and giving them the tools to use their newly-acquired freedom to express themselves – one of those rare gems in the post-conflict NGO scene. The bloggers were curious and enthusiastic about the Legatum Institute media wiki and promised to help me develop it.
My second week was off to a good start. There was a film screening at the French Institute planned for Tuesday, and the first international film festival on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. My blog post upon my return would write itself.
Then, on Tuesday 23 April, at 7:10am, a car bomb exploded in front of the French Embassy. The blast destroyed most of the building, wounded a Libyan girl and two French guards, and severely damaged the buildings in the area. This was the first attack of this kind in Tripoli. No one took responsibility. It may have been a direct attack against the French in response to their intervention in Mali, or it may have been an attempt to destabilize the Libyan government by pushing out one of their most feted allies, the country that had supported the revolution from the start. Either way, the illusion of normality was shattered: The French Institute film screening was cancelled.
Yet the next day normality returned: French citizens went straight back to work, as if nothing had happened. The Libya Movie Awards—funded by the EU and organized by 1Libya, a local NGO, and the Italian Cultural Institute—opened with fanfare. The amphitheater was packed with young Libyans. There was music and dancing in the aisles and chocolate-covered dates. The films included a Moroccan documentary “When Marriage Becomes a Punishment”, about a 16 year-old Moroccan girl who commits suicide after being forced to marry her rapist.
The next day the amphitheater had to be evacuated due to a bomb threat, and the movie awards postponed to a later date.
I left Tripoli shortly after, my taxi driver struggling through the traffic made worse by armed groups surrounding the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and blocking the roads with trucks mounted with antiaircraft weapons. In the week after my departure, armed groups would proceed to laying siege to other government buildings, including the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Justice and State TV. Demonstrations were also held outside the GNC. These groups were pushing the GNC to rapidly pass the Political Isolation Law (see full text here), a sweeping text that bans anybody who ever held a high level position in the Gadhafi regime, starting from 1969, from holding high level public office for the next decade, irrespective of their involvement in the opposition and their contribution to the revolution. The GNC’s Chairman, Muhammad al-Magarief, who defected in the 1980s, may be forced to resign, for example, because he once served as Libya’s ambassador to India. His years as a leader of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya do not count in his favor.
Demonstrators came out to oppose the blockade too, but with little effect. The political isolation law was passed on 5 May and is due to enter into force on 5 June. Thanks to this legislation, thousands of people could be forced to resign, potentially destabilizing Libya’s transition. And once again, the government caved to the demands of armed groups: it passed the law while its government buildings were under siege. Most people support an isolation law of some kind, though perhaps not one which is quite so sweeping. But most people do not want laws to be passed by a government frightened of men with guns.
It’s easy to lose sight of the remarkable progress that Libya made since 2011 and easy to forget that we are just two years into post-Gadhafi Libya. Civil society is building itself. There are hundreds of radio stations and newspapers and dozens of TV channels. Journalists are reporting on controversial issues, despite intimidation attempts. Libya is not going through a textbook transition from dictatorship towards democracy, but rather trying to accomplish something much more difficult: a transition from a country with no institutions into a democracy, after a bloody civil war.
It’s also easy to forget about the dangers of the year ahead, and especially the long-delayed and potentially explosive constitutional process. The current government is still easily pressured by armed groups, incapable until now of spending its oil revenue on reconstruction projects, unable to control the violent jihadist groups which drive their convoys in and out of Libya’s southern borders, and quickly losing the trust of the public.
The question now is whether the new sources of stability, the emerging civic groups and organizations, are strong enough to combat the new sources of chaos, the well-organised armed groups. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan puts it like this: “When you compare the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, we are in a much better situation”. Yes, of course, but that’s a very low bar. Libya could be doing so much better - but it could also get much worse.
Chloe de Preneuf is a Programme Coordinator for the Legatum Institute’s Transitions Forum programme.
(Top Photo: Armed groups blocking the road to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tripoli)