As I mentioned in my previous post here’s my colleague Malek’s blog on his recent experiences in Tripoli. All the best, Mark.
Seven months since the ousting of the regime from Tripoli, five since the death of Gaddafi, Libya is now less than three months away from its first attempt at democratic elections in half a century. Economically, oil production is nudging towards pre-war levels, goods are reaching pre-war abundance and businesses are resuming their activities. On the political front, the transitional government is attempting to fulfil its task of ‘keeping the ball rolling’, keeping vital services running until a more permanent system is formed after the June elections. In terms of security, the number of visible armoured vehicles, militia men, checkpoints and weapons is decreasing at an encouraging rate. Internationally, issues of spill over of conflict into countries like Mali are overshadowed by Prime Minister El Keib’s visits to the White House and other new allied countries. Socially, several positive demonstrations for national unity and celebrations of freedom are still often seen.
These are only some of the relatively positive signs I saw on my recent trip to Tripoli in March 2012. When I visited in November 2011, the war had just officially finished, but it was still current. The sound of Kalashnikovs and anti-aircraft guns lulled me to sleep every single night in November. This time I only heard these skirmishes on three nights during my two-week stay. Positive signs, but why is a considerable part of the local population unhappy?
Frustrated protesters are a common sight in the new Libya. Issues include unpaid salaries, mishandled state funds meant to pay for the wounded in hospitals in Jordan, Turkey and other European countries, garbage disposal problems and the slow pace of reforms. Arbitrary detentions by militiamen are still a pressing issue, with suspected people suffering from beatings, weeks of imprisonment and at times death. The killing of former acting ambassador to France Omar Brebesh in February is an example of a precarious security situation. Amnesty International, Medecins Sans Frontieres and other international institutions have expressed serious concerns on human rights violations in Libya.
Some are of the opinion that protests are a sign of democratic progress, and that vigilante-like militiamen ensure that politicians are aware that unlike the Gaddafi era, they will be held accountable for their actions. A more constructive view is that this role should be played by the media and, more importantly, the judiciary system.
While the latter seems to have a long way to go to regain influence, the media sector has expanded significantly since the end of the Gaddafi era. The biased, boring and state controlled handful of publications and TV channels have now been replaced by a multitude of mostly privately funded satellite channels, newspapers, magazines, radio stations and websites. The level of professionalism in these services has a lot of improvement to make. Some channels’ attempts to promote and pursue specific agendas need to be made more subtle, if credibility is to be earned. Having said that, these media have hosted and interviewed ministers and other powerful figures, criticised and questioned in ways which had never been seen in Libya before. One prominent journalist called for the resignation of the health minister over a power outage in a hospital in Sirte which led to the loss of four lives.
Libya is very much a work in progress. A major challenge for the Libyan people is to get the hot headed, revenge seeking and, most worryingly, armed pockets to work with the unarmed, dynamic and forward-looking members of the public. Much like a corporation, there is a need for experienced managers to lead, technocrats to design and workers to implement. Currently, the technocrats are in the leading positions, the managers are not in the necessary roles (either in fear of linkages with the previous regime or for not being appointed by the NTC and the PM), and the workers are unwilling, unqualified or mismanaged.
Over 50,000 lives were lost in Libya (although local estimates almost double this figure) as well as billions of dollars of income to the economy. Proper leadership is needed to unite and prioritise. There have been calls for a federal system to be implemented, with a very small proportion of the eastern population declaring an autonomous region, only to meet very strong rejection by the government and the majority of the population. There must be dialogue with the proponents of this system, but this political debate, with its divisive repercussions, is hardly a priority in a country faced with more vital issues. Mahmoud Jibril, the former Prime Minister of the NTC warned of state border conflicts, mostly over oil sites, and the interdependence of the different regions of Libya which would suffer from federalism. The federal system of three provinces was abolished in Libya in the 1963 constitution, before Gaddafi’s coup (1969).
The list of challenges for a country that needs to start, at least politically, from scratch is extensive. Banknotes with Gaddafi’s picture on them need to be gradually replaced, hard currency supply has to be restored, foreign healthcare specialists need to return, development projects must resume, people need to be informed of progress made and taught about democratic civil society institutions. These are only some current concerns in Libya. Most importantly, morale needs to be kept high.
The expatriates I met have a very positive outlook for the long term. While agreeing that their governments and companies need to continue helping with the reconstruction and formation of the new Libya, they also stress the importance of letting the Libyans have the final say and do the work themselves. I noticed a larger number of foreigners travelling to Libya this time than in November, but this is yet to reach pre-war numbers, understandably. I saw many foreigners in the business district of Tripoli. At the airport, some had Libyan guides; others (returning expats) knew Libya well enough not to need it. Hardly any drove their cars like they used to in 2010, in fact I didn’t come across any who did not have a driver. Security and schooling are the major concerns they mentioned. Very few international schools have reopened and those that have are not seeing many expatriate children returning yet. News of two British journalists imprisoned (then released), and Christian graves being desecrated in Benghazi also worried them. But they were united in saying that if the June elections go smoothly, Libya will become a great place for expats to work.
While this time it was the number of returning expatriates that caught my attention at the airports, in November it had been the number of wounded rebels returning home from treatment abroad. While waiting for my connecting flight from Rome to Tripoli, I talked to three young Libyans flying home from Greece. They had all been injured on the Bani Waleed front. One of them required brain surgery, and the others suffered injuries in the back and legs. They were quite representative of the type of rebels I saw on TV: a student, a shopkeeper and an unemployed young man. In our few minutes chat, they described the exact moment the rocket exploded and the shell fragments hit them. They talked about their frantic rush to makeshift ambulances and the journey to Tunisia, where the head injury could not be treated. They were thankful to the government, but occasionally complained about finances and mismanagement when abroad.
There were no injured rebels on my flight this time. People, Libyans and foreigners, talked less about the revolution, and more about business. The airport in Tripoli functioned well, though I noticed that the sabotaged computer systems were not yet fully fixed. The airport remains guarded by a militia group, but was as busy as ever. Construction of the new airport (started before the revolution) is yet to resume, but I could see how big the project was from the air.
On my third night, I heard fire arms being shot sporadically over the span of four hours. I was told that this could be an arrest, a battle, a wedding or simply high-spirited militiamen arguing or celebrating! Power outages occurred a few times during my stay, especially in the suburbs. Road traffic was as bad as ever in Tripoli. An encouraging sign was that a small fraction of traffic police have returned on the roads, but their authority is still shaky. Some road names have been haphazardly changed by residents. Other, more major landmarks with Gaddafi-related names have been renamed. 1st September Street is now 24th December Street, going from Gaddafi’s Al Fatah revolution’s date in 1969, to the date of Libya’s Independence Day in 1951. The Al Fatah Tower is now Tripoli Tower, among other changes. People have replaced the number plates on their cars which used to say “Al Jamahiriya” (Gaddafi’s term for Libya), with randomly printed personalised plates. Luxury hotels continue to be heavily guarded by militia, but several westerners and Asians were in and around the lobbies when I visited.
The residents of Sidi Al Sayeh, an area close to the city’s landfill site, have taken up arms and closed off the site complaining about air pollution. This has created a city-wide garbage disposal crisis, with piles of rubbish thrown in the streets and set on fire. Recently, a group of garbage truck drivers have threatened to dump rubbish in front of and inside the Prime Minister’s office building. Driving past the piles of trash and the plumes of smoke was the worst part of my journey to Tripoli. Recent reports say that the road leading to the site has been reopened, but the situation remains fluid. Residents of the Zawyat al Dahmani district also closed off their area one night, this time due to salary disputes. I was in the area, looking for a billiards hall, when all entrances and exits were blocked by cars and armed civilians!
The Rigata (or Regatta) compound is one of the main expatriate residential areas in the country. It has been occupied by a militia group since August 2011, and until this day, only a few Libyans have returned to their homes in the compound. The expatriates have not returned. I wanted to see what the situation was like, so I took a friend of mine and drove there. We managed to enter the compound after talking extensively to the guards. It only took us five minutes to see what was once the most luxurious compound in the country turned into a ghost town. Dirt and lack of maintenance were evident, graffiti was sprayed on some of the villas and armoured cars were parked outside some residences. Needless to say we felt unwelcome, so we left. That same day we drove to the Janzour Tourist Village, a favourite place for expats for its tennis courts, café’s and beach. This was also guarded by armed men and semi deserted inside.
A few days later I visited the Rixos Hotel, where foreign journalists stayed and prominent regime members held press conferences throughout the war. The many entrances were all guarded by armoured vehicles and men in military fatigues. It was unclear to me whether they were government forces or militiamen, and I wasn’t going to ask! It soon became clear that it was a mix. I was made to wait outside as a group of cars, one containing an ambassador, left the hotel. It was easy to access the hotel. Inside, it seemed fully functional and clean, with almost as many foreigners as Libyans.
The differences between November 2011 and March 2012 Tripoli are almost all positive. The perceived security situation has significantly improved and people are getting on with their work. Police and defence forces are growing in numbers (though militia remain sceptical and distrusting of them). The government is attempting to incorporate militia members as individuals, rather than groups. Libyans and foreigners are all looking to the June 2012 elections to watch the democratic transition reach a solid milestone. The atmosphere in Tripoli is relatively calm, but there is a general awareness that stability is still to be achieved. As long as the right things are prioritised and people adhere to the good old practice of putting aside their differences to work together, we might very well be looking at a stable, prosperous and growing country this time next year.
Malek went to Tripoli, Libya, in March to visit family and collect cost of living data. Usually he can be found analysing locations as part of ECA International’s Location Ratings team. To read Malek’s interviews with expatriates in Tripoli click here: http://www.eca-international.com/news/articles/7626/Expatriates_in_Tripoli