The weather was changeable in the lead up to the one year anniversary of the uprising in Libya. One minute there was a biting wind, even hail, and then the sun would break through hinting towards the Mediterranean spring and the warmth to come.
The political situation in Libya bears some resemblance to the weather. Life in Libya can have its chilling moments and it is easy to feel the bitter edge of the less than perfect present, rather than concentrating on the bright spells that are developing and the things that bring hope for the future.
One discussion that can provoke a chilly response surrounds the militias, the ‘kateeba’, and the influence they still maintain in the country. The power exercised by young armed men is certainly a challenge and in the run up to the anniversary they were visibly flexing their muscles. Parades of vehicles, incidents of celebratory fire and the number of vehicle check points (VCPs) in Tripoli multiplied in the few days running up to the celebrations, but this is hardly surprising. When the international media vent about the delusional ravings of people like Saadi Gadhafi, giving weight to their claims of support for the former regime, then it should be no surprise that the people who shed blood to bring about change in Libya would put on a show of force to demonstrate otherwise. It is telling that the anniversary came and went without those sympathetic to the old regime being able to muster any sort of meaningful response to the new Libya – peaceful or otherwise.
From speaking to Libyans one finds that the reality is that even those who are sympathetic to the old regime realise that change is here to stay. They may harken after some of the stability brought by Gadhafi but that is a long way from wanting to re-establish the Gadhafi regime via one of his sons or another part of the old government machinery. And at the moment the militias are at least having the positive effect of dissuading any such moves by the old guard anyway.
The influence of the militias also demonstrates the challenges facing Libya regarding the rule of law. As the structures of Gadhafi’s regime have been rightly swept away there is partial vacuum that has yet to be filled by a new police and judiciary. This does mean that there are power struggles between militias, blood feuds and disappearances, all of which need to stop. These excesses have been well reported upon internationally but what is perhaps more surprising, yet less headline grabbing, is the restraint being showed at the moment. The situation could be more lawless and the blood letting could be much worse considering the horrors that have been so recently experienced coupled with frustration bubbling over after over forty years of oppressive rule.
The other main frustration people have is with the transitional government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), who are being increasingly criticised. Much of this criticism is understandable as they have certainly made some poor policy decisions, been clumsy with their communication and have lost a large part of the good will that they enjoyed. It is also fair to say that if they are going to have a good legacy then they need to be working very hard in the next few months to ensure a smooth transition through the elections. A free and fair election for the new assembly will hopefully be the success they are remembered for.
But for all their faults the NTC has much to contend with. They are, in the main, a group of intelligent technocrats – not seasoned politicians. They have plenty of ideas and good intentions but are hamstrung by a lack of structure and process. It is all good and well making a decision but if there is not the infrastructure in place to make the decision a reality then it makes you appear weak and ineffective – which is exactly what has happened. This situation is exacerbated by very high expectations of Libyans, the close scrutiny of international media and the limited support of external players (such as Western governments) who are hedging their bets for the future. But let us step back and think for a moment. How long is a reasonable time to create a new government and develop political structures from scratch? What are realistic expectations of unelected technocrats who are trying to bring shape and vision but without a strong mandate?
The NTC are in an unenviable position but they know they need help and if we, the critics, are unwilling to give it then we will only have ourselves to blame (and the Libyan people will certainly blame us) if things do deteriorate. Our troubled attempts at state building in Iraq and Afghanistan may make us wary of getting too involved in Libya but it should also make us empathetic and less critical of the progress the Libyan government is making in the face of challenges we know all too well.
And there are some good reasons to be hopeful for Libya beyond more troubled regions of the world such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
First to be considered is the level of ownership of the revolution carried by the average Libyan. The ‘can-do’ attitude fostered from people who physically took back their country, street by street, is very different from the sort of half-heartedness you experience in a country, such as Iraq, where it was foreign land forces that won and held the ground. NATO was certainly instrumental in the toppling of Gadhafi – something Libyans are thankful for – but the fact that we did not deploy large numbers of troops on the ground has helped the Libyans really buy-in to the responsibility of their situation.
This ownership also brings optimism for the future that is a generally lacking in countries where a situation has more of less been imposed on a population. People have seen that they can bring around change and therefore they know that they can shape and influence their future. If the worst came to worst they could stage another uprising, but in the meantime they are concentrating on getting businesses up and running, developing civil society and proceeding with day-to-day life in as normal a way as possible.
Underpinning the hope for the future is something really tangible: Libya has economic potential due to its oil that many other countries, even neighbours such as Tunisia, do not enjoy. The international community has yet to release much of the Libyan frozen assets that exist around the world (another challenge for the NTC) but as the oil begins to flow in greater quantities there is the promise that Libya can be not just self sustaining but should become truly prosperous. With a relatively small population, the rich mineral resources in Libya mean that it is not unrealistic for Libyans to look to the examples of Norway or the Gulf States and see the opportunities they have to invest their wealth in the future of their country.
Libya is facing some considerable challenges but bearing all this in mind we would be doing everyone a dis-service if we choose to write them off or keep them at a distance at this critical time. The Libyan government and Libyan society as a whole needs the support of the international community right now. There will always be an excuse to wait and see how things will turn out but if we take that line we may end up unhappy with the result and having to deal with much more entrenched problems in the future.