Rebuilding Libya

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By Barak Barfi

BENGHAZI: Six months after Libyan rebels took up arms against the country’s leader, Col. Muammar El-Qaddafi, they have finally toppled him. But, while victorious on the battlefield, they have not been triumphant in political and economic terms. If the rebels are to ensure their revolution’s long-term success, they will have to overcome the weaknesses that plague them.

In the days following the start of the uprising in February 17, the rebels formed a political body known as the National Transitional Council (NTC) and a cabinet known as the Executive Committee. Though drawn from across Libyan society and staffed by people with technical skills, the groups have been hamstrung by several problems.

Critics have derided the NTC’s lack of transparency and complained about its opaque decision-making. They have also questioned the criteria used to select its members. Libyans say the Council’s chairman, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, favors dissidents who spent time in Qaddafi’s prisons over those with the training and skills needed to rebuild the country. If the NTC does not address these concerns, it is difficult to see how it will manage the complex challenges ahead.

It is not only the NTC’s policies that could imperil the success of the Libyan uprising. Though admired in parts of eastern Libya under rebel control, Abdel-Jalil is a dour figure who lacks the charisma characteristic of revolutionary leaders. Indeed, he is a provincial player who so far has been unable to communicate a compelling vision of a new Libya.

A shortage of politically savvy leaders plagues the rebel-controlled East. Shortly after assuming the chairmanship of the NTC in March, Abdel-Jalil announced that its members would not run for office in future elections. But there has since been very little activity on the political front. Because activists were reluctant to begin campaigning while rebels were still fighting, they held back on forming political parties. As a result, only two parties have been created in a country that has no experience with pluralist democracy. At this point, there are very few voices consistently advocating the changes needed to secure the transition from an authoritarian to a democratic regime.

Other problems loom for the NTC. In July, their military chief of staff, Abdul Fattah Younis, was killed in murky circumstances after the Council issued an arrest warrant for him. His tribe has demanded answers that the NTC does not have. People close to the case say that senior NTC officials were implicated in Younis’s death.

Although the investigation into the murder of Younis has been muted by the rebels’ recent military successes, his tribe is demanding justice and is prepared to seek retribution if the NTC cannot resolve the matter. Such an outcome could split the rebels’ ranks and risks plunging Libya into renewed violence at the very moment that hostilities should have ended.

The danger of civil bloodshed imperils a post-Qaddafi Libya more generally. Already, Libyan rebels in the east have exacted revenge on Qaddafi loyalists, many of whom worked for his feared revolutionary committees. In western Libya, human-rights workers have reported that Qaddafi’s supporters have been shot in the hand to mark their treachery. With the NTC unable to impose discipline on its soldiers, such violence is likely to increase as army soldiers and militias evacuate Qaddafi strongholds.

The NTC faces a number of economic dilemmas as well. Before the revolution, Libya produced nearly 1.6 million barrels of oil per day, accounting for 96% of the country’s export earnings. But, since February, the taps have run dry, owing to disruption and damage to the oil infrastructure. In the interim, the NTC has largely survived on international aid and from the unfreezing of Libyan assets by foreign governments.

But these funds have been unable to fuel the economy of rebel-controlled territories. Libyans complain that they have not been paid their monthly salaries. Nightly power outages have left many in the dark in cities like Tobruk, and even the rebel capital of Benghazi has experienced sporadic electricity cuts.

The war’s costs extend far beyond repairing oil installations and turning on the electricity. Cities such as Misrata have been ravaged by the fighting and will have to be rebuilt. But Libya lacks the technical capacity to tackle these problems. Short on skilled experts, a post-Qaddafi Libya risks becoming dependent on foreign assistance, much like the Palestinians, who live largely from international aid rather than from their own economic activity.

The fall of Qaddafi and his authoritarian regime holds great promise for a people bereft of freedom for 42 years. But, with the NTC having stumbled so far, it will have to redouble its efforts to ensure that it wins the peace that it fought so hard to secure.

Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (


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