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Libya: the long road ahead

Not only has the state so far been unable to bring the militias under control, it has also not managed to repair roads, rebuild buildings, clean the streets or provide power to its citizens.

This year, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan was a particularly difficult one for Libyans. Not only were the days long and excruciatingly hot, but frequent power outages meant families were left without electricity for up to 16 hours a day in some areas, while a wave of violent assassinations, terrorist attacks and criminal activity afflicted the country from east to west. As Libyans readjust to their normal routines post-Ramadan it feels as though the worst of the storm has passed, yet a flotsam of unidentified assailants, wayward militias and deepening lack of confidence in the state has been left behind and it will take some serious efforts to clean it up.

Two years after the National Transitional Council (NTC) issued the 2011 Constitutional Declaration setting out a road map for Libya’s transition, the euphoria of the first heady days of liberation are long gone and the country is finding it increasingly difficult to drag itself out of the quagmire of weak state institutions, powerful militias and competing regional interests.  After more than 40 years under Colonel Gaddafi’s oppressive rule, which stripped the state down to the bare minimum and made its institutions almost indistinguishable from Gaddafi’s close family and friends, it would have been naive to expect Libya to become a stable, democratic country overnight.

However, the relative success of last summer’s general elections to the interim legislature, the General National Congress (GNC), combined with a return to pre-revolution levels of oil production only one year after the conflict had finished, heralded a period of optimism where it seemed Libya would be able to overcome the momentous obstacles in its path and stay on track throughout the transition and beyond. Although there were still numerous security threats, especially in the east of Libya, many felt that it could only be a matter of time before the powerful ‘thuwar’ (revolutionaries) disbanded or were assimilated into a new national army, thereby allowing the state to monopolise  force more effectively. Concerns regarding reconstruction, infrastructure and employment were bitten back to some extent as Libyans allowed the new government and parliament time to tackle the formidable task of rebuilding the country.

Fast forward to summer 2013 however and this grace period seems to have passed. Even before Ramadan, the mood across the country had become increasingly dejected, marked by frustration and anger at the apparent lack of progress made by the GNC and government. Insofar as security is concerned, the situation in the eastern city of Benghazi has been steadily worsening with attacks on embassies and state institutions, assassinations of high profile security officials and activists, and a marked increase in criminal activities such as car-jacking and robbery. While the capital Tripoli had previously managed to avoid much of the violence experienced in the east, a string of attacks in recent weeks signals a shift towards a more precarious security situation in the capital too. Much of the blame for the deteriorating security situation in Libya is being put squarely on the government because of their inability to reign in the country’s powerful armed groups and form a national army, as well as on the militias themselves for refusing to disarm and using force to further their own interests at the expense of those of the nation as a whole.

There is increasing mistrust of the government, GNC and political parties because they have so far made very little progress concerning fundamental issues such as the judiciary, the economy and the constitution, as well as failing to apprehend or charge any suspects in the recent attacks across the country. Political polarisation is seen to be seriously hampering the ability of both the GNC and government to make decisions, reinforcing deep-rooted suspicion towards political parties and leading to calls for all parties to be dissolved. To make matters worse, the various arms of the state do not have clear remits and are constantly accusing one another of having overstepped their respective boundaries, further reinforcing the perception that the state is more concerned with internal squabbles than the serious business of running the country.

The prolonged power cuts during Ramadan are indicative of the frustrations currently felt by many Libyans. Libya is an oil-rich nation with a small population (6 million) and a legitimately elected government, yet two years after fighting ceased the state still cannot provide enough energy to keep the lights on across the country. Whereas previously there was a certain amount of leniency afforded to the state where reconstruction and infrastructure were concerned, now there is just disappointment and anger. Not only has the state so far been unable to bring the militias under control, it has also not managed to repair roads, rebuild buildings, clean the streets or provide power to its citizens.

The government was quick to blame the power cuts on the armed protests and strikes which have plagued Libya’s oil refineries and ports in recent weeks, carried out by oil workers and local residents staking claims to their share of the oil pie. With no strong army or police force to counter such protests, the state has struggled to shift these armed protesters, drawing yet more criticism. Furthermore, these strikes have had a negative impact on Libya’s oil production, with levels dropping to below half of what they were pre-revolution. If the disruptions continue long term, this could have a detrimental effect on Libya’s economy.

Although the developments of the past few weeks have left many both inside and outside the country despairing of Libya’s future, there is still much to be hopeful about. The reality is that although the GNC and government undoubtedly have room for improvement, even the most experienced politicians in the world would struggle to find a way to guide Libya through this current transition without encountering opportunism, resistance and conflict along the way. Indeed, transition by its nature is conflictual and this was always going to be a tough period as different interest groups within society fight to come out of this interim period on top.

The state needs to reassure the public that it is doing its best to manage these challenges by showing that it is taking action. This not only means that the government should work around the clock to catch those responsible for recent violent attacks and protests, but also that it must make sure that basic tasks such as cleaning the streets, repairing roads and providing electricity are undertaken. The road to stability and democracy may be longer and more winding than initially hoped, but that doesn’t mean that Libya won’t get there in the end.

Article by Rhiannon Smith, openDemocracy.

This article was originally published here.

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