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Libya’s Transition: Time to Get Real

It was easy to drink the Kool-Aid offered by the Libyan revolutionaries. With savvy slogans, hip combinations of camo uniforms and T-shirts, and engaging personalities, the young fighters, known as thuwar, were ideal for TV and photos. A good number of the revolutionaries were foreign-educated, others had close relatives in the US or Britain, and almost all had the Libyan pride and directness that strikes a familiar note with Americans particularly. When Libyans spoke of democracy, of the fact that they would “win or die,” it was natural to believe that their attitudes were much like ours, just suppressed by 42 years of a crazy dictatorship.

Now, nearly three months after Tripoli rose up on August 19th, bringing the Qaddafi years to a close, it’s possible to make a more realistic assessment of Libya and the Libyans—and what their future might hold. A few observations stand out.

First, we shouldn’t overlook just how “third world” this country is. According to “The Report: Libya 2008,” put out by Qaddafi’s own regime, adult literacy increased from “60% in 1985 to 82.6% in 2006.” Yes, about 17 percent of Libyans can’t read and write. Libya has a mañana culture, where broken things stay broken, maintainance of machinery is often ignored, and superstition replaces common sense. College-educated men believe in Koranic spells or the good health effects of ceremonial bleeding. Almost everyone runs their car for a few minutes to “warm it up” even in 100-degree heat. Libyans are just now waking up to the hazards of pollution, but they still apply bug spray recklessly, even near open food, and blithely toss plastic bottles all over their superb beaches. This isn’t surprising—at independence in 1951, Libya was the world’s poorest nation, and mainly illiterate.

Second, Islam has a place in Libyans’ hearts that is almost impossible for Americans to understand. Even many women activists, like US-educated Amina Megheirbi, head of Benghazi’s robust civil society, Attawasul Association, are pro-sharia. “Islam is a way of life, and you either take the whole package or none of it,” she says. She believes Libyan women can have equality in the public sphere, under sharia—and she had better be right, if Libya is to have a real democracy. Whether they reflect a correct interpretation of the Koran or not, powerful traditional taboos  keep women from, say, having a coffee in one of Libya’s ubiquitous cafes, or visiting a non-relative man at his home. These interfere with women’s ability to network with unrelated people and form coed civic groups. They also contribute to the general sense that women are best sequestered at home.

Finally, because of the combination of these factors with Qaddafi’s mismanagement of the Libyan economy, Libya faces the need for investments in infrastructure and pollution cleanup that may tax even its earnings as North Africa’s largest oil producer. According to a 2009 OPEC estimate, 65 percent of the country’s oil reserves were exhausted during the Qaddafi years. There is little to show for them. For instance, the highway from Tripoli south to Sebha and the oil fields, leading onward to the Algerian border, is mainly just a narrow, two-lane road, sometimes without dividing lines, with fuel stations hundreds of kilometers apart and emergency services nonexistent. The sidewalks in every Libyan city are broken and filthy. Tripoli’s clogged highways flood, as pictured here, whenever it rains heavily.

Qaddafi was as destructive to Libya’s environment as to its people. In the southern desert oil fields and at the coastal Melitta gas plant of Italian energy giant ENI, wasteful gas flaring releases toxins into the air in a practice banned in many countries. The government-owned Abu Kammesh chemical plant, North Africa’s largest PVC producer, has not used its incinerator for years, instead dumping highly toxic waste just 200 yards from the Mediterranean. Commercial fishermen work nearby.

We can admire the pluck and cleverness of the revolutionaries, and the hearty patriotism of most Libyans, while still viewing Libya’s political future with a skeptical eye. We can nudge the Libyans toward a stable democracy by offering our expertise, but we should not expect miracles from a nation just sixty years removed from poverty and ignorance.

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