My World Affairs colleague Ann Marlowe has spent more time in Libya than I have, and this week she brings our attention to problems that have been thus far completely ignored.
“Our life was chaos,” Loui Hatem el-Magri said the other day in Benghazi. The young architect continued, referring to Qaddafi, “He ruled us by chaos.” No one knew from one day to the next how any aspect of life would work.
Libya’s new government has struggled to break free of the old way. Dr. Iman Bugaighis, a Benghazi activist and academic, points out that Libyans didn’t know whether the first Saturday after the Eid holiday would be a government holiday or not until the day before. No one knew whether to plan to return to work the next day until 6 p.m. on Friday.
In Qaddafi’s Libya, there were laws, but no rule of law; anything might change at the dictator’s caprice. It was hardly worth making plans for the future, much less putting off present gratification for future rewards. And changing this mentality will be just as hard as instituting the rule of law.
Part of the problem is in deep cultural factors that go beyond the years of dictatorship to Libya’s earlier history. Any foreigner can tell you that Libyans have trouble concentrating and organizing themselves. Part of the problem is widespread illiteracy. This is true across most of the Muslim world, and means more than, say, not seeing anyone reading for pleasure. It means no “to do” lists—and thus little getting done. You are almost sure to find that, after a six-months interval, your friends’ well-intentioned plans to fix their house or improve their English have come to naught. Few people can even organize themselves to change a burned-out light bulb or maintain their cars (until something breaks). It means people can’t find important documents because they’ve never filed them properly.
On a wider level, it means that there is little sense of linear time and history, or any firm grasp on fact versus rumor and fantasy. An “old” mosque might be five hundred years old, or fifty. No one at the sole college in Zwara could tell me immediately how many students are enrolled, though the number is certainly less than 450. In three weeks of asking the question in Tripoli, Benghazi, Derna, Sabratha, and Zwara, I didn’t meet anyone who could tell me of a Libyan writer who was working on a history of the 2011 revolution. The standard answer in any city to the question of who is making sure the story is told accurately is that some individual has “many videos and photographs” from the town. The idea of sifting such evidence and coming up with a master narrative for one city seems unknown, as does telling the story of what happened all across Libya. It’s scary to contemplate how many of the facts will vanish before they can be collected.