x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Libyans must share common goals

Libya's promising new beginning is turning to ashes because there's little sense of common purpose.

It all looked so good on paper. Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) declared its existence in February 2011, just weeks after the start of fighting against the 40-year rule of Muammar Qaddafi, and several months before the dictator’s ignominious death.

Starting with 33 members, the NTC expanded as more towns came under rebel control. It vowed to work for security, democratic elections, and “the restoration of normal civilian life.”

Within three weeks France recognised the NTC; nine days after that western military intervention began and Qaddafi’s fate was sealed. In August the NTC promised a multiparty democracy. Western aid poured in. Two years ago yesterday the rebels declared the country liberated.

But today those lofty goals stand revealed as wishful thinking. Academic theories of state-building have evaporated as tribes and militias and simple criminals, all well-armed and all unused to the art of compromise, show little or no sense of national unity.

Militiamen abducted the prime minister; the Islamist members of parliament he blames have not been arrested. Al Qaeda operatives work freely except when kidnapped by US raiders. Racial minorities are openly persecuted. A police chief was assassinated in the street. Tribal militias close oil pipelines at their whim. The economy is a shambles but the government raised civil servants’ pay. Water and power are intermittent. Lawlessness has facilitated people-smuggling so thousands of Africans have drowned trying to reach the Italian island Lampedusa, or other European soil; for that reason alone Libya needs stability and hope.

In a sense this failure is no surprise. Ever since Italian colonial governors systematically dismantled the remnants of Ottoman rule, Libya has not had the institutions that most countries have. Qadaffi’s megalomaniac style of rule, over four decades, left Libyans with no role models of give-and-take in decision-making, no sense of how to share power and so give every major part of the population a stake in national unity.

But every-tribe-for-itself is the recipe for a failed state. Now the government is organising elections to a 60-member assembly that is to write a new constitution. This is another exercise in theory; even a perfect constitution is useless against a squad of armed thugs.

The real work that must be done is in building awareness of shared goals; it’s a daunting challenge but the only way forward for Libya.