x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The gap between rhetoric and reality in Libya's reforms

Earlier this month, Saif al Islam Qadafi repeated his call for better governance in Libya, and his position favouring the first new constitution since his father led a revolution that toppled the monarchy in 1969.

Earlier this month, Saif al Islam Qadafi repeated his call for better governance in Libya, and his position favouring the first new constitution since his father led a revolution that toppled the monarchy in 1969. "We need to change our society," Mr Qadafi told a packed auditorium at the American University in Cairo. "We need to reinvent our country." He criticised the formal government structure, ineffective local governments, the lack of independent media, and the non-existence of civil society.

It's not the first time Mr Qadafi has expressed such a critical view of the situation in Libya, but he seems to have taken a more practical view. Democracy has a long way to go in the whole region, not just in his country. In another departure from his usual style, he gave a deeper analysis of Libya's problems, blaming the colonial period and the political structures that emerged after independence. Like most oil-rich states, Libya redistributes the revenues generated from oil. In this analysis, Libya is at the top of the list of oil-dependent countries where the state-owned oil industry generates 96 per cent of GDP.

"The challenge is to move from a militant society to a free society, from an artificial economy to a real one," Mr Qadafi said. In that "real" economy, taxes would bring representation in a vibrant and accountable system of government. In theory, "Libya is the most democratic country in the world," Mr Qadafi said, but in reality it has "fallen short of such ideals". The political system in Libya is bogged down by corrupt nepotism and entrenched tribal social structures favouring loyalty instead of qualifications, which hampers the ability of people to participate in decision making.

Mr Qadafi himself has seemed to fall into this trap lately. Many of the supposedly reform-minded individuals he promoted within the bureaucracy are people he either personally knew or who were recommended to him by his close inner circle. He lost touch with the ranks of young, talented and well-educated professionals. The Alghad Media Services Company (AMSC), established by Mr Qadafi, is a case in point. Intended as a catalyst for change and a cornerstone of a free, independent media sector, AMSC has been the victim of poor management, corruption and a lack of professional oversight. The company has had an influence on public opinion through its newspapers and now-defunct TV station, but it has failed to put together any sustainable free media project for the country.

The call for a national legal framework, whether it is a formal constitution or not, is an economic as much as a political priority. A clear legal framework would not only encourage foreign investment but also assure legal due process to investors who now face difficulties when manoeuvring inside the country. Earlier this year, authorities circulated what seemed to be a draft constitution, which Mr Qadafi criticised even before it was made public. The sticking point was its lack of clarity on important issues such as the separation of powers, how people would take part in decision making, and the role of the popular leadership committees that Mr Qadafi has been nominated to head.

His father, Colonel Muammer Qadafi, met the leadership of the popular committees this week, encouraging them to expand their work with an eye to the social fabric of Libyan society. He told the 12 powerful leaders, who represent all of Libya, that their terms of service should not be limited because their roles were social rather than political. This was a clear signal that whatever ideas are circulating about a draft constitution, they will have to wait longer than expected.

The younger Mr Qadafi's reforms and his call for an effective civil society seem to have been proposed in a vacuum. In the absence of stable, working and accountable institutions, the drive for reform cannot be sustained in the long run. Civil society institutions can only flourish and operate effectively alongside a transparent and accountable government. More equitable redistribution of the national wealth, for example, could only take root in an environment where some sort of strong civic society exists. Taxation systems also have to be strong and transparent enough.

Mr Qadafi has appeared to make progress by pushing for tax reform. A new tax law has been passed and became effective this month. It abolished one of the most hated burdens: income tax in its old form did not really differentiate between income levels and treated the public and private sectors equally. Under the new law, small businesses and low income families have more tax breaks. The drive to reform the education system also seems to have scored some success, as the ministry of higher education has curbed the explosion of new universities, licensing 10 and closing down or merging others throughout Libya. It remains to be seen if this will help to ensure the quality of education for graduates of tomorrow. It is even more uncertain whether they will be allowed any greater role in society as a whole. Mustafa Fetouri is a Tripoli-based academic and political analyst.