Last month, Libya's capital witnessed one of the largest recorded outbreaks of alcohol poisoning anywhere in the world, during which over a thousand people were hospitalised and more than one hundred killed. The mass poisoning was caused by methanol and over a period of about one week Tripoli's hospitals were in a state of emergency as they were flooded with patients suffering from symptoms such as blindness, brain damage and kidney failure. Methanol is thought to have been mixed with the locally brewed spirit known as 'bokha' but so far the authorities have little information about who was responsible and just how many sources of 'bokha' were contaminated.
Libya's rumour mill has pointed the finger at various potential perpetrators ranging from Islamists out to punish those drinking alcohol to importers of branded alcohol who want to monopolise the market and illicit distilleries who add methanol to increase bokha’s alcohol content. There were even some rumours that the mass poisoning was not actually from alcohol but from ordinary bottled water.
While Tripoli was reeling from the tragedy of so many deaths, many began to point to the uncomfortable truths that this mass poisoning brought to light. Libya is a conservative Muslim country where alcohol is illegal (for Libyans and visitors alike), yet it is relatively easy to get and it is not uncommon to see young men drinking in their cars late at night, or to hear of parties at farms where the alcohol has flowed freely. Although little is really known about drinking habits in Libya, alcohol is most definitely taboo in Libyan society and there has always been an assumption that only a small minority drinks.
It came as a shock therefore that in the capital alone over the period of just one week, one thousand people suffered from alcohol poisoning. If we consider that those affected only represent some of those drinking (as not all the city's 'bokha' sources are believed to have been contaminated and branded alcohol is also readily available) then this points to a much greater prevalence of alcohol within Libyan society than most would have imagined.
It was Colonel Gaddafi who banned alcohol in Libya shortly after coming to power in 1969, and I think it is fair to say most Libyans have little desire to see it legalised once again. Libya as a nation tends to pride itself on being a bastion of traditional Islamic culture and values in North Africa, often placing itself on a pedestal above its close neighbour Tunisia which many Libyans feel has lost much of its traditional Islamic identity due to the development of mass tourism and the requisite bars and night clubs that accompany it (although many young Libyans regularly hop over the border to Tunisia for weekends of drinking and partying).
Last month's mass poisoning has rather thrown this holier-than-thou attitude into a tailspin. Alcohol may be illegal but this doesn't seem to be stopping a lot of Libyans in the capital from consuming it. Although some have put forward an argument for partial legalisation of alcohol (following the example of countries like the UAE) in order to encourage tourism and therefore economic diversification in Libya, there is generally a consensus that now is not the time for such discussions; Libya's government has a great many more pressing issues to worry about.
However so many deaths cannot be ignored. In recent weeks the Libyan government has cracked down on known alcohol dealers but given the relative weakness of security forces it seems unlikely this will have much of an impact on consumption. Furthermore, the poisoning was able to take place precisely because alcohol is illegal and therefore unregulated. No one wants to see so many people suffer and die so needlessly, but the questions is how best to stop such a tragedy happening again? Is the answer better law enforcement so Libyans are dissuaded from illegally consuming potentially poisoned alcohol, or should the Libyan government consider legalising alcohol so that those who choose to drink can do so safely?