The past few weeks and months have not been kind to Libya. Journalists, diplomats and academics the world over have wrangled over the realities, politics and semantics of the current situation in this post- conflict country. Do the attacks against foreign organisations and embassies in the east represent the first steps on a slippery slope towards chaos and insurgency? Is Libya becoming the new Somalia, a place where lawless Islamist militias rule the roost and the authorities face intimidation and assassination if they do more than dither or wring their hands? Are the Libyan people really just ignorant Al Qaida supporters who are ungrateful for the support the international community gave them to be rid of their despotic dictator?
Questions such as these are appearing more frequently in the press and frame an increasingly apocalyptic outlook for Libya’s future: yet such assertions seem at best unfounded and ill-conceived, at worst reckless and dangerous. Make no mistake, I am not refuting the facts about what has been happening in Libya in recent weeks. The American ambassador was killed in Benghazi; militias are flexing their muscles as the state tries to curb their powers; Libya is without a new prime minister or government and as I write heavily armed forces are drawing battle lines around Gaddafi’s stronghold of Bani Walid. However the unfortunate thing about facts is that they can all too easily be manipulated, misconstrued or taken out of context. Sensational questions like the ones above are based on fact, yet the problem is they represent facts from only one side of the story in Libya.
The reality is that normal life goes on, especially in Tripoli. But because it isn’t interesting or exciting it doesn’t reach the radar of those outside. For every negative incident that takes place there are plenty of positives which counter balance it or help put it into perspective. Thousands of protesters on the streets of Benghazi showing their grief and anger at the death of the ambassador and demanding an end to the militias is one pertinent example. However most of the positives experienced in Libya on a day to day basis are not so obvious or newsworthy, but have to be pieced together like tiny pieces in a puzzle. Children are back at school, trade is flourishing, migrant workers have returned and businesses are functioning as normal again. In the run up to Eid al Adha, sheep pens have sprung up around the city as Libyans prepare for both the religious festival and the anniversary of free Libya on October 23. Libya suffered nine months of a bloody, violent revolution and for a lot of people the fact that life has bounced back to normal just a year after it ended represents a huge achievement. For civilians who became accustomed to heavy bombing, shooting and fighting on a daily basis, occasional shoot outs or attacks just a year on are not particularly surprising or threatening as it still represents a drastic improvement from last year.
However this is not to say that the Libyan public has become complacent or desensitised. I live and work a stone’s throw from the General National Congress building and as such I know better than most the amount of protests that take place there almost on a daily basis. The fact that Libyan citizens can now take their issues directly to the government without fear of retaliation is heartening: but the fact that so many seem to have grievances is less so. Whilst people naturally want guns and violence off the streets of Libya, no one expects the government to be able to enforce this overnight. However the main issue which is currently frustrating and galvanising Tripoli residents is the apparent ineptitude and inexperience of their elected leaders. While the outside world sees recent attacks as the main danger to Libya, many inside the country see the real threat as ineffective leadership with the events of recent weeks being merely the symptoms.
There is a sense of frustration that elections went so well, yet those elected now seem incapable of making decisions, enforcing them and choosing an effective leader. Congress sessions are streamed live which is great for transparency, but less so for public confidence as in these debates the collective inexperience is all too apparent. This is not surprising given the political void which preceded this year, but is still an issue which must be dealt with one way or another. While the state is perceived as weak and ineffectual, security problems will only get worse as people take advantage of the situation. Yet if the GNC and government can win back the confidence of the Libyan public then everything will improve in leaps and bounds.
So far Libyans have generally been patient and understanding of those they put in power but now the inaction of the authorities is tarnishing Libya’s reputation worldwide and as a result, frustration on the streets is becoming palpable. I do not think Libya is on some irreversible downward spiral towards anarchy but rather what we are witnessing is the manifestation of the country’s growing pains as it attempts to move from one man rule to democracy with no experience of how to do so. That said, the Libyan authorities must do something to reinstate public confidence soon, because the more disillusioned Libyans become with their government, the more likely the outside world will be to conclude that all is lost in Libya.