Libya’s Transition to Transition
SIRTE, LIBYA – Although Libyans are now celebrating the first anniversary of the revolution that toppled Muammar el-Qaddafi, they are increasingly frustrated with their new leaders. Libyans complain that the interim government, known as the National Transitional Council (NTC), has not moved quickly enough to purge and prosecute senior Qaddafi officials, or to rein in the militias that overthrew his regime.
Though the NTC is dedicated to implementing Libyans’ demands, it lacks the technical capacity and time necessary to do so before the elections tentatively scheduled for this coming summer. Facing such constraints, it must concentrate on a small number of important initiatives, before turning power over to an elected government.
Political experience has never been a prerequisite for NTC membership. One representative was named to the Council because he defected with his MIG fighter plane 20 years ago. Other members were previously political prisoners or exiled dissidents.
Unseasoned in the art of politics, the NTC frequently lacks the foresight needed to make critical decisions. During last year’s eight-month revolution, the NTC concentrated on overthrowing Qaddafi, gaining international recognition, and securing access to frozen Libyan assets. Those tasks left little room for attention to planning a post-Qaddafi Libya. Today, the NTC simply does not have the human resources to consolidate the transition.
Libya has never been blessed with a professional bureaucracy like that of neighboring Egypt. Qaddafi frequently farmed out power to municipalities and citizens in an attempt to bypass the civil servants who consistently thwarted his grandiose plans. And almost two decades of international sanctions prevented a generation of Libyans from gaining the necessary technical skills by studying at Western universities.
Even the oil sector – the lifeline of the Libyan economy, accounting for 95% of the country’s foreign-currency earnings – suffers from a shortage of professional managers. According to an American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, “Libyans put forward for employment with foreign (oil) companies often lack formal qualifications or applicable practical experience.”
Instead of injecting new blood into senior government posts during his 42 years in power, Qaddafi merely shuffled cronies between ministries. His last foreign-intelligence chief, Abu Zayd Dorda, epitomizes this trend. During his 30-year political career, Dorda held numerous cabinet portfolios, ranging from agriculture to economics to municipalities. Dorda later served as Speaker of Parliament, Prime Minister, and Ambassador to the United Nations.
Today, the NTC is hard-pressed to find competent, politically untainted bureaucrats to fill its ministries. But that does not concern most Libyans, who are clamoring for the dismissal of Qaddafi loyalists. One name on the tip of many tongues here is Central Bank Governor Sadiq al-Kabir. Others, such as Libya’s former ambassador to France, Omar Brebesh, were found dead, apparently tortured by a militia that spearheaded the campaign to overthrow Qaddafi.
Lack of skilled civil servants is also making it difficult for the NTC to push through the changes that Libyans are demanding. The Council is not ready to try senior Qaddafi officials, many of whom are now in the custody of militias, because the existing justice system was never tasked with prosecuting political cases. Such trials were held in revolutionary courts staffed by Qaddafi zealots and operating outside the formal judiciary. With no prospect for a fair trial in the foreseeable future, Qaddafi officials languish in jails.
Such bureaucratic inertia does not sit well with the many Libyans who are still undecided about the revolution. But it is not only a shortage of capable public servants that hamstrings the NTC. Just as pressing are the time constraints under which it is operating. Since its inception last February, the NTC has consistently declared itself to be a transitional body that would cede power to an elected government once the country was liberated. With elections set to be held no later than June 23, the Council has less than four months to prepare Libya for its first free vote in sixty years.
As a result, the NTC simply does not have the time necessary to implement the changes the Libyan people expect. It will not be able to disband the myriad militias that are destabilizing the country, because it cannot find their fighters the vocational training that it hopes will entice them to return to civilian life. It will fall on an elected government to carry out these reforms.
With the NTC confronting so many dilemmas with so little time, it must concentrate on a small number of key issues that can be resolved before it hands over power. The Council needs to focus on establishing some degree of rule of law, and on curbing militia abuses. It must respect and protect individual rights in order to demonstrate to Libyans that the type of arbitrary justice that characterized the Qaddafi era will not be tolerated.
The NTC may not be able to solve all of Libya’s problems. But, by chipping away at the mountain of challenges that the country faces, it can ease the burdens that will confront the elected government that emerges from the popular vote in June.
Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.