Libya's Interim Rulers Struggle For Legitimacy
Libya’s transitional government is suffering a crisis of public confidence due to perceived inertia, corruption and a lack of transparency, officials and diplomats said.
A wave of optimism accompanied the takeover of the National Transitional Council, NTC, following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in August 2011, but for many Libyans that has now been replaced by disappointment and cynicism.
Observers say the discontent reflects problems within the NTC, but also the fact that many Libyans, buoyed by their first taste of life after Gaddafi, expected change to happen faster than was possible.
Some of the strongest criticism has come from former NTC staff in Benghazi, the cradle of the revolution.
“For one year [the NTC] did absolutely nothing,” said Jalal el-Gallal, a former NTC spokesman who is now trying to establish his own political party. “They’ve started taking the position of the old regime, which is ‘we know best’, and therefore they haven’t been transparent and are passing legislation that is concentrating power in their hands.”
“The situation is awful,” he added. “Nothing is being spent on infrastructure.... I know it’s a transitional period, but there must be some sort of a plan.”
Critics accuse the council of failing to create jobs, kickstart the economy, and get public services like courts and hospitals up and running. In addition, they say, it has failed to operate transparently, and the activities of some members raise questions.
Diplomats and Libyan sources say concerns like this are not just the disgruntled mutterings of former NTC staffers – public disappointment in the council is widespread.
COUNCIL’S COMPOSITION UNCLEAR
The NTC was set up as an opposition body in February 2011 and is headed by Mustafa Abdel Jalil, a Gaddafi-era justice minister who defected from the regime early on in the uprising.
The council is carrying out the functions of government pending elections planned for later this year. Even NTC officials admit it has been undermined by its lack of a democratic mandate, and the difficulty of building up new institutions from scratch.
Mohamed al-Akari, an adviser to the NTC, acknowledged that it faced “very serious challenges”, although he said it was too early to measure its achievements after only eight months.
Its main success, he said, was “holding the country together at a very hard, serious time, but now everyone is expecting more from the NTC and [other parts of] government”.
For others, though, the NTC’s short tenure is no excuse.
“Everything is measured against the expectations of the people.... Trust in the NTC is decreasing,” a foreign diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
While the NTC’s 73 active members are publicly identifiable, sources say the backgrounds of some are are steeped in mystery. This lack of transparency has prompted claims that its ranks include both Gaddafi loyalists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We don’t know half of them,” Mohammed el-Kish, a former NTC spokesman who now runs a radio talk show in Benghazi, said. “And that comes from someone who worked for the NTC for a year.”
A second foreign diplomat said the council’s more liberal members appeared to be marginalised.
“The NTC is very difficult to read,” he added.
El-Gallal said the council lacked both a transparent structure and the mechanisms for holding its members accountable,
“In the absence of an active judiciary, there is no accountability whatsoever,” he said.
ECONOMY NEEDS WORK, BUT SECURITY HAS IMPROVED
Libyans have a long wish-list of demands, including dismantling the remaining militias, imposing the state’s authority, establishing a legal system capable of putting Gaddafi-era figures on trial, guaranteeing transparency in public spending, and taking steps to boost the economy.
Unemployment remains a major challenge. El-Kish said that while some jobs were advertised in the capital Tripoli, hardly any came up in Benghazi. Aside from small businesses like cafes and clothes shops, the city’s economy was practically dead, making it hard for him to find work other than his radio show.
“I’ve been looking for a job here in Benghazi,” el-Kish said. “There’s nothing happening.”
Although the NTC may have few concrete achievements to show as yet, Libya is now a lot more stable than many expected in the early days after Gaddafi’s removal, when numerous armed militias appeared to present a threat.
Hisham Krekshi, deputy chairman of the city council in Tripoli, said security there was improving day by day.
“It’s not fair to [criticise] a government for eight months. There’s nothing to show in eight months. You’re doing things the people can’t see,” he said. “Maybe the government isn’t strong enough to take action, but there isn’t enough time for them to be strong.”
Krekshi said he would like to see more police on the beat, and jobs created for the young men drinking cappuccinos on Tripoli’s street corners, but he said life was returning steadily to normal.
“Embassies are back, which is a good sign,” he said, adding that the Tripoli International Fair, an annual trade event held in April, had gone well.
In Benghazi, despite several incidents of violence over the last year, people generally feel safe, the first foreign diplomat interviewed by IWPR said.
“The atmosphere is that of people who want to get back to normal life,” the diplomat said. “Shops are opening and ships are arriving, and there are lots of flights from Benghazi to other destinations. It’s more than they’ve ever had.”
Other areas of progress under the NTC include greater freedom of speech. While dissidents faced torture or execution under Gaddafi’s rule, vocal complaints about the NTC are now par for the course.
With the unfreezing of billions of US dollars of the Gaddafi regime’s overseas assets, poor financial oversight and general post-revolutionary chaos, corruption is also seen as a worry.
NTC officials acknowledge that corruption within state institutions is an issue, but say steps have been taken to counter it.
On April 7, the NTC council halted a scheme run by a government committee, which had spent 1.4 billion dollars in under three months to compensate former rebel fighters. Reuters news agency reported that some of the funds were allocated to people who had not fought in the uprising, and others to the names of dead individuals.
Earlier this year, the authorities also had to cancel another programme meant to provide free overseas medical care for the revolution’s wounded after it too turned out to be riddled with fraud.
Al-Akari said some NTC members were abusing their positions by entering into private deals with foreign companies when they had no authority to do so.
“[The NTC] is a collection of good and bad people,” he said. “It’s very hard to have people of the same level of quality and decency.”
NEED FOR GREATER LEGITIMACY
The next stage in the political process is a June election for a 200-member national assembly that is supposed to draft a new constitution within two months. The constitution will then go to a national referendum, and once it approved, a parliamentary election will take place six months later.
“People are waiting for [the NTC] period to come to an end, for elections to take place,” Abdullah Shamiya, a former NTC economy minister, said. “We’re still in the revolutionary process. One year from now we can say we have a stable environment.”
Inside the NTC, however, many are pushing for the June vote to be pushed back by three months.
“I don’t think we’re ready for elections within eight weeks,” NTC adviser al-Akari said. “We cannot afford to have bad elections.”
Others warn that such a delay could push public patience to the limits, and el-Kish believes the council should have done more to hold the polls on time. He argues that after the fall of Tripoli, the NTC showed limited interest in preparing for elections.
“I shouted and shouted over and over again to create an election campaign to create awareness for the people,” he said, adding that he found the experience deeply frustrating.
Despite the risk of a flawed election, the second diplomat said it would be better to forge ahead and conduct the vote quickly rather than risk angering the public. Delaying the vote beyond Ramadan, which ends on August 18, could cause “very serious political problems,” he warned.
“[Voter] registration is a mess, public knowledge about elections is very low. Nonetheless, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a meaningful process,” he said. “There is a crisis of legitimacy of the NTC and the interim authorities because there’s no democratic endorsement. Only elections can solve this.”
William Shaw is an IWPR editor in London.