Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Libya's Interim Government Under Pressure to Deliver

Progress needed on security, economy and governance to dispel unhappiness with transitional authorities.
By William Shaw
  • Rebel fighters outside Bin Jawad, March  2011. (Photo: Nasser Nouri)
    Rebel fighters outside Bin Jawad, March 2011. (Photo: Nasser Nouri)

The perceived inability of Libya’s transitional government to address serious economic and security problems is causing a groundswell of discontent that threatens national stability, officials and diplomats warn.

Buoyed by the defeat of Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Tripoli last August, many Libyans expected the National Transitional Council, NTC, to move quickly to check the economic decline caused by the civil war and to disarm militias.

“We have a backlash and discontent brewing, especially in Benghazi,” an NTC official told IWPR on condition of anonymity. “In the rest of the country, the situation is at best fragile. People are not happy at all.”

Protests began last month in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, where students demanded to know the identities of all the NTC’s members and called for greater transparency in its decision-making, The Guardian reported.

A western diplomat in Benghazi told IWPR that government-owned hotels there had been on strike and university students had begun setting up committees to seek the dismissal of lecturers. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said that on January 19, students pushed and shoved the NTC’s vice-president Abdul Hafiz Ghoga and shouted at him while he was visiting a Benghazi university to attend a memorial ceremony for people killed during the uprising. Ghoga has since resigned.

The incidents are particularly embarrassing for the NTC as Benghazi, the cradle of the Libyian revolution, is still the council’s main power-base.

“Frankly, the NTC is at a bit of a loss,” the diplomat said. “There’s enough fault lines in the social fabric, there’s enough unresolved issues among the regions... that might spark an unmanageable situation,” he added. “So far we’re not there, though we’re moving in that direction.”

While there has been sporadic violence in some towns, residents say security in parts of Libya is improving.

Alamin Akrim, a hotel worker in Tajoura, an anti-Gaddafi stronghold just outside Tripoli, said the coastal town had been peaceful for some time.

“The guns and shooting every night – it’s disappeared. I’m not hearing it any more,” he said. “People are looking forward to starting to build up the city.”

Walid Ibrahim Habibi, an electrical engineer in Tajoura, agreed.

“Day by day, things are getting better,” he said, adding that he thought the risk posed to stability by armed militias had been exaggerated.

But others warn that although day-to-day security may be improving, the various armed groups left over from the fight against Gaddafi still pose a serious long-term threat.

The western diplomat said the militias were operating “like mafia”.

“They are territorial. They don't have a reason to [exist] any more but they carry on,” he added.

The transitional government is struggling to assert its authority and rein in the many unofficial armed groups that remain at large.

“You don't have security,” Adam Ahmad, an American of Libyan descent and a former rebel fighter, said. “The national army is... not fully united. The government now is very toothless.”

As well as extending its control over security, the NTC needs to rebuild the economy if it wants to remain in control.

The unfreezing of the Gaddafi regime’s overseas assets may help kick-start the economy. An estimated 150 billion US dollars of assets were frozen after the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on the Libyan administration last year.

On January 10 this year, Foreign Minister Ashur bin Khayyal announced that Libya had received 20 billion dollars as a first tranche of unfrozen funds from countries including the United States and France.

But while Libya’s oil exports are climbing, they remain below pre-revolution levels and foreign companies have proved reluctant to invest. This has undermined the local economy and left many unemployed and unable to access the public services provided by the previous regime.

In January 2011, the month before the uprising began, Libya was pumping about 1.6 million barrels of oil a day, according to Bloomberg. By December, production was back to more than one million barrels, still short of Gaddafi-era levels.

Foreign businesses may also be unlikely to flock in soon.

Although a United Arab Emirates business delegation visited Tripoli on January 17, risk analysis firm Maplecroft says Libya remains a high-risk country for investors. In a report this month, it warned foreign businesses of “heightened terrorist activity and/or sabotage”.

Faced with seemingly intractable economic problems, the NTC appears to be focusing instead on the transition to democracy. It has proposed a law for an elected assembly which would convene in the coming months to draft a new constitution, with a parliamentary election slated for mid-2013.

“To respect the road map [towards democracy] seems to be the priority, and this can be said to be the correct decision,” another western diplomat told IWPR.

But neglecting basic issues like healthcare and the need to disarming militias, particularly in western Libya, could have serious consequences.

“The implication of that is that the government...will not always be able to enforce the decisions that they make,” the diplomat warned.

What comes next for Libya and the NTC remains unclear. The NTC official said better security and more transparent governance must be priorities, and Libyans are also keen to find out more about what is happening to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the late leader’s son.

After he was captured in southern Libya in November, little has been heard of Saif al-Islam, and earlier this month the International Criminal Court had to extend the deadline for Libya to provide information on his health and status.

Libyans are edgy about the issue and need convincing that the NTC has made a clean break with senior Gaddafi-era figures, the council official said.

“Inherently, the people want the revolution to succeed, and that’s why the situation on the ground isn’t desperate yet,” he said, warning at the same time that “the opportunity [for stability] is closing very fast”.

Some Libyans, particularly the young, may have unreasonable expectations about the future.

“A lot of people are expecting Libya to be the next Dubai. They want everything to happen so fast, and that’s just not going to happen,” Ahmad said. “The Libyan government is at its baby stage. It’s not even crawling.”

William Shaw is an IWPR editor in London.