Bucking the conventional wisdom on Libya

Bucking the conventional wisdom on Libya

Whenever you see Libya mentioned in the headlines these days, it usually has something to do with security. The Western media has been awash with doom-and-gloom stories about the presumed anarchy in the country. You’d think that jihadis were running around all over the place.

Look, it’s understandable that much of the coverage of Libya is shaped by the big story of the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi. (And that impression has undoubtedly been reinforced by a series of recent travel advisories from Western governments who have been warning their citizens to stay away from Benghazi and the surrounding region.) That was a horrible tragedy. But if you see everything through that lens, you’re going to get the bigger story wrong.

That mistake was dramatized recently by the questions British journalists were asking during Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent visit to Tripoli. (Hat tip to Nigel Ash at the Libya Herald.) One of them asked, for example, whether it was true that the government’s writ doesn’t extend beyond the outskirts of the capital. In fact, the reality on the ground is that the numbers of police are growing and their patrols are increasingly visible. Some of the other reporters clearly didn’t know the most basic facts about the circumstances of Libya’s revolution. This says a lot about how the Western media are inclined to cover the place.

Look, it’s true that post-revolution Libya faces huge challenges. No one denies that. But the progress we’ve been making is also remarkable if you consider the extent of the vacuum left behind by a 42-year dictatorship.

To start with, don’t forget how the majority of Libyans cast their votes in the country’s first general election last year. They overwhelmingly chose the members of parties that are more liberal rather than religious ones. Libyans are Muslims, and they love Islam, but the fact that they don’t necessarily want Islamist parties to govern clearly shows what sort of system they prefer. In the wake of Stevens’ death, 30,000 people in Benghazi took to the streets to demonstrate against terrorism and violence on the night of September 21, 2012. That shows that most Libyans still aspire to democracy and the rule of law, and that they remain resolutely opposed to any form of terrorism or tyranny.

The economy is picking up. The government has stabilized the banking sector. Oil production has resumed, quickly reaching pre-war levels despite the pessimistic predictions of the experts. Housing and construction projects are under way across the country; every day seems to bring the opening of a new mall or restaurant. Schools and universities opened their doors again immediately after Qaddafi’s downfall in October 2011, and they’ve been working without interruption ever since. None of this really fits the definition of a failed state — at least as far as I understand it.

As security goes, it’s true that militias still hold sway in parts of the country. But the government has also been making good progress at reviving the army and police, which are upgrading training and equipment. The process of integrating revolutionaries into the security forces is also moving along. The Ministry of the Interior alone has registered 26,000 new recruits within the past two months.

As a Libyan who spent all his life under the Qaddafi regime, I can’t help but worry that all the negative reporting from outside will have a negative effect on the country’s development. The people I know are strongly optimistic about the country’s future — but climbing out of the hole that Qaddafi has bequeathed to us will certainly be much harder if our supporters in the international community see our country only in terms of no-hope scenarios. Investors certainly aren’t going to invest in such a frightening place. And governments will certainly shy away as well. 

In a recent lecture in London, U.S. expert Ethan Chorin was bemoaning the minimal assistance that Libya has received from Washington since the revolution. The same could certainly be said of our friends in the European Union (though they are, at least, gradually putting together an assistance mission to the Libyan military — better late than never). The problem, of course, is that pessimism can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s hope that our friends overseas don’t succumb. So far, at least, Libyans themselves seem fairly immune.

Mohamed Eljarh, the newest addition to our regular lineup of Transitions bloggers, is a Libyan academic researcher and  activist. You can follow him on Twitter @eljarh.

Mohamed Eljarh is a Libyan academic researcher and political, social development activist. He is from the city of Tobruk in Eastern Libya.  Follow him on Twitter @Eljarh or email to: ]