This article isn’t about elections. In fact, passing a pleasant but rather uneventful summer on holiday in Libya, I felt no compulsion or desire to say anything about the country’s recent elections, which went better than anyone had anticipated, barring a handful of incidents that were quickly contained.
For me, as for many other Libyans, July 7 was a memorable day spent with parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles as they voted in the morning, watched nationwide election coverage throughout the afternoon and celebrated with thousands of other first time voters in city squares late into the night.
Amid the din of international observers lauding the country’s first free elections in half a century, and satisfied as I and everyone around me was with their relatively smooth execution, I preferred to spend my time talking politics with friends at beachfront cafés or wandering around Tripoli’s dilapidated Old City than sitting in front of a computer screen and churning out yet another piece on Libya’s recent experiment in democracy.
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But from my vantage point here in Tripoli, the once embattled capital and former regime stronghold, an irritating shadow hung over my happiness amid the peaceful festivities. A news junkie, I had long been in the habit of combing through international coverage of Libya on a daily basis and had grown increasingly perplexed by much of the media’s descriptions of the environment here as beset by militia violence and tribal warfare, with some commentators even going so far as to declare Libya a failing state along the lines of Iraq, Somalia or Afghanistan.
Particularly frustrating were the headlines and commentaries heralding the country’s “descent” or “spiral” into “chaos”. Most intriguing, however, was the occasional citing of the supposed disaster that is post-revolutionary Libya as a cautionary tale for not intervening in Syria (note: this is not a statement for or against intervention in Syria, neither is it meant to endorse or condemn the controversial NATO campaign in Libya; it is simply an objection to this curious line of reasoning, given the largely peaceful state of affairs in Libya at present – as well as the vast geopolitical differences between the two states).
To put it in starker terms, I was struck by the odd feeling that Libya was being picked on by certain observers, among them staunch anti-interventionists with an axe to grind – that reality was being twisted to fit a desired narrative because things hadn’t turned out quite as badly as they’d predicted (or hoped?). Yet one wonders if such commentators have bothered to pay any real attention to the climate in post-revolutionary Libya.
Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and longtime scholar of the Middle East, commented after a recent visit to Libya:
“There is a kind of black legend about Libya, that it has become a failed state and is a mess, that there are armed militiamen everywhere, that everybody is a secessionist, that the transitional government is not doing anything, that people of sub-saharan African heritage are bothered in the streets… The black legend is promoted in part by remnants of the Gaddafi regime and his admirers in the West, in part by overly anxious middle class Libyans navigating an admittedly difficult transition, in part by media editors looking for a dramatic story… So imagine my surprise on visits to Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli, to find that there were no militiamen to be seen, that most things were functioning normally, that there were police at traffic intersections, that there were children’s carnivals open till late, families out, that jewellery shops were open till 8pm, that Arabs and Africans were working side by side, and that people were proud in Benghazi of having demonstrated against calls for decentralising the country.”
In contrast to Professor Cole’s observations, much of the commentary out there suffers from a highly selective narration of Libya’s post-revolutionary experience, one that takes pockets of very real problems and amplifies these to give the skewed perception that they represent the whole – or even most of – the picture throughout the country. The reality is that most of Libya, which lacks an effective state military or police presence, is remarkably calm and stable given its present circumstances.
To be sure, a number of problems created by the uprising are cause for grave concern and Libya must do a better job of addressing these: In particular, the displacement and mistreatment of the population of the small town of Tawergha, collectively expelled and accused by residents of the nearby city of Misrata of committing serious atrocities against Misratans at the former regime’s behest; the ongoing conflict between the Zuway and Tebu in the southwestern desert town of Kufra, over control of lucrative trafficking across the nearby border, a dispute which has reportedly claimed 47 lives recently, leaving many more injured; the explosion of an IED in Benghazi’s department of military intelligence which resulted in no deaths or injuries, damaged part of the building and heightened concerns about security; and there are others.
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But these crises in no way represent the reality in most of the country – not even close. Security remains a prime concern for most Libyans, and the media have an obligation to report on such problems. In doing so, they should not, however, distort the picture on the ground. A balanced perspective is sorely lacking.
Social and structural problems
Libya is a country burdened by enormous social and structural problems: failing healthcare and education systems; a crumbling infrastructure; serious environmental issues; the undiversified economy of a distributive oil state, which tends to encourage feelings of entitlement and erode a society’s work ethic; massive corruption at all levels, which has contributed to a lack of professionalism and accountability; and the list goes on.
At times, these challenges can feel overwhelming. But the depressing reality in this Mediterranean nation of 5.6 million is that the majority of these problems have carried over from – and are in many ways a product of – the former regime’s corruption, ineptitude and mismanagement. Now, regrettably, they constitute a major part of its deeply entrenched legacy. Along with maintaining and improving security, people here today are primarily concerned with solving these legacy problems. Unfortunately, in Libya, old habits die hard.
But there are encouraging signs as well: people are generally optimistic and anxious to maintain the current momentum, as well as to preserve the still tenuous peace. Guns have virtually disappeared from the streets and have retreated into the confines of people’s homes – a tacitly accepted compromise until the future government can come up with a better solution. While some militia remain intact, most are barely visible, and there has been a slow but steady effort to dismantle or integrate some of them into a national army and police force. Businesses are up and running and new ones are opening every day.
Libyans are relishing and taking full advantage of new free speech rights: media outlets are multiplying rapidly, signalling the development of Libya’s budding public sphere, and new NGOs and civic groups are forming every day. In the overwhelming majority of cities, people walk the streets safely and go on with their lives as usual. Above all, there is hope that a newly elected government entrusted with a popular mandate will have the legitimacy to get things done.
Yet these hopeful signs are usually glossed over by an often myopic media that appear at times to be consumed with the idea of violence and chaos, and at others to be obsessed with determining whether or not the Islamist boogeyman will take power, without trying to apprehend the complexities of Libya’s social, cultural or political landscape.
Clichés trump critical analysis, which explains why most international observers – but not Libyans themselves – were stunned when the latter went to the polls and voted in much larger numbers for Mahmoud Jibril’s supposedly liberal coalition (Jibril publicly resists both the liberal and secular labels), than for the Muslim Brotherhood, and hardly at all for the other Islamist parties.
Headlines reducing the results to a “bucking” of the “Islamist trend” in this Arab Spring state abounded. But the truth is there is no way to predict what Libya’s political future will look like: if the transition and the next few years will be mostly peaceful; if the country will “spiral” into the “chaos” that undiscerning individuals have already claimed is happening; or if there will emerge some imperfect third scenario in between.
What’s clear, however, is that alarmist descriptions of unbridled violence, chaos and state failure are simply untenable at this point, and betray a lack of judiciousness in much of the current discussion on Libya.
Najla Abdurrahman, a Libyan-American writer and activist, is a teaching fellow at Columbia University.
Follow her on Twitter: @Nejletta