TRIPOLI – Egypt is not the only place where the bright hopes of the Arab Spring are fading. From attacks against Western governments to ethnic clashes in remote desert oases, Libya’s revolution is faltering.
The blame for Libya’s travails rests largely with the interim government that led the uprising. The National Transitional Council refuses to make difficult decisions, instead palming them off to a future elected government. The NTC has preserved much of the institutional paralysis and knee-jerk behavior typical of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s overthrown regime. If the Libyan revolution is to succeed, the country’s new leaders must make a clean break with the past.
During his 42 years in power, Ghadhafi surrounded himself with advisers who were companions from his youth, supplemented by a small coterie of technocrats. As a result, the leaders of the revolt that overthrew him have little government experience. In a country where any political activity was considered treasonous, many expected the neophyte NTC to stumble. And so it has.
Indeed, the revolution was never a smooth affair. When fighters failed to defeat loyalist forces on their own, outside powers were compelled to intervene. Later, the NTC was unable to impose discipline on the myriad militias that formed to fight Gadhafi’s troops, or even to direct foreign weapons efficiently to the fledgling Libyan National Army. When the military chief of staff was assassinated July 28, 2011, under mysterious circumstances, the NTC could not offer concrete answers to an angry public. With no access to Libyan assets frozen abroad, it frequently paid salaries weeks in arrears.
While the battle against Gadhafi was still raging, Libyans considered it unpatriotic to point out the NTC’s weaknesses. Today, however, those flaws have been magnified by its paralysis. The NTC deliberates rather than decides. The two-thirds majority required to pass legislation means that many bills die after extensive debate.
Many NTC members believe that the council lacks the legitimacy to make tough choices. They argue that the NTC should limit itself to serving as a caretaker government, implementing only the most essential decisions until elected officials take office. As a result, the NTC and the Cabinet that it appointed, known as the executive committee, merely want to pass the baton of authority. Hesitant to leave a large imprint in their wake, some ministries have no budgets, and ministers are reluctant to sign deals with foreign firms.
Beyond the question of the proper role of custodian governments lies the indecisiveness of the NTC’s leaders, who simply prefer to defer to others.
When a colonel recently asked NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdel-Jalil why he has not moved to merge the militias into a national army, Abdel-Jalil replied, “I head the legislative branch. You must speak with the executive (committee).”
Other senior Libyan officials suffer from the same managerial torpor. The NTC’s first prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, was praised by the international community for his vision. But much like Abdel-Jalil, Jibril proved unable to make decisions (although he led a centrist alliance that won a plurality in last weekend’s general election).
The NTC’s paralysis is clearly reflected in the trial of Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi. Though considered the most prized captive of the ancien regime, the council has made little progress in prosecuting him. Ahmad Jihani, Libya’s representative to the International Criminal Court, recently told me that “we as Libyans cannot begin Saif’s trial. There is no central power to prosecute him.” The ICC prosecutor echoed his sentiments in a June 5 legal brief, noting that “the Government of Libya may be unable to move the case forward.” With no progress toward trying Gadhafi for war crimes, the NTC is holding him on the innocuous charge of failure to possess a camel license.
Bureaucrats lament ministerial dithering. “Everyday people come with ideas to demobilize the fighters and integrate them into society,” notes an official in the Labor Ministry, referring to the most pressing problem facing the NTC. “But, with no one to make a decision, all of these plans just sit on our desks.”
One reason for this inertia can be found in Libya’s prevailing political culture. For decades, Gadhafi personally reviewed every agreement worth more than $200 million and often chose which foreign firms would receive contracts. When he devolved ministerial planning to bureaucrats in 2008, many were not pleased. “Unused to planning and possessed of limited human capacity, senior officials in the ministries are very nervous,” an American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks reported.
Libya’s new leaders suffer from something worse than foot-dragging. They are falling back on the same facile, prefabricated responses that Gadhafi used to demonize his domestic and international opponents for four decades.
For example, when eastern Libyans recently announced the formation of an interim regional council as a first step toward declaring a federalist state, Abdel-Jalil alleged “the beginning of a conspiracy against Libya” in the brewing crisis between the country’s provinces. “Some Arab nations, unfortunately, have supported and encouraged this to happen,” he said. But Abdel-Jalil named no specific foreign powers and offered no proof to support his allegations, which sounded much like Gadhafi’s frequent rants against “imperialist-Zionist plots.”
After an eight-month revolution that devastated the country, Libyans are demanding real reforms. But without new leadership that is willing to implement them, it will be a long time before Libya turns a new page.
Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation. © 2012 Project Syndicate