Libya: Two Years Later

A Libyan waves the national flag during commemorations to mark the second anniversary of the revolution that ousted Moammar G
A Libyan waves the national flag during commemorations to mark the second anniversary of the revolution that ousted Moammar Gadhafi in Benghazi, Libya, Friday, Feb, 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

Two years ago, American jets spearheaded the international effort to halt Muammar Qadhafi's assault on Benghazi and enforce a No-Fly Zone over Libya. They were acting in accordance with the wishes of the Arab League, the UN, and most crucially, the Libyan people. This far-sighted assistance not only allowed the Libyan people to defeat Qadhafi, but it also unleashed great hopes for prosperity, productive employment, healthcare, and freedom. Many Libyans naively expected these benefits to be served on a silver platter the day after Qadhafi was defeated.

In reality, progress has been slow and the culture of genuine democratic give and take remains absent. Hence, young people here have followed Tunisians and Egyptians in returning to the street. Unfortunately, in Libya they mostly do so heavily armed. In response, many Western analysts have seized upon the recent political gridlock in Tripoli to declare the Libyan democratic experiment a failure -- hastily counseling Western companies and governments to steer clear. This is the wrong message. Moreover, it is not historically or intellectually defensible. Last Wednesday, President Obama signaled that he is not ready to follow the naysayers or be swayed by partisan politics and give up on Libya. He appointed a new ambassador, Deborah Jones, and discussed a range of bilateral cooperation with visiting Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan.

Currently, Libya presents mixed indicators. This month, the IMF stated that Libyan economic growth in 2012 exceeded 100 percent and that non-hydrocarbon growth is expected to average 15 percent per annum until 2018. On the other hand, on March 5 the General National Congress (GNC) -- Libya's elected parliament -- was again stormed by militant demonstrators. They held the Congress under siege, demanding an immediate vote to ban all officials who served the Qadhafi regime from holding government office.

This Political Exclusion Law is a dangerous political football. The competing parties wish the Law's provisions to be crafted so as to block their opponents from office, while populist militiamen seek to use the law to decimate all established interests under the guise of revolutionary purity. Ironically, these divisive tactics couched as 'revolutionary' idealism are a page from Qadhafi's own playbook. Because the GNC has previously caved in to self-serving populist demands expressed at gunpoint, violent interventions in the democratic process have multiplied.

The impression of appeasement and wholesale weakness is furthered by the GNC's response to the Eastern federalist threat. On February 6, it abandoned its primary duty -- appointing a 60-member commission to draft the Libyan constitution -- conceding instead a direct election by Libya's provinces. This development and the ensuing legal battles will delay Libya's transition to legitimate constitutional governance more than a year. It also creates uncertainty regarding which institutions will control Libya's purse strings. Consequently, the cranes remain idle. The only new businesses making money are those selling consumer goods. Cinnabon is all the rage, while housing units and hospitals remain half-built.

In order for the country to transcend the deadlock, the GNC needs to regain the trust of the Libyan people who increasingly believe that GNC missteps are actually conspiratorial calculations seeking to prolong its mandate. To win back popular trust, the Congress should commit itself to a rigid timeline for the rest of its term and the constitutional assembly elections. Also it is vital that the government deal with subsequent security breaches more firmly -- effectively deploying force while simultaneously utilizing rhetoric to wield Libyan public opinion to its side.

Most crucially, Libyans and outsiders should show sympathy for the travails of Libya's nascent institutions. Like its neighbors, Libya is a nation charting its way through all the normal growing pains associated with a stagnant totalitarian past and a fresh democratic beginning. Yet, unlike its neighbors, Libya must also confront the unique legacy of Qadhafi's four decades of divisive, isolating repression. Its current security challenges are truly to be expected after a spontaneous armed populist uprising.

Furthermore, the prominence of armed militiamen advocating the destruction of every vestige of the old order is also an integral part of the natural arc of revolutions. In today's Tripoli, as in Paris of 1794, the middle classes are gradually withdrawing their support from the counterproductive demands of the Jacobins, and the political pendulum is swinging back to the center. The majority of Libyans will not stand for a Political Exclusion Law that prevents Libya's most skilled from participating in public life.

In short, Libyans want to put the Qadhafi era behind them, but they also want capable individuals to draft the constitution, keep the lights on and the oil flowing. To achieve this they need a strong, moderate leadership that establishes national consensus, and a vibrant civil society that pushes the debate forward while also supporting crucial government initiatives.

In strengthening the hands of the moderates and getting the cranes moving, Western governments and business can play an essential role. Police trainers and capacity building professionals should descend on Libya as part of a coordinated multilateral effort to follow through on international commitments to the Libyan people. Just as American technology was needed to enforce the No-Fly Zone, American acumen and experience is now needed to help train Libya's army and develop its command and control structures. Simultaneously to the government to government dimension, American businessmen should flock to events where high-level Libyan officials, private sector entrepreneurs, and experts in the legal and security challenges of operating in Libya will come together under one roof to explain to foreign companies how they can enter and prosper in the Libyan market. The FDI Libya Conference being held in London in late May is a prime example.

Across North Africa, the ultimate challenge remains to treat the underlying cause of the revolutions: the opportunity deficit for young people. In Libya, project spending has remained mostly stagnant because the security situation has not permitted international companies to return. The resumption of major infrastructure projects and the establishing of genuine partnerships with Libyan entrepreneurs will create the jobs required for young people to abandon their guns and replace them with laptops and screwdrivers. Putting the current situation in its proper historical perspective provides both scope for patience and realistic assumptions about future progress. Rome wasn't built in a day.

Jason Pack is a researcher at Cambridge University, president of, and editor of The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future (Palgrave Macmillan June 2013).

Mustafa Abushagur is former Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister-Elect of Libya. He earned his PhD from CalTech and was the founding president of Rochester Institute of Technology's Dubai campus.