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The Letdown in Libya

May 3, 2010


A couple of years ago, I posted an entry about Libyan attempts to build up their tourist industry [Going Green in Libya]. Libya is home to some of the best preserved ruins from the Roman Empire outside of Italy. In my previous post, the focus was on the Roman ruins of Cyrene. As I wrote in that post: “Cyrene was for centuries the most important Greek city in North Africa. It was founded in the 7th century BC. In 322 BC, Cyrene came under the control of the Greek general Ptolemy I and his dynasty. In 96 BC the Romans took possession of Cyrene, and it became a province of Rome eighteen years later. Thereafter, it enjoyed a period of peace until a Jewish revolt in 115 AD caused widespread destruction. Following reconstruction of the city, principally under the Emperor Hadrian, Cyrene again entered a period of prosperity. In 365 AD, during the Byzantine period, an earthquake destroyed much of the city, which, at the time, had not yet embraced Christianity. A grand rebuilding program took place, although former places of pagan worship were desecrated including the great temple of Zeus. All that remains today is the spectacular ruins of Cyrene, which include: the Sanctuary and Temple of Apollo, the Acropolis, the Agora, the Forum, the Stoa of Hermes and Heracles, the House of Jason Magnus, the Nine Muses and the Temple of Zeus.” Another site, Leptis Magna, also contains some of the most spectacular and unspoiled Roman ruins in the Mediterranean region.


Scholars believe that Leptis Magna was originally founded by Phoenician colonists sometime around 1100 BC. Located 130 km east of Tripoli on the Libyan coast, it didn’t come to prominence until Carthage became a major Mediterranean power some 700 years later. It later became part of the Roman Empire and ascended to become one of the leading cities of Roman Africa and a major trading post. By the 6th century CE, however, its time and come and gone and the city was left in ruins. As spectacular as the ruins are, one would expect tourists to be flocking there to enjoy the weather and the sites — unfortunately, one would be wrong [“Libya’s efforts to build economy, tourism snagged by its own capriciousness,” by Sudarson Raghavan, Washington Post, 14 April 2010]. Raghavan reports:

“Only a handful of tourists wandered through the unspoiled ruins of this ancient Roman city edging the azure waters of the Mediterranean. It was high season, when buses should have been disgorging hundreds of affluent visitors from Europe and beyond. But among the arches and fountains, there was mostly silence. Tour guide Saleh Krima explained why. ‘The Leader has called for a jihad against Switzerland,’ he said on a recent day. ‘Now, no one wants to come here.’ The Leader is Moammar Gaddafi, who has ruled this nation with an iron fist for more than 40 years. His tit-for-tat fight with Swiss authorities followed his son Hannibal’s brief arrest in Geneva in 2008 for allegedly beating members of his staff. The charges were dropped, but the feud has continued — a stark example of the Libyan government’s unpredictability.”

Two years ago, when I posted the blog about Cyrene, things were looking up for Libya. It was slowly emerging from its pariah status and, as Raghavan reports, it was trying “hard to attract foreign investors and promote tourism in an effort to diversify its oil-dependent economy.” In a world already nervous about security and suspicious of radical Islamic movements, the word “jihad” is one of those buttons that spreads fear and repels tourists and investors alike. Raghavan continues:

“An older mind-set — steeped in bureaucracy, old-style socialism and antagonism toward the West — is stifling [Libyan] aspirations to become a North African version of Dubai, the Middle East’s economic hub. A Swiss businessman has been jailed in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, on immigration violation charges, an action widely seen as retaliation for the arrest of Gaddafi’s son. Switzerland, in turn, has barred Libyan officials. In February, Gaddafi banned visas for citizens from 20 European countries in an order that was not lifted until late last month. His call for jihad, or holy war, against Switzerland came after a Swiss referendum prohibited the construction of new minarets. Since then, Libyan officials have said that Gaddafi meant an economic boycott and not an armed struggle. Last month, Libya imposed a trade and economic embargo on Switzerland that stopped flights and halted oil exports. Libya has also withdrawn billions from Swiss banks.”

All this has meant that sun-loving Europeans have avoided Libya a vacation spot. Raghavan reports that one travel agent “has seen his business shrink by 60 percent. His main clients are Italian, Spanish, German, Belgian and French tourists.” Raghavan concludes:

“Libya’s unpredictability extends to its efforts to change. A promised transition from a state-run economy to one in which private companies play a prominent role has been slow. In one well-publicized case, the government forcibly bought out a Canadian oil company for less than it was worth, after the company announced a big find.”

The last thing that investors are looking for is political volatility. Qaddafi, however, is known for his volatility and paranoia. Last year The Economist noted that Qaddafi was “less of a pariah now, but that hasn’t helped Libyans much” [“How to squander a nation’s potential,” 20 August 2009]. The article comments:

“Since seizing power 40 years ago, Muammar Qaddafi has survived wars with neighboring countries, repeated assassination plots and years of siege under international sanctions, along with much of the world’s opprobrium and even ridicule. … Since the passing of President Omar Bongo of Gabon in June, Mr Qaddafi has no near rival as the longest-serving African or Arab leader, and longevity seems to feed his ambition. Last year, having staged a jamboree of traditional rulers at his hometown of Sirte on the Libyan coast, where he is said to have been born in a Bedouin tent, he had himself proclaimed king of Africa’s kings. He currently presides over the African Union, which he is pushing to live up to its name and turn somehow into a continent-wide United States of Africa, presumably with himself in charge. Such assertions of grandeur still produce sniggers, but Mr Qaddafi can claim to have chalked up numerous recent diplomatic successes. Libya currently sits as a rotating member of the United Nations Security Council, a privilege inconceivable in the years when President Ronald Reagan described Mr Qaddafi as a ‘mad dog’. … Such prizes are rewards for a decade-long effort to extract Libya from the limbo into which Mr Qaddafi had led it through his dabbling in terrorism and his reckless support for radical causes, including those of various unsavory Palestinian factions and the IRA.”

The rambling and lengthy speech Qaddafi made at the UN last fall did nothing to bolster his reputation. Qaddafi’s call for a jihad against Switzerland was surprising considering that Libya “faced down its own jihadist insurgency and [was] the first government to request an international arrest warrant for Osama bin Laden.” In addition to assuming “blame for the 1988 bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie as well as for the similarly grisly 1989 bombing of a French aircraft,” perhaps the most responsible thing that Qaddafi-led Libyan government has done has been to “abandon its secret weapons programme [and] expose its network of suppliers.” These government actions were beginning to pay off. The Economist continues:

“Tripoli, Libya’s capital, is sprouting fancy new hotels, as well as a new airport, to welcome an influx of would-be investors and tourists. Literacy is now nearly universal among schoolchildren. Life expectancy has gone up by 20 years, and infant mortality has fallen to less than a tenth of the level it was at the time of the revolution.”

But as Raghavan noted earlier, things are not going as swimmingly as they might as a result of Qaddafi’s emotional volatility. Nor, The Economist adds, has Qaddafi’s leadership brought ordinary Libyan’s the quality of life he could have provided for them. The article explains:

“[The gains noted above] ought to be unremarkable for a country that exports nearly as much oil, per head, as Saudi Arabia: a total of $46 billion-worth last year, divided among just 6m people. In fact, Libya trails far behind other oil-rich states by many measures, and not just in the contrast between Tripoli’s garbage-strewn thoroughfares and the gleaming Miami-scapes of the Gulf. As any Libyan who recalls the days before Mr Qaddafi’s revolution can attest, this is a country where something has gone very wrong. Things are not so bad as in the dark days of the 1980s, when the Great Leader experimented with ruinous social theories and had dissidents hunted and shot. Yet while Libya’s peculiar form of socialism still brings free education and health care, along with subsidized housing and transport, trade unions remain banned, along with nearly every kind of independent social organization. Salaries are extremely low, thus keeping Libyans cash-poor even as billions stack up in foreign reserves, or in the pockets of a narrow band of regime insiders. A lack of jobs outside the government has led to youth unemployment of perhaps 30% or more (all statistics in Libya are as blurry as a Saharan sandstorm). Such shortcomings reflect more than simple inefficiencies. Mr Qaddafi’s Libya is a country that has been systemically mismanaged for a generation, at virtually every level of government.”

There is perhaps no more toxic mix than an educated but unemployed generation of youth. The young people of Libya are aware of much that goes on within and outside of the country — a price that any authoritarian government must pay if it wants to open itself to tourism and investment. Knowing what they could have raised unfulfilled expectations that could erupt into violence and instability. Not a good situation. Are things going to improve? The Economist has its doubts.

“Among other systems that have no clear order is the one for deciding who will succeed [Qaddafi]. Two of Mr Qaddafi’s seven sons are generally considered candidates, though the star of Saif, the elder son who has taken an interest in human-rights issues, appears to be waning in favor of Mutassim, whose lower profile disguises a powerful role in the security services. Both are thought to have strongly influenced their father’s mellowing trend in recent years. But it will take more than pots of cash and calmer ties with the West to bring Libya anywhere close to meeting its potential.”

Recently Saif has been positioning himself as the champion of the average citizen and “has been cultivating his image as a champion of reform in autocratic Libya” [“Gaddafi’s son takes role as defender of liberty,” by Heba Saleh, Financial Times, 23 April 2010]. Saleh reports:

“Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, often mentioned as a likely successor, has been carefully raising his profile and fashioning an image as a defender of liberty in a country long known for its human rights abuses. The younger Gaddafi, who recently said that Libyans should enjoy the same freedom as the citizens of the Netherlands, has often appeared at odds with the ideology of the autocratic state created by his father. ‘Positioning yourself as a candidate of reform in a young country like this is smart, but obviously it can backfire,’ said a western diplomat. ‘But I think this is the way he has chosen.’ Saif, who has a doctorate from the London School of Economics, is credited with helping to improve Libya’s relations with the west and supporting economic reform, which proceeds at a slow and hesitant pace. The second eldest son of Col Gaddafi, he is one of seven brothers, some of whom are believed to harbor political ambitions. But Saif, 38, is the only one who has cultivated a public persona and assertively pushed for change.”

As noted above, however, Saif is not the only son with political backing and personal ambitions. Saleh reflects on how Saif is trying to counter his brother’s Mutassim’s influence:

“Observers say he faces potential competition from at least one other brother, Mutassim, who heads a security agency and is considered to be more conservative. Opponents of reform have recently tried to increase their influence over the oil industry, but observers say there are also signs that Saif has strengthened his position. They cite his high-profile involvement in the release last month of 202 Islamist prisoners, many of whom had been kept behind bars after their sentences expired. In a particularly daring step, he sponsored in December the first report on Libya’s domestic human rights, prepared by the New York-based Human Rights Watch. His charity, the Gaddafi Foundation for Development, also produced its first public human rights report, which was critical of the authorities. … This is significant and Libyans do take notice. … In Libya’s opaque political system, uncertainty remains over the real impact of interventions by Saif, who has no official position. He has turned down an offer to become coordinator of the ‘popular social leadership’, a post described as the nation’s second most powerful. Last October Col Gaddafi publicly called for Saif to have an official job, a move generally interpreted as a sign that the son was being positioned for the succession. But Saif turned down his father’s suggestion, explaining that because Libya had no constitution, he would not want to join a political game where the rules are not transparent.”

Although there has been some softening of political and security tactics in Libya (probably thanks to Saif Qaddafi), dissidents are still subject to harassment and arrest [“Is Libya serious about reform?” by Paul Wood, BBC, 14 April 2010]. As The Economist notes, Libya won’t achieve its potential until good leadership is found at the top. With oil prices again predicted to approach $100/barrel, Libya’s window of opportunity may be re-opening for a short period of time. Whether the self-anointed Great Leader will permit his country to take advantage of the moment remains in uncertain. He should take to heart the words of Albert Einstein, who said, “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.”

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