Après-Dictator Disillusionment

Libyans are frustrated with the NTC’s lack of progress in fixing the country.

Libya uprising 521 (photo credit: ISMAIL ZITOUNY/ REUTERS)
Libya uprising 521
Mukhtar al-Sasi was angry. Standing in Benghazi’s Shajara Square, he rolled off a litany of complaints about Libya’s new government. “They don’t tell us what they are doing. They don’t give us our money,” said the 39-yearold engineer. As he spoke, a small group from the 500 other protesters scattered around the tiny Italian-style piazza huddled around him.
Throughout Libya, protests are erupting daily. Demonstrators are demanding everything from back wages to new housing. But a ruling council with little political experience and even fewer financial resources is finding that governing a country is much harder than managing a revolution. Rebels succeeded in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi, the quirky and brutal dictator who reigned for 42 years. Now their leaders are struggling to steer the country forward and rebuild.
Protesters gather every night in Shajara Square. They complain that the temporary government, established after the revolution broke out in February, known as the National Transitional Council (NTC), has not moved swiftly to address societal problems that formed the basis of the uprising. “We fought to have rights, not new dictators,” explains 28-year-old Ayman Haldi. “We want them to talk to us. Instead, all we hear are rumors.”
Many Libyans are upset that the NTC lacks transparency. They grumble that the council makes decisions in secret without explaining how or why they were made. It is a grievance even NTC members acknowledge. “Sometimes the council agrees on issuing a decree and then we turn on the television to see that something else is announced. We just don’t understand what is happening,” said an NTC member, who asked not to be quoted by name. “If we continue like this, the people will eventually turn on us.”
Other NTC officials complain that the problem lies not in their decision-making process, but in how their edicts are communicated to Libyans. “We don’t have a good link with the people,” said a senior NTC official. “The media is not focused on helping us explain the political process. And in a country with little experience with democratic politics, this is a problem.”
But it is not only the government’s opaque decision-making process that troubles Libyans. They are frustrated that many of Gaddafi’s senior henchmen have not been removed from their posts. Ambassadors who remained loyal to the deposed leader have not been recalled. Officials in government ministries who cozied up to his small group of aides still come to their offices every day. “We want a reckoning with these people. They should not think that their support for Gaddafi will go unpunished,” said Isam Masud, 26, outside a Tripoli phone shop.
Others want swift trials for the hundreds of other senior former Gaddafi officials, who have been imprisoned.
“They need to pay for their crimes,” said 24-year-old Hisham at the Shajara Square protest. But NTC officials explain the speedy court proceedings Libyans seek will not take place any time soon. “We are understaffed. We have no money to conduct investigations,” confessed a Justice Ministry official. “Our courthouses were destroyed during the war. And the prisoners are scattered in hundreds of detention centers around the country. How will we get to them?”
Though NTC officials say they want to solve the protesters’ demands, they say they have more pressing concerns. The council is devoting all its efforts to persuade the international community to release Libyan assets frozen during the revolution. The NTC estimates that they do not have access to $160 billion kept in foreign banks.And with the oil taps that provide more than 90 percent of government revenues turned off for most of the revolution, the new government has little money to meet payrolls.
“The biggest problem facing the NTC is the financial crisis,” explained a Tripoli University economics professor. “They can’t pay salaries. They can’t buy over Gaddafi supporters. If this continues, the protests will only get bigger.”
Outside a bank in downtown Tripoli, Muhammad Bashir, 48, looks troubled. His plans of building a new restaurant have been delayed by his inability to pay suppliers. With banks strapped for cash, account holders can only withdraw small sums limited to a few thousand dollars. “I put my money in the bank so I could get it out one day,” he says, shaking his head. “Now that day comes and the bank says my money does not exist anymore.”
It is not only Bashir who is furious. Last week dozens of soldiers burst into a Benghazi hotel complaining they had not been paid in months.
“We can’t buy food for our families,” shouted 31-year-old Abd al-Salam Suwaysi at the security guards trying to push him out of the hotel.
“We know the people are suffering,” said a senior NTC official. “There is a process we need to go through to get the money,” he continued, explaining that the international community froze Libyan assets so that Gaddafi would not be able to access them during the revolution. “Now that he is dead and we are the legitimate government, we will get the money back. It takes time and we are all enduring the hardships.”
At the Mitiga Hospital, a man who only gave his name as Ahmad is lying in bed. When rebel units burst into the capital on August 21, he took up arms and joined them. During the fighting for Gaddafi’s barracks, a bullet shattered his knee, leaving him with a heavy limp. His doctors say he needs to go abroad for therapy and rehabilitation, but the Health Ministry that funded such medical care under Gaddafi cannot afford to send Ahmad to neighboring Tunisia, let alone Europe, where his physicians have urged him to seek treatment. “I fought for this revolution,” he complains, shifting his lifeless leg. “Why can’t the council take care of me now?”
Though the NTC claims it is the lack of money that is preventing the government from providing Libyans with the services they demand, Libyan analysts say the problem runs much deeper. “These people [NTC members] don’t have any political experience,” explains a man who worked in the reformist circles Gaddafi established in the last years of his rule. “Not one of them understands how the ministries here function. They are good at talking. But implementation – this they can’t do.” Western officials who have spent time in Libya concur. “The NTC’s vision sounds great. But we never see them execute it. They need to learn more about politics,” says a Western diplomat.
But with Libyans frustrated with the NTC, the council doesn’t even have time for a crash course in governance. If the body does not improve its dismal performance soon, it will face the wrath of an angry population whose protests will only grow louder.