From goodwill to government
As temperatures soared above 41C and rebels took control of the Libyan capital in August, the failing dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi had one last weapon: thirst. Deep in the desert, pro-Gaddafi loyalists shut off the wells and pumps that provided one-third of Libya’s parched population with water from desert aquifers that are part of the vast underground “Great Man-Made River Project”, which Gaddafi dubbed the eighth wonder of the world.
Suddenly, Libya’s long-expected post-revolution humanitarian emergency turned critical, with a desperate deadline. The United Nations raced to provide 11-million bottles of water to Tripoli by road, sea and air. But much more needed to be done.
How Libyans coped with the crisis, alongside the interim leaders of the National Transitional Council, is one illustration of the way the country may deal with the challenges of turning revolution into credible rule in the coming months. Still, there are signs of factionalism, uncertain planning and even questionable relationships among some of Libya’s new leaders that have prompted criticism and may hinder progress.
“We had a nightmare scenario, people dying of dehydration,” said Panos Moumtzis, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Libya. The United Nations Children’s Fund set up an emergency hub in Tunisia to deal solely with the water crisis. “What is interesting is to see the coping mechanism of the Libyan people. They went back to old wells in their neighbourhoods; there was an incredible feeling of solidarity.”
Libyans say they hope that feeling grows after Libya’s historical flag—the green,black and red banner that has come to symbolise the revolution—was raised at the UN on Tuesday, for the first time in 42 years.
Council chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, speaking at a high-level meeting on Libya at the UN, warned: “The road before us is still long and there are many challenges at many levels in the short and long term, either because of the presence of Gaddafi or because of challenges related to launching the developmental process to rebuild and reconstruct the state. Our needs are many.”
Jalil said early signs were good: “Stability and security have spread in a manner that proved the Libyan people bore their full responsibility.” United States President Barack Obama also addressed the meeting, praising Libyans for emerging from the “darkness” to walk the streets free of a tyrant. He called for “a democratic transition that is peaceful, inclusive, and just”.
It will take time
“None of this will be easy. After decades of iron rule by one man it will take time to build the institutions needed for a democratic Libya. But if we’ve learned anything these many months it is this: don’t underestimate the aspirations and the will of the Libyan people.”
In Tripoli, the water crisis after the August 21 fall of the capital is a case in point. Some Libyan bottling factories distributed water for free and farmers took tankards of water into the city from their farms. Brainstorming with Libyans, the UN decided to ask the 685 mosques to send one truck each to collect and then deliver 12 bottles to every family in their area.
The council suggested supplying water first to pro-Gaddafi neighbourhoods and the poor, said Moumtzis. The charity Médecins Sans Frontières delivered water to prisons and African migrants under threat who had gathered in camps; the council insisted that Libyans join the charity to ensure a Libyan face on deliveries. “Was it perfect? No. Some people behaved in an undignified way; others were very disciplined,” said Moumtzis.
Meanwhile the council quietly dispatched teams to the southern desert to negotiate with tribal leaders to get the four water collection centres working again. They harness the flow, from 580 wells, that is critical to Tripoli.
“There is an incredible will and drive to find solutions to fix it that goes beyond being paid and comes from deep in the heart,” said Moumtzis.
A handful of non-governmental organisations created and funded by Libyans living abroad worked for months alongside the UN and with the council’s stabilisation team on future planning. “They kept telling us they do not want to make the same mistakes of Iraq, the de-Baathification and everything else. Where there is still a gap is linking this goodwill of the team with technicians or ministries and specialists,” said Moumtzis.
But that is not all: already divisions have emerged between Libya’s new civilian and military leaders; and between eastern tribes who seized the east of the country—and weighted the tools of interim government in their favour—and those of the west and Tripoli who joined the fight later.
Jailed seven times
“Every Libyan had his own war with the regime. Everybody was the National Transitional Council,” said Tripoli businessman Husni Bey Husni. Pro-Gaddafi security forces sought Husni twice at his house, three times at his office and finally broke into a company warehouse. In decades past, he said, he had been jailed seven times.
Husni and his close associates worked clandestinely, while still in Tripoli, to undermine the regime’s fight by helping sporadic supplies to reach Misurata port when the city was besieged, for example, and to plan for the post-Gaddafi future using a two-way satellite communication system. Despite the planning efforts in which they took part, said Husni and an associate, problems and infighting remained.
“They have difficulty managing,” said Husni about the council. “They don’t have time to micro-manage and don’t have the team to macro-manage. And they are afraid of the power vacuum now. I don’t think there was any planning, in the sense that plans kept to a small circle are not plans.”
Husni and his associates have also been engaged in establishing systems and procedures to account for and spend money coming to Libya’s new rulers, as well working out finance options. But interim officials, including the stabilisation team run by Aref al-Nayed, cousin of acting premier Mahmoud Jibril, have blown hot and cold on such mechanisms.
“There is a real problem with management and planning,” said a European diplomatic source who dealt with the council’s organisation efforts. Key positions, he noted, had sometimes been filled by relatives at the expense of experts—one of the several complaints heard publicly from opponents of Jibril.
“This is a shame; this is not what we want — but we are just falling into the old trap of nepotism and tribalism,” said Husni. “It can be fixed. As Libyans paid this very high price in blood, nobody can cheat the Libyans any longer. Nobody will be allowed to rob it. The revolution was by all Libyans, and Libyans will not shut up.”—Christian Science Monitor