Archive for November, 2011

After Gadhafi, Hope for Modernity (orig. pub. in WSJ, 11/2/2011)

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011


NOVEMBER 2, 2011

After Gadhafi, Hope for Modernity

Tripoli, Libya

‘Now we have to hurry to do everything we want. Everyone from his place. Me, from this museum.” Fatheia al Howasi, the director of Libya’s National Museum since 2007, is soft-spoken, determined, and refreshingly honest in her serviceable English. She is also eager to get to work bringing the museum up to international standards and reopening it to the Libyan public—it has been closed since the revolution started in Benghazi on Feb. 17. Though the capital grows calmer every day, life is far from normal; armed men are ubiquitous and there is a serious shortage of cash. On Sunday, Ms. Howasi led me on an all-too-brief tour of the five-story structure, built in 1988 with Unesco help inside Tripoli’s 17th-century Saraya al Hamra, or Red Palace.

A 1984 graduate of Benghazi’s Garyounis University who has spent her entire career in Tripoli’s Department of Antiquities, Ms. Howasi tells the recent history of the museum without drama. While the museum was closed, she visited every day and her staff of 70 looked after the physical plant. When Moammar Gadhafi fled Tripoli on Aug. 19 and the uprising began, Ms. Howasi and the staff hid “some important small pieces”—a half-dozen glass display cases are still empty—but otherwise took no extraordinary measures.

Soon, revolutionary fighters from the Nafusa Mountains and nearby Zawiyah poured into Tripoli. (One of the major brigades that entered Tripoli hails from Zintan, Ms. Howasi’s hometown.) “Some thuwar [revolutionaries] came into the museum,” she says, but they damaged only the exhibits in the six galleries devoted to Gadhafi and smashed the windows of two of Gadhafi’s cars that are incongruously exhibited among Roman artifacts in one of the main galleries on the ground floor. (One is a lime-green Volkswagen Beetle from the 1960s.) Upstairs, the area that once held Gadhafi mementos is now empty. When I expressed the hope that the history of the Gadhafi period would not be lost to the next generation of Libyans, Ms. Howasi quickly agreed: “These things are for another time, but we need to remember and correct.”

Ms. Howasi says that the Gadhafi exhibits were the extent of the regime’s interference with the museum’s exhibition contents, though she also admits that the reason so few of the Arabic signs are translated into English is that the museum “was not allowed to write by English” during one period when Gadhafi burned foreign-language textbooks and forbade the teaching of foreign languages in schools. When he changed his mind in recent years, “somebody start and stop, somebody start and stop.” This, too, is typically Libyan: There is a sort of national attention-deficit disorder, perhaps the result of 42 years under a madly capricious ruler. When I visited, Ms. Howasi was unable to find any English guide or catalog to the museum.

While there are no classical pieces of earth-shattering importance—a fair amount of Libya’s classical heritage made its way to Italian and other European museums during the Italian occupation—there are vibrant, dynamic mosaics of daily life from the ancient cities of Leptis Magna and Sabratha, many centered around fishing and sea creatures, and important panels from the arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna. The mosaics compare with the best in Tunisia, with tiny fragments that capture light and allow for great naturalism. But the Roman glass on show is mediocre, and even if the empty cases that once held jewelry and other small artifacts were full, they would not compare in extent with the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, not to mention the Italian museums. The Islamic artifacts are substandard, which probably reflects the fact that Libya was a backwater for most of the postclassical period.

The well-traveled foreign visitor will be most thrilled by the pieces from Libya’s indigenous civilizations, mainly unfamiliar to Westerners. There is a fascinating bijou third-century mausoleum and panels of bas reliefs from Ghirza, south of Misrata, whose endearingly naive depictions of animals and foliage show a fusion of local and Greek art. There are also artifacts from the mysterious Garamantian desert empire, thought to be a Berber civilization. Work is still being done on the remote desert sites where these objects were found. The exhibits on Libya’s rich prehistoric heritage only hint at its splendor and importance. The vast desert covering most of the country below the Mediterranean coast contains some of the world’s finest prehistoric rock art—represented here mainly by photographs and reproductions—along with shards of the indigenous pottery and the 5,400-year-old mummy of a 7-year-old girl found in the Acacus Mountains in 1958.

Libyan cultural and educational institutions usually have a Rip Van Winkle quality, with decades-old signage, little Web presence, and an insular orientation—and the museum is typical. Libyans are not big on maintenance, and many of the light bulbs were out when I visited. But Ms. Howasi is quick to note that most of the improvements she hopes for are cosmetic. In her opinion, the museum does not need a major cash infusion. She did not ask for foreign help. (That is much more necessary to conserve Libya’s neglected archaeological treasures, as Saleh Alagab, head of the Department of Antiquities, has noted.) Ms. Howasi’s attitude, which is common here, reflects the pride and self-confidence of a people who won their freedom with their own blood. And the fact that the museum’s treasures were respected by the revolutionaries is an encouraging sign for Libya’s future.

Life in Libya (orig. appeared in Weekly Standard, Nov 14, 2011)

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Life in Libya
So far: less poor, less nasty, and less brutish than under Qaddafi.
Ann Marlowe
November 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09


Life in post-revolutionary Libya is not quite normal yet—and Libyans are just beginning to work out what that new normal is going to look like. Shops are mainly open and well stocked, though most carry the sort of low-quality goods more common in places like Afghanistan and Mali than a rich oil state like Libya.

Then again, the country’s finances are shaky right now. A number of banks have shut down, and those still open have set a limit on how much people are allowed to withdraw—which amounts to 750 dinars (a little more than $600) every two weeks. Given these restrictions, people are understandably afraid to deposit their cash in banks, a caution that exacerbates the currency shortage. The National Transitional Council’s plans to redesign the currency—without Qaddafi’s face—also make people nervous about holding onto the notes currently in circulation, especially the large denominations that Qaddafi printed when he needed cash in recent years.

Libya is not only newly on the path to democracy, but also just 60 years removed from desperate poverty and illiteracy. There’s a rocky road ahead, even if Libya is able to develop into a viable democracy. And the signs so far are mixed.

For instance, the transitional city councils created by local neighborhood committees are highly undemocratic in one key respect: They have no women. There isn’t one woman on the councils in Sabratha, Tripoli, or Zuwarah, which between them have about 2 million citizens. Amal Bugaighis, a prominent female lawyer in Benghazi, says the same is true in that city of 800,000. The odds are that, even when the local transitional councils are phased out, women will still be underrepresented when elections for the four-year city council jobs are held in eight months. There are just two or three women on the National Transitional Council itself.

Another issue is the role of Islam in the future Libyan constitution. The population is almost entirely Muslim, and when National Transitional Council head Mustafa Abdel-Jalil announced October 23 that Libyan laws must be in accord with the Koran, he expressed a popular, though not entirely universal, opinion. And yet the fact is that even self-described liberals sound a lot like the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood. For example, Essa Ali, a member of the relatively liberal Association for Democracy and Equality, says that what is in the Quran is “an order from God.” Still, he is at pains to distinguish his party from the religious fundamentalists.

Libya is a web of loosely, and eccentrically, connected city-states that reflects tribal alliances and rivalries. For instance, Tripoli is a commercial city that was nourished by the Qaddafi regime, while Benghazi, hated by Qaddafi, was starved of government spending. It’s hardly surprising that Benghazi is now exultant in the wake of Qaddafi’s downfall and death and Tripoli less so.

There are other winners and also-rans in the post-Qaddafi order. In Berber regions like Zuwarah in western Libya, the revolution won locals the freedom to express their indigenous culture. In the revolution, fighters from Misurata and Zintan paid dearly. (The latter, a town of perhaps 60,000, may have lost more than 200 men.) And now these cities seem to be trying to parlay their losses into political power. The rebels from Zintan refuse to withdraw from Tripoli, and are confiscating, or stealing, goods and property.

Accordingly, Libya’s biggest worry is the omnipresent bands of young men with assault rifles and truck-mounted antiaircraft guns. In Sabratha, for example, locals in the quiet, conservative town of 100,000 worry because the three different brigades of revolutionaries based there answer to different commanders. Disarming these revolutionaries in order to avert civil conflict is a big concern for every Libyan who isn’t one of them. One Libyan diplomat says he’s worried that the country might not even get to the point of holding elections before violence erupts.

The country’s emerging security establishment recognizes the urgency of the situation. Mustafa al-Sagezli, Libya’s deputy interior minister and the deputy commander of the 17 of February brigade, has a $10 billion plan for getting the weapons and fighters off the streets. First, says the American-educated computer entrepreneur, Libya has to register all those who fought for the revolution, which he figures is about 100,000 men. There will be opportunities for about 20,000 men to join new internal security forces and another 20,000 to patrol the borders and secure the oil fields. Others will join the national army, which, says Sagezli, has to be rebuilt “on a professional basis.” Qaddafi gutted the Libyan armed forces for years while he created parallel brigades reporting to him or his inner circle that were better equipped and paid than the army.

Of the other revolutionaries, some will go back to the jobs they had before. The many who had marginal or no employment will be offered business opportunities, the chance to continue their studies, including at technical schools abroad, and subsidies for housing and marriage. This integration and rehabilitation plan is costly, much more than the estimated $2 billion that Washington chipped into the NATO effort. Meanwhile, $150 billion in regime assets remains frozen, including most of $37 billion frozen by the United States.

“There is a big role for our foreign friends to help Libya control the weapons,” says Colonel Bashir al-Madhouni, a former tank commander in the Libyan Army who defected to the rebels. Of course, most Libyans, and many foreigners, would say that if a reasonable democracy results, the cost will be repaid a hundredfold by the benefit of Libya’s example to the Muslim world.