Archive for October, 2012

Hope Yet For Libya (orig. pub. in Wall St Journal Europe)

Monday, October 1st, 2012

The Wall Street Journal

September 18, 2012, 3:40 p.m. ET

Hope Yet for Libya
In local politics as in fashion, Libyans’ stubborn individualism will confound outsiders’ expectations.

Derna, Libya

The deadly Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi should not lead Americans to think of Libyans as anti-American or intolerant. Rather, they are an indication of the catastrophic failure of the country’s security forces, and of Benghazi’s failure to pull itself together as many smaller Libyan cities have.

But my impression, after three weeks traveling from the country’s far west coast to the far east, is that while Libya may be on the verge of being a failed state, many if not most of its cities are working. The eastern port city of Derna, population somewhere between 85,000 and 120,000, is a case in point.

Just about every English-language news article on Derna refers to it as a hotbed of Islamic extremism. It’s true that more foreign suicide bombers in Iraq over the last decade came from Derna than from any other city—perhaps because the city has been economically moribund for generations. It’s true that everyone knows a local boy or two fighting in Syria. And during Ramadan in August, Wahhabists blew up an ancient shrine in the center of the town’s main mosque.

But scarcely a month later, the shrine had already been rudely reconstructed using the same stones. A foreigner walking through the mosque and around the old town center—skillfully renovated under the auspices of Unesco just before the revolution—gets friendly greetings and endless questions: “What do you think of Derna?”

Libya’s elections in July tell some of the story. Derna is represented by two women and three men in the newly seated National Assembly. Derna’s local council doesn’t include any women, but two women were among the 90 candidates who vied for the 23 neighborhood representative positions.

Randa el Goudary, a Libyan-American from Ashburn, Virginia, readily admits that there is a fashion among some of Derna’s youth for the garb of Islamic extremists. “But I am going everywhere like this”—she points to her diaphanous headscarf and contemporary slacks and shirt. “I am driving myself, and no one says anything. Do you think if Qaeda is here that I will be here?”

Ms. el Goudary was one of a group of women gathered for coffee on the terrace of the Derna Pearl Hotel, the nightly resort of the local elite. Her table overlooks the swimming pool, where men and women swim together (though in T-shirts and long tights). Nearby is Jamila Ruta Al Henad, an Arabic teacher who heads a 180-person non-profit called “Citadel of the Free.” She wears the typical Libyan female dress of a long coat and a tightly pinned headscarf. Next to her is Fatima Ramadan Boudirah, all in black, her face nearly covered, wearing the black gloves affected by very conservative women.

Samaya Edris Elagi, 25, one of the two women who ran for local council this year, wears a hot pink headscarf and long shirt over pastel jeans and Paul Smith sneakers. A lawyer who speaks only Arabic, Ms. Elagi was inspired to run for office by the men and women who gave their lives in the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, and by a feeling of frustration among young people here. “We have absolutely nothing to do,” she says. She shows off her campaign flyer, which bears her photograph. Although women’s campaign posters have been defaced even in Benghazi, Libya’s second city, Ms. Elagi says hers are still up. She adds that she has not been threatened by any Wahhabists.

The extremists have been driven out of the town center, Mohamed Suweisy tells me, “because no one likes them here.” But about 300 or so are holed up in the nearby mountains, according to local estimates. Before the revolution, Derna had 3,000 policemen, or roughly one for every 12 residents. But they were mainly from other towns, and have not returned to work in a place where they were unpopular. New York City currently has about 36,000 police officers. If it had as many cops proportionally as prerevolutionary Derna, there would be 700,000.

So the town lives in some fear. Derna’s top need, says town council head Fathalla Ibriham Alawamy, is security. Walking through the recently renovated old town market, Mr. Suweisy explains that one particularly attractive courtyard is closed because there were no police to protect it from vandalism. In his shop nearby, Asea Ben Ali, a money changer, insists that “Libya needs police and strong government.” Yet just try to find someone in Derna who wears a seat belt, as mandated by law.

“The problem,” said Abdul Juwied Bubeida, “is that everyone here is working for the government. He estimates that 30,000 of Derna’s citizens are state employees—himself included. Yet along with state socialism in Gadhafi’s Libya, there was also neglect of basic services. Mr. Bubeida, for instance, has a developmentally disabled child. But there has never been special-needs education in Libya. Now Mr. Bubeida, together with other parents of special-needs children, has created a private school staffed by volunteers.

Libya has a long way to go, but the independent Libyan character allows for hope. If there’s anything Libya will not do, it is to conform to expectations. There is a streak of stubborn individualism here, worn with charm and Mediterranean allegria, that calls to mind American individualism. Now it remains to be seen if Libyans will also show some American responsibility and take ownership of their streets before a tiny minority hijacks their revolution.

The Fading of Libya’s Post-Revolutionary Glow (orig. pub. in Wall Street Journal)

Monday, October 1st, 2012

The Wall Street Journal

September 9, 2012, 6:56 p.m. ET

The Fading of Libya’s Post-Revolutionary Glow
At a site once venerated as a landmark of the rebellion now sit inflatable Batman and Spiderman children’s slides.



Nearly a year after the fall of the hated Gadhafi regime, this city and much of Libya seems caught in a post-revolutionary malaise. Indeed, the situation here evokes the dreaded words “failed state.” Security is weak at best, and nonexistent in places. The economy is hardly better than it was during the war. There are burnt-out cars in the central business district, and trash everywhere.

Two months since the election of a new government—notable for its rejection of Islamic extremists—sectarian clashes are on the rise. Two of Libya’s oldest and most revered Sufi shrines were destroyed last month in broad daylight—one on Aug. 25, just outside my hotel room in Tripoli; the other, a 500-year-old shrine and library housing thousands of early Islamic texts, the day before in Zilten, a town 90 miles east of the capital. The extremists believe it’s sinful to locate a Sufi saint’s tomb inside a mosque.

After the attacks, a special session of the newly elected National Assembly resulted in the minister of the interior, Fawzi Abdelal, admitting in a statement that the new government is weaker than the fanatics. He later resigned.

Little would seem to stand in the way of the Salafis moving on to destroy Libya’s classical antiquities, if they target them. Already some Roman statues in Sabratha’s great archeological site had to be removed from public display to protect them from attack.

Sadly, the issues bedeviling Libyans as they go about trying, largely with great goodwill, to set up a functioning country run deeper and broader than religious extremism. Four decades of dictatorship have resulted in widespread indolence and a lack of a sense of ownership of the public sphere. It’s a toxic mix common in the Islamic world. Often Libya seems able to rise above it, as in its largely free and fair July 7 national elections. But it is glaringly obvious in Libya’s treatment of the history of its recent revolution.

Here in Benghazi, opposite the makama or courthouse where a lawyers’ guild’s quiet protest on Feb. 15, 2011 led to the fall of a 42-year dictatorship, sit a pair of Batman and Spiderman inflatable children’s slides. Until the spring of this year, this was hallowed ground, and the wall of the courthouse was covered with homemade posters of the martyrs of the revolution. Parents brought their children to show them those who had died for Libya’s freedom. Booths from dozens of NGOs handed out literature. Souvenir vendors sold t-shirts, key chains, coffee mugs and just about everything imaginable with the revolutionary flag. Families brought their children to celebrate their newfound freedom. Back in April 2011, there was a utopian aspect to the scene, with free espresso, touchingly incompetent crafts, and Libyans still thrilled to be able to speak their minds to foreigners.

All of this is changed. The photographs and literature are gone. Vendors sell toilet seats and glassware, not flags. Though there’s some scaffolding around the makama, nothing is going on inside the courthouse. In regard to the wall of martyrs coming down, Abdulla Doma, the Libyan photographer for Agence France Presse, says, “If the justice system is working then it is worth it. But it is four months now that it was destroyed and the makama is not working.”

Mr. Doma was the source of the first videos of the revolution. His brother drove them 500 kilometers south to a Siemens office in the desert where they could be emailed to Al Jazeera. As one of those who informed the outside world of the revolution through the Benghazi Media Center, Mr. Doma feels as keenly as anyone that with the passage of time the raw material of history will be lost. “We were hoping the makama would become a museum.”

Elsewhere, in Libya’s smaller cities, citizens are showing more public spirit, more interest in preserving their revolutionary past. In Derna, 200 kilometers to the east of Benghazi, locals rebuilt a shrine that Salafis blew up in July, and a room in the central mosque is devoted to photographs of those killed by Gadhafi while he was in power. Sumaya Edris Elagi, 25 years old and a candidate for Derna’s local council elections, was inspired to run by “how our martyrs gave away their lives” in the revolution. This is the sort of consciousness of the past that gives hope for the future.

In Sabratha, west of Tripoli, citizens have cleaned up their city, planted trees at their own expense, and dedicated a roundabout to the revolution. A group in the port city of Zwara led by Senussi Mahrez, a major general in the Libyan army who led a rebel brigade in the revolution, is trying to establish a museum in a 100-year-old building.

Clearly, Libya’s new government has more pressing needs than new museums. Security and a well-functioning civil service are higher priorities, and the West can better assist with both. But Libya’s new leaders should understand—perhaps even better than most—that a people who do not respect their past and fail to write their own history will find it written for them by others.

Zwara One Year Later (orig. pub. in Weekly Standard online)

Monday, October 1st, 2012

Zwara, Libya
Zwara, One Year Later
4:44 PM, Sep 7, 2012 • By ANN MARLOWE

Zwara, Libya

I first visited Zwara on August 23 of last year, just as the local revolutionaries were liberating their city from the now deposed regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. Today, the yellow, blue, and green Berber flag, forbidden under Qaddafi, flies alongside the new Libyan flag, and there’s a local radio station broadcasting in Tamazight, the Berber language. One year after the revolution, things are looking up in Zwara—but it’s clear that both the local understanding of democracy and the national government are very much works in progress.

Though non-Arab, Zwara is experiencing some of the same ugly growth pains as the rest of Libya, including the destruction of important Sufi sites in the center of Tripoli and Zlitan by Islamic extremists prefigured by similar vandalism at a Zwara tomb. (At least in Zwara, the activities were confined to furtive acts at night in an area distant from the town itself.) Here, as elsewhere, these Salafis also defaced the photographs of female candidates for elected office.

Zwara is still a rundown beach town of ochre houses and a modest shopping district. Construction cranes, idle for more than a year, hover over an unfinished beach hotel. While only ten of the town’s 50 police are likely to be at work on any given day, the sense of lawlessness and ubiquitous heavy weapons that characterized Zwara in the fall of 2011 has largely vanished.

The youths who were thrilled to ride around on pickup trucks mounted with 14.5 mm. machine guns last August are buying motorcycles now (and, as in much of the developing world, riding them recklessly fast and without helmets). The most frequent question I’m asked by young men is the cost of an American motorcycle. The second most frequent question is about the cost of an iPhone. Stores here are filled with a much better variety of goods than last fall, though government salaries have not risen along with prices. Senussi Mahrez, 55, a general in the Libyan air defense, notes that his salary is still just 1,000 dinars, or $800, monthly. “But it costs that just to change the tires on my car,” he complains.

Zwara’s primary schools are up and running, and shortened the summer break to help students catch up for time missed during the revolution. However, most secondary schools are short of teachers, many of whom were foreigners from Arab countries who fled when the revolution began.

Politics is still a matter of urgency, as it has been ever since the revolution that erupted in February 2011. Turnout was very high here for the July 7 elections that chose the 200-person National Assembly that will supervise the writing of the new Constitution. In Zwara, 16,000 citizens voted and almost 50 percent of them were women though there were no female independent candidates. But for the local council elections, fewer than 7,000 registered and about half that number voted. About 700 women voted, although there were 3 female candidates among the 31 vying for 7 local council seats.

There are various explanations for the low turnout including a possible change in government structure that may mean the new local councils won’t serve very long. Dr. Tariq Alatoshi, the top vote-getter in the local council election and hence the council head, explained that Libyans are an impatient people and that because the first elected council proved disappointing, voters couldn’t be bothered to involve themselves with its replacement.

Zwara’s new representative to the Assembly is Nouri Abu Sahmin, who won 58 percent of the local vote. Nouri, as he’s called locally, is a businessman formerly in charge of buying and selling the PVC produced at the Bu Kamesh chemical complex nearby. Imprisoned for Islamic activism in his youth, Nouri is now a self-described moderate. Still, his detractors contend that he’s tainted by his reputation for cronyism, even as he was acquitted on corruption charges.

If it’s still too early to see the future here or elsewhere in Libya very clearly, it seems fair to say that it is more likely to be decided by the ballot box rather than the gun.