Making Revolution Work

Making Revolution Work


The New York Times, 26 October 2012

In Tripoli this week, there was no water for at least five days, huge heaps of garbage lined the highways and thousands of young men, most of them heavily armed, lacked meaningful work.

As Libya reached the one-year anniversary of the death of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and his regime, the country’s new leaders are not delivering on the revolution’s promise and many Libyans are souring on democracy.
The situation is both worse and better than in other Arab Spring countries, where expectations were predictably large in the heady days after the dictators fell. Despite its tribal culture, Libya has a strong sense of national identity and significant natural resources on which to build a future. Oil production is nearly back to prerevolution levels.

Elections held in July gave the first elected government legitimacy. But Qaddafi never let the country build strong state institutions or a civil society. The inexperienced new political leaders are fumbling, and even many Congress members lack a basic understanding of what legislatures do. The first prime minister was dismissed after only three weeks and the second is still trying to put together his cabinet.

Another serious problem is the delay in disarming revolutionaries who liberated Libya but now pose a long-term threat to stability. Last month’s attack on the American consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans showed the Libyan government’s weakness in dealing with extremist groups.

A government commission is working to provide former fighters with education, training, mental health services and job programs, but it lacks sufficient financing. In Tripoli, there has been progress integrating the revolutionaries into official police and army units. But elsewhere, thousands of young men still belong to local militias that can fuel conflicts.

One example is Bani Walid, the Qaddafi stronghold that resisted government authority until government-allied militias captured it on Wednesday after a weeklong siege. The government said it needed to arrest criminals hiding there and bring the town under federal control, but there are serious questions about why the community was shelled with artillery and rockets.

Libya’s other major task is writing a constitution that will decide the character of the new state. After decades of abusive rule by the regime in Tripoli, Libyans in the eastern and southern regions are insisting on more control over their lives. Most Libyans doubt the country will break apart, but decentralization of authority is inevitable.

The danger is that chaos and corruption will breed widespread cynicism even as a democracy struggles to take root. Libya’s new leaders need to do a far better job of connecting with their citizens — by providing honest information and basic services like garbage collection, and giving them reasons to trust that government can improve their lives.