Western Nations Silent as Libya Tumbles

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of Libya's National Transitional Council, meets President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Paris, September 1, 2011

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of Libya’s National Transitional Council, meets President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Paris, September 1, 2011 (Greek Prime Minister’s Office)

Dozens of angry protesters surrounded the building of Libya’s National Transitional Council in Benghazi during the last week of January, the first to willingly come under the control of the post-Gaddafi interim authority. The members of the NTC, who have stepped into the governing vacuum left by the dismantling of the colonel’s regime, are increasingly under hot water with a growing segment of Libya’s population.

Some of the very rebels who volunteered to fight under the NTC’s banner during the country’s eight month civil war are now turning against the body’s leadership which is often described as inept, corrupt and at times incompetent. The days when Mustafa Abdel Jalil and his colleagues on the council were hailed as revolutionary heroes and the guardians of Libya have gone. Or, as The Washington Post rightly put it, the “honeymoon is over.”

The restoration of public security has been a significant concern for Libyans of all backgrounds and tribal affiliations since Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was officially declared dead last August. Five months later, most of the country’s security work is left to the armed brigades that swept up loyalists and drove them out of the capital of Tripoli.

Libyans are just starting to assemble a professional army and police force for the first time in four decades. While recruitment has trickled in with some twenty-five thousand Libyan men training for their new duties, militias in the cities of Tripoli, Misrata and Zintan are stuck in a civil war outlook. The chief of staff of the new Libyan army, General Youssef Mangoush, has acknowledged that integrating the dozens of militias into a coherent national military will be one of the most difficult and time consuming challenges the NTC leadership faces.

National security, however, is only one of the problems slowing down Libya’s transition from an autocracy to a responsible member of the international community.

Complaints by citizens over the body’s undemocratic practices and lack of transparency are bursting into the open with Benghazi residents especially upset over the state of their city. A draft election law that was produced and released by NTC officials has been lambasted not only for its content but for the way the document was created in the first place — without direct public participation or input from independent election experts.

There is outrage over the fact that Libyans who hold dual citizenship will not be permitted to run in the elections for the Constituent Assembly, banishing dozens of experienced and qualified Libyans who were forced into exile under Gaddafi’s rein. While women are guaranteed to sit in the legislature, they are only allowed a 10 percent share, which could limit the number of female candidates who run.

Allegations of torture are the most embarrassing for Libya’s interim government. After Gaddafi’s death last October, the beatings, lashings, electrocution and sodomy were supposed to stop or at least that was what most Libyans had hoped. Sadly, each practice continues to be used by both militias and the NTC’s young security service to break down those who were caught on the wrong side of the conflict. 

Amnesty International’s latest statement on Libya details the deaths of tortured detainees under the care of fighters connected to the new Libyan government. But it was the action of Medecins Sans Frontieres, the group famous for its medical work in conflict zones around the world, which placed the brightest spotlight on the torture question.

Sick of the inhumane treatment being offered to Libya’s prisoners, MSF staff quit their operations in Misrata’s prison system. The aid organization has seen some awful things during its history, making its decision to throw in the towel even more damning for Libya’s national council.

Tet, despite all of these cracks underneath the Libyan surface, the NATO coalition that intervened to save the lives of tens of thousands of Libyans from Gaddafi’s crackdown are surprisingly silent at a time when the country needs the most help.

The Obama Administration has only reiterated the American position that it stands with the new Libya but we seldom hear of what type of assistance Washington is giving to Libyans on the ground.

Britain, France and the United States face a similar conundrum and that is whether waiting for the Libyan government to ask for specific advice — which has been the Obama Administration’s policy so far — is a truly appropriate response when the most senior policymaker in the country openly frets about further instability on the horizon.

This may be overly pessimistic assessment at this point in time but it could become dangerously close to a self-fulfilling prophecy if more Libyan citizens, exhausted with dictatorship, nepotism and violence, remain unsatisfied with the way their appointed leaders do business.

At a minimum, the United States and its European partners can try, to the best of their ability, to ensure that the process of democracy itself — not just casting a ballot but creating a fresh culture of accountability and results for the people — is protected. Libyans themselves must be able to see that all of the resources and aggravation that has been spent thus far will pay off in the end.  Otherwise, the only objective that Libya’s citizen soldiers and NATO achieved in the eight month bombing campaign was the collapse of a dictator — a success that is hardly sustainable when the political landscape resembles a gaping wound.