Katie Gonzalez
Last updated: 17 October, 2012

INTERVIEW: Where does Libya stand today?

Your Middle East's Katie Gonzalez spoke with Dirk Vandewalle, a long-time Libya scholar who was cast into the media spotlight when the rebels successfully toppled the 42-year reign of Moamer Kadhafi.

Vandewalle, a Dartmouth College professor and former advisor to the UN special envoy for the special mission to Libya, recently returned from a trip to the country where he monitored the July 7 parliamentary elections for the Carter Center. In this interview he talks about ongoing developments as Libya attempts to rebuild and restore.

Your Middle East: Where would you say Libya stands today?
Dirk Vandewalle:
It’s a country where, in a sense, the government is still not completely in control physically of the territory. It’s a government that’s facing serious challenges simultaneously and doesn’t have the power to address them all at the same time. So what the government is trying to do is meet these new challenges simultaneously, and obviously it’s not quite yet capable of doing so.

Having said that, if you look at it from a more positive angle, this is a government that a year after the death of Kadhafi has managed to have national elections, and has managed to hand over the power to a national congress. It is a country where we see an emerging civil society. And I think very slowly, we see the institutions of government emerging. Now all of this is very, very slow, but I think there is some traction there. It is far from what many people have accused Libya of being — a failed state. I think on the contrary, there’s all kinds of evidence that this is a country that very slowly is becoming kind of a modern state, hopefully, with democratic institutions.

YME: What steps must the Libyan government and Libyan people take in order to become this kind of modern state?
What needs to happen is that the government needs to control the territory. It’s going to have to come to some kind of solution with the militias, some of which are genuine militias, the revolutionary militias that came out of the civil war. Some of them are mediocre militias that really emerged during the civil war, during the chaos. And that’s the major challenge. It is not so easy because the Libyan government depends in part on some of these militias to help provide order in the country. So it’s a matter of bringing them in, cajoling them to some extent, to some extent paying them off.

The second challenge in Libya is what I would call a young, inexperienced political system. A lot of the rules of the game that we in the West take for granted still do not exist. So for example, anytime that a group disagrees with what the Prime Minister decides, they think it’s fine to just go into the national assembly and have a protest meeting and physically oppose whatever the Prime Minister has been doing. There’s a lot of maturing to do in order to create a political system.

The third major challenge that the government faces is the issue of reconciliation and transitional justice. There are still thousands of Libyans who have been put in jail and have not been charged — Libyans and non-Libyans also. So I think it’s important for a number of reasons that the government really does something about it. Libya needs to move on, so that there are real criteria for who is acceptable in Libya and who is not, who has too much blood on his hands and who does not. This is important not only for creating a national sense of identity, but it’s also very important, for example, for the economy. A lot of these people are very talented, and their talents in many ways are being wasted now.

The next thing, but certainly not the least challenging, is economic development and diversification. This is a country that for 42 years has been very badly mismanaged. There’s very high unemployment. There are very few people who work in the oil center obviously. So a lot of the major challenges of any new government in Libya now are to create employment and move away from the economic handouts of the Kadhafi regime.

Any of these four challenges would be very challenging for any government, let alone a government that until a year ago did not exist yet and a country where there was no political system.

YME: And speaking of economics, how would you say the life of the average Libyan has changed since the Kadhafi regime was overthrown?
The country is roughly back in terms of the oil output compared to where it was before the civil war; the natural gas output is still about 20 percent below where it was before, but so the country from an economic point of view is certainly back to normal. As a matter of fact, I think that most people who were on the peripheral, it’s probably at this point a lot better because the patronage and corruptions that existed under the Kadhafi regime has somewhat disappeared. For the average Libyan, this has been a very good development over the last year or so.

YME: Let’s pivot to more recent events in Libya. What was your reaction upon hearing about the attacks to the American consulate in Benghazi?
My initial thought was that it was probably one of these rogue militias who, in a fit of anger, decided to attack a Western target. It would seem now that this was much better organized and planned than we had originally thought. So I understand the confusion that existed at the beginning. But now of course it is clear that this is more systematic. But I think that the bottom line also is that we will need to think much more carefully about the security in places like Benghazi. One of the big issues that will come out of this is whether our means of protecting our embassies and consulates in regions like Libya where the threat level should have been high are adequate.

A lot of people are saying that this is very indicative of a streak of radicalism, that radicalism is emerging, but I really don’t think this is true. The kind of extremism that we’ve seen really is the exception in Libya. What we’ve seen in Libya is people walking in the street saying, ‘We don’t want this kind of radicalism in our midst.’ So this event is an important point for Libyans as well. They realize that they need to stand up to these small groups that have infiltrated Libya because the borders are still very poor. But this was an exceptional event in Libya, and not an everyday occurrence in Libya.

YME: How would you characterize the response of the international community — and the United States in particular — in regards to this attack?
We handled it as well as we could. There was this amount of chaos. Even though the intelligence in Libya was far from perfect, in the aftermath we’ve handled it fairly well. Washington so far has decided wisely that any kind of military response or targeting any particular group would be seen by many Libyans as an infringement on their sovereignty. I’m quite encouraged by what we’ve seen so far. The fact that we’re now sending a very experienced diplomat to the region bodes very well for our continued interactions with the Libyans.

YME: What would you say will be the greatest strengths of the newly-appointed Ambassador Lawrence Pope?
He’s a very experienced ambassador. He’s someone who speaks fluently Arabic and was very well regarded during his career. Of all the people who could have been appointed on a temporary basis, I think this was one of the top people that we could have sent to this region.

YME: Looking to the future, what are you hoping to see unravel in Libya in the upcoming months?
I hope that the Libyans will be able to keep making steady process that whatever government emerges will find some traction in terms of state building. All that will mean that the state will face two or three issues over the next few weeks or months that they will have to make important decisions on. One of them is the writing of constitution, the selecting of the Constitutional Assembly, which I think will be a very sensitive issue for Libyans because in the end, the constitution will determine the rules of the game.

I also hope that they can move on this reconciliation issue, because that’s important for the future of the country.

And I hope that they make this progress thinking very systematically about the economic future of the country, what to do about these patterns of patronage and corruption that have existed for so long,

YME: When do you think the constitution might be finalized?
The constitution was supposed to be written 120 days after the government was in place. So I think that everyone, including the Libyans, feel like that is of course unrealistic. It will probably take close to that time just to decide on the Constitutional Assembly. Remember, the 1951 Constitution, which was Libya’s first constitution, took over two years to compose. So I think it will take a lot longer, although it’s in the interest of Libyans to do this as quickly as possible. The whole period of writing the constitution will be a very difficult period, and a period in which a lot of people, like groups that are opposed to it, can intervene and spoil the profit.

YME: If you were to give diplomatic advice for how to proceed in regards to Libya, what would you say?
I would say that this is a country that has come a long way so far since Kadhafi died. There was nothing there socially, politically, economically, so we should do two things: we should have patience with Libya, but we should also be very supportive of Libyans. It has been clear so far that the Libyans have been very grateful for the advice so far, and they are willing to listen to advice from the international community. So I think the international community and in particular, the United States, should be doing is to continue to allow Libyan leaders to build up this new government and new state.

YME: On a more personal note…what are you currently working on?
I’m writing a book that will compare the period of when Libya was created in 1951, and the state they were trying to create at that point, to the new state that they’re trying to create in the aftermath of the civil war. It’s a book about state building, and the difficulty that oil exporters like Libya face when they try to create a modern state. It’s kind of a comparison between Libya very early in political life to Libya today.