In 2000, Rhiannon Smith moved to Libya to work as a Senior Tutor with a British firm that was aiming to foster economic development in the country through English language training in financial institutions. Along with most other non-Libyans, she left Libya shortly after the start of the revolution, returning at the beginning of November last year.
WB: What was it like working in pre-Revolutionary Libya?
RS: The bureaucracy of pre-Revolutionary Libya was at times frustrating, but this is the same across the MENA region in my experience and rarely impinged on my freedom to live how I wanted. Of course I was aware of how brutal and oppressive his regime was. Equally, with his pictures adorning every available public space and green flags waving from every building I was also fully aware that this was very much Gaddafi’s Libya. As a foreigner, however, his dictatorial rule had little direct impact on my day-to-day life. I was careful not to discuss political issues at work or with Libyan friends. Other than that, I got on with my job and my life in Libya, and came to love the country and its people.
WB: You currently work in Libya and in Tripoli, what are the day-to-day conditions like?
RS: Day-to-day conditions here are much the same as pre-revolutionary times, except there are far more guns, lots of protests, as well as a new set of colours and songs. I feel safe and secure and am able to go about my daily life without restriction. I take taxis at night on my own, I walk around on my own and I have had neither problems nor hassle.
Most of the security concerns – hyped up by the international media – do not reflect daily life in Tripoli. Yes, there are sporadic shooting incidents, but these are not targeted attacks. That said, most Libyans I know own a gun, and even I now know the difference between different guns and bullets. Checkpoints now are manned by young men wearing mismatched military uniforms with Kalashnikovs casually slung over their shoulders – not the police. There are still regular protests and strikes in the city, occasionally affecting daily life as they often involve blocking off roads. The traffic also seems to have become more chaotic, as traffic police are few and far between.
What has changed is the atmosphere. The new Libyan flag is everywhere; walls are covered in anti Gaddafi graffiti and everyone has an opinion on Gaddafi, the future of the country, or a story about the revolution. There are bullets holes evident on many buildings, and a few have been completely destroyed. The biggest physical change in Tripoli is in Bab-al-azzizia (Gaddafi’s former compound), which has been flattened, leaving a huge expanse of rubble.
WB: Libya’s population is very young, comparative to the West’s ageing population, what are the economic prospects like for them?
RS: In theory the prospects should be good because Libya has oil wealth, as shown by the record LD68.6 billion ($54 billion) budget recently announced. However one of the main problems faced by Libyan youth in the job market is their lack of skills and language abilities. The Libyan educational system does not provide students with the necessary tools and skills to enter the global workplace and as a result youth unemployment is comparatively high for such a young society.
WB: In terms of your work, what do you do?
RS: I work for a company called Know Libya, providing research, training and consultancy services to both foreign and Libyan companies. I am a trainer in English language and business soft skills, carrying out sector specific research within Libya; I also organise surveys, monitor the news and translate documents
WB: What motivates you to do that job?
RS: In terms of training, I think that language skills and soft skills such as writing CVs, formal presentations, time management etc are crucial to Libya’s future. As I mentioned before, the Libyan education system is lacking in many ways and the only way for those who have already left school to gain the skills and experiences necessary to find jobs and really direct Libya’s future is through training.
At Know Libya we have been running free training in recent months to encourage a culture of learning and self development which is a new concept here, but one which is crucial for building a stable, independent future for this country which has suffered so much.
WB: What is the greatest challenge facing Libya within the next year?
RS: The elections. Libyans still have very little understanding, experience or knowledge about how the electoral process works and what is expected of them. The government has not made enough effort to raise political awareness or encourage political participation. Many Libyans still do not understand what a constitution is, or how it will be drafted and adopted. Although many parties have been launched, there is very little detail about policy or vision. If awareness about elections and political participation does not improve then people will just end up voting for the name they know, or who their family is voting for, or they won’t vote at all because they do not understand why they should.