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Libya Is Messy. So Was Eastern Europe in 1991.

By Ali Tarhouni
January 17, 2013 6:30 PM EST
Libya Is Messy. So Was Eastern Europe in 1991.
Libya Is Messy. So Was Eastern Europe in 1991.

Two years ago, I was the son of a broken nation. For almost 40 years, I fought to bring freedom and basic human rights to Libya, only to see the regime of Muammar Qaddafi gain acceptance into the international community as the oppression continued. I despaired of ever seeing my country free.

Fast-forward less than a year, and I found myself racing down a desert road to Tripoli with a coroner’s report on my lap. As deputy prime minister of the newly liberated Libya, I was returning to the capital with confirmation that Qaddafi was dead and Libya’s 42-year nightmare was over.

Our path from a brutal autocratic regime to a fledgling democracy has been swift, but we have a long road ahead of us and many people outside Libya do not acknowledge or appreciate just how difficult our challenges are.

It has been just two years since the emergence of the Arab Spring and the start of Libya’s Feb. 17, 2011, uprising. Too many in the U.S. and Europe have rushed to judge the ultimate outcome of these revolutions. Grandiose statements that the Arab Spring has either failed or succeeded are premature and unhelpful.

Berlin Wall

Before passing judgment on the region, look at the ex-communist states of central and eastern Europe and their progress toward post-Soviet democracies. Where were they two years after the Berlin Wall fell? They were at war in Yugoslavia, still struggling to overthrow the regime in the Soviet Union, and in various states of economic free fall in the former Warsaw Pact countries. Despite the close ties that many of these nations enjoyed with western Europe, some of their economies and governments remain in flux to this day. More than 20 years on, the question of whether that “Eastern Spring” was an unalloyed success remains unanswered.

There are vital things that our friends in the U.S. and Europe can provide to help speed us along our path to democracy and prosperity in Libya. First among them is the understanding that there will be no overnight solutions.

Libya’s revolution is distinct from those in Tunisia and Egypt in important ways. First, our release from dictatorship required a protracted and bloody war. Second, in both Tunisia and Egypt, the Arab Spring deposed the heads of state, but left the basic institutions of government intact. In Libya, that vital state apparatus barely existed under Qaddafi’s regime. For that reason, the new Libya has far fewer pieces to work with in building an effective governing structure. Lastly, in both Egypt and Tunisia, a powerful, patriotic, national army remained to protect the sovereignty of the state.

Today, Libya still lacks an effective central government, as well as a strong national army and an internal-security force to protect its borders and cities. Moreover, the revolution has left a civilian population that is armed to the teeth and very reluctant to relinquish its weapons.

Despite all this, what should surprise and encourage observers is that most of Libya remains relatively safe for people to go about their daily lives. Almost all of Libya’s 6.4 million residents are Arabs and Sunni Muslims. This small, homogenous population, coupled with Libya’s strong social ties (largely due to the positive impact of Libya’s tribal structure), virtually eliminates the possibility of Libya descending into sectarian conflict.

As a sign of progress, 80 percent of eligible voters stood in line last year to vote for their local governments and the national assembly in Tripoli for the first time in more than 40 years. On Aug. 8, with tears of joy in my eyes, I had a front-row seat to witness the peaceful transfer of power from the National Transitional Council to the newly elected national assembly, a first for Libya.

Tragic Death

The process of building a politically stable and economically prosperous Libya will be long. Many from outside Libya have already contributed greatly to our nascent state. Chief among them was my dear friend Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador, who worked tirelessly for the cause of a free and democratic Libya until his tragic death in Benghazi last year.

Chris knew that Libya’s future is one of almost limitless potential that cannot be fulfilled in a day. Not only does Libya have vast oil and gas reserves, it also sits on enormous, untapped deposits of mineral wealth and enjoys one of the longest, most pristine coastlines on the Mediterranean Sea. Its strategic geographical position means that it is uniquely poised to be an important link between Europe and Africa.

Capitalizing on these immense resources to grow and diversify the Libyan economy will allow the nation to become a powerful force for stability and prosperity in North Africa. Already, the Libyan economy supports 2 million Egyptian workers, and harnessing new sources of income will enable our economy to look westward to Tunisia and the reservoir of unemployed skilled labor that it possesses.

But first things first. Achieving security and political stability is paramount if Libya is to fulfill its economic potential. On both of these fronts, the U.S and Europe can help by providing access to their rich experience and technical skills. To secure Libya, we need to create effective internal security and border-patrol capabilities as quickly as possible. Building these forces from scratch would take too much time, prolonging the residual violence in Libya.

On the political front, Libya is also starting from scratch. Stable, inclusive democracy is not possible without robust civil and political institutions that allow all Libyans to have a voice in the future of their country. Due to Qaddafi’s ban on any form of political or civic organization, we have little experience creating -- let alone participating in --these institutions. Again, the expertise that established democracies have can spur Libya along the path to a stable and free society.

Libya’s Search

There is a verse in the Koran that beautifully captures the challenges facing Libya today: “Feed them when they are hungry, and protect them from fear.” At its most basic, this is what Libya is searching for: peace, security and prosperity.

Libya’s quest is no different from those of its Arab Spring neighbors or the rest of humanity. We all seek the promise of safety and food on the table. With hard work, good intentions and help from our friends, we can realize that promise. The Libyan people paid a heavy price for their freedom and now hope to create a stable state that accepts, and contributes to, the global community at large. That, surely, is a goal worth the patience of our friends.

(Ali Tarhouni was minister for oil and finance in Libya’s National Transitional Council and later deputy prime minister and interim prime minister. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Ali Tarhouni at altarhouni@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net.