Bucking the conventional wisdom on Libya

Whenever you see Libya mentioned in the headlines these days, it usually has something to do with security. The Western media has been awash with doom-and-gloom stories about the presumed anarchy in the country. You'd think that jihadis were running around all over the place.

Look, it's understandable that much of the coverage of Libya is shaped by the big story of the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi. (And that impression has undoubtedly been reinforced by a series of recent travel advisories from Western governments who have been warning their citizens to stay away from Benghazi and the surrounding region.) That was a horrible tragedy. But if you see everything through that lens, you're going to get the bigger story wrong.

That mistake was dramatized recently by the questions British journalists were asking during Prime Minister David Cameron's recent visit to Tripoli. (Hat tip to Nigel Ash at the Libya Herald.) One of them asked, for example, whether it was true that the government's writ doesn't extend beyond the outskirts of the capital. In fact, the reality on the ground is that the numbers of police are growing and their patrols are increasingly visible. Some of the other reporters clearly didn't know the most basic facts about the circumstances of Libya's revolution. This says a lot about how the Western media are inclined to cover the place.

Look, it's true that post-revolution Libya faces huge challenges. No one denies that. But the progress we've been making is also remarkable if you consider the extent of the vacuum left behind by a 42-year dictatorship.

To start with, don't forget how the majority of Libyans cast their votes in the country's first general election last year. They overwhelmingly chose the members of parties that are more liberal rather than religious ones. Libyans are Muslims, and they love Islam, but the fact that they don't necessarily want Islamist parties to govern clearly shows what sort of system they prefer. In the wake of Stevens' death, 30,000 people in Benghazi took to the streets to demonstrate against terrorism and violence on the night of September 21, 2012. That shows that most Libyans still aspire to democracy and the rule of law, and that they remain resolutely opposed to any form of terrorism or tyranny.

The economy is picking up. The government has stabilized the banking sector. Oil production has resumed, quickly reaching pre-war levels despite the pessimistic predictions of the experts. Housing and construction projects are under way across the country; every day seems to bring the opening of a new mall or restaurant. Schools and universities opened their doors again immediately after Qaddafi's downfall in October 2011, and they've been working without interruption ever since. None of this really fits the definition of a failed state -- at least as far as I understand it.

As security goes, it's true that militias still hold sway in parts of the country. But the government has also been making good progress at reviving the army and police, which are upgrading training and equipment. The process of integrating revolutionaries into the security forces is also moving along. The Ministry of the Interior alone has registered 26,000 new recruits within the past two months.

As a Libyan who spent all his life under the Qaddafi regime, I can't help but worry that all the negative reporting from outside will have a negative effect on the country's development. The people I know are strongly optimistic about the country's future -- but climbing out of the hole that Qaddafi has bequeathed to us will certainly be much harder if our supporters in the international community see our country only in terms of no-hope scenarios. Investors certainly aren't going to invest in such a frightening place. And governments will certainly shy away as well. 

In a recent lecture in London, U.S. expert Ethan Chorin was bemoaning the minimal assistance that Libya has received from Washington since the revolution. The same could certainly be said of our friends in the European Union (though they are, at least, gradually putting together an assistance mission to the Libyan military -- better late than never). The problem, of course, is that pessimism can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let's hope that our friends overseas don't succumb. So far, at least, Libyans themselves seem fairly immune.

Mohamed Eljarh, the newest addition to our regular lineup of Transitions bloggers, is a Libyan academic researcher and  activist. You can follow him on Twitter @eljarh.

Mohamed Eljarh is a Libyan academic researcher and political, social development activist. He is from the city of Tobruk in Eastern Libya.  Follow him on Twitter @Eljarh or email to: ]

Photo by FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images


The debut of our new Lab Reports

Dear DemLab Readers: 

Today we're pleased to announce the start of a new Democracy Lab feature: A series of in-depth country studies that we call "Lab Reports." Because the headlines don't always do justice to the complexity of the issues involved in democratic transitions, we decided that it makes sense for us to try our hand at more systematic analysis. 

In the first half of this year we've decided to focus our coverage on five countries: Burma, Kenya, Libya, Venezuela, and Ukraine. Burma and Venezuela are stories that we've already covered extensively, but there's clearly still a lot to be told on both counts. Libya is an important Arab Spring country where the problems involved in the transition to democracy haven't always received the attention they deserve. Kenya, which has suffered considerable political violence in the past, faces a crucial presidential election this spring. And Ukraine confronts major political challenges that are likely to have a lasting effect on the viability of democratic institutions. 

We're going to divide up our Lab Reports along the following lines: 

We'll lead off our coverage with an overview of the situation in each country. These overviews will offer a snapshot of the general political and economic situation, outline the main challenges, and familiarize readers with the most important personalities. 

Then, in no particular order, we'll follow up with reports on each of the following categories: 

We'll analyze the formal and informal structures of government, examining the nature of executive, legislative, and judicial power and exploring how things actually get done. This should help to provide a clearer picture of the nature of the reforms that face the country if it is to make a successful transition to a more open society in the years to come. 

We'll report on the economy. We'll provide a clear diagnosis of strengths and weaknesses, summarize pathologies, and prescribe possible remedies. 

We'll look at what might be called "alternate power centers" -- those important sources of authority that exist outside of the formal machinery of administration. Extra-governmental power can flow from the military, organized crime, well-connected business cronies (oligarchs), or tribes. Such factors often evade straightforward analysis, but failing to take them into account can result in highly distorted conclusions about the realities of political and economic life. 

We'll examine the media landscape. We'll look at important institutions and assess the extent to which they are free or a constrained. How a society communicates with its own members is crucial to any reform effort. An open society without free media is hard to imagine. 

And, finally, we'll try to provide a clear picture of civil society. No polity can be considered truly open if its members are incapable of organizing to defend their own aims and interests outside of the structures of government. That's why experts generally consider non-governmental organizations, voluntary associations, private religious groups, and charitable and humanitarian activities to be crucial players in any democratic transition. 

We hope that you'll find these reports stimulating and provocative -- and we welcome your responses. As always, if you have any comments or feedback that you'd like to share, please write to us directly at, or engage with us on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo by China Photos/Getty Images