Transitions

Diplomats Abandon Libya as Conflict Worsens

On July 26, the United States suspended operations at its embassy in Libya's capital, Tripoli, and evacuated its diplomats and staff to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort. The evacuation was due to the ongoing clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.

U.S. Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones assured Libyans that despite the relocation to temporary offices in Malta, the embassy is still working nonstop to find a peaceful resolution to the current clashes. But Libyans don't see this as a good sign. Many feel the U.S. evacuation is a win for the extremists and militias that are inflicting extensive damage to Libya's infrastructure, and whose actions threaten to destroy the country's democratic processes altogether.

Ordinary people on the streets, who were supposed to be celebrating Eid al-Fitr, said the holidays were the worst they have ever experienced in Libya. The ongoing fighting in Tripoli and Benghazi and the U.S. evacuation dominated all conversations. Many seem to agree that the U.S. evacuation is a sign that mediation efforts have failed and that the situation is likely to get worse. After the United States left, many turned their hopes to Britain, which was leading the international community's efforts to mediate between the warring factions to find a way to stop hostilities. But over the weekend, Britain also evacuated nonessential staff to Tunisia, transported over a hundred British nationals to Malta, and temporarily closed its embassy. Even Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Libya, has "reluctantly" decided to leave, due to deteriorating security conditions. (The photo above shows a French embassy employee embracing a friend after being evacuated from Libya on Aug. 1.)

In the last two days, a coalition of extremist militias in Benghazi called the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries overran an army base used by the Special Forces unit in Benghazi. One of the coalition's leaders, Mohamed al-Zahawi, promptly declared victory over Gen. Khalifa Haftar and his men, who have been fervently defending eastern Libya against Islamist militias. Zahawi apparently went on Ansar al-Sharia's local radio show, Tawhid, to declare Benghazi an "Islamic Emirate." They have, of course, declared this victory prematurely -- the war in Benghazi is far from over. Haftar was quick to deny Ansar al-Sharia's claims that they have gained full control of Libya's second city. "Claims that Ansar al-Sharia militants have full control of Benghazi are nothing but lies," he said during a TV interview. Indeed, his forces were quick to lead an air and ground offensive against Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi.

Many people I spoke to feel that the West abandoned Libya after the overthrow of Qaddafi, leaving the country in the hands of heavily armed militias. One Benghazi resident, a 24-year-old male who works for a warehouse for one of the city's leading supermarkets, which was bombed during the fighting, commented: "This is the worst I have seen Benghazi, even worse than the day Qaddafi's forces were on the outskirts of [the city] in 2011 at the start of the uprising."

Tripoli's residents seem to share this sentiment. Hundreds are being killed and many more injured, vital infrastructure is being destroyed, and the democratic process is under real threat, as the militias are attempting to prevent the newly elected House of Representatives from convening. Many are asking what Libya's friends in the West intend to do to help.

So far, the governments of the United States, Britain, and other European countries have insisted that the solution to Libya's problems is political. The West has issued countless statements on this mythical political solution in the last few weeks -- but that has not stopped the warring factions from indiscriminately shelling Tripoli International Airport, destroying the city's gas and fuel tanks, and endangering civilian populations with their indiscriminate shelling.

No dialogue to find a political solution can take place while these violent clashes continue. The sound of guns and bombings is louder than everything else. The only break happened when the militias paused to watch the U.S. Air Force's F-16s fly over Tripoli as they evacuated the embassy staff. One Tripoli resident jokingly remarked, "If only the F-16s were around a little longer, we could have had a better night's sleep." Many in Libya believe the United States and the West could be doing much more to quell the conflict. They could, for example, push for a U.N. Security Council resolution that would allow the use of targeted airstrikes against the armed factions. The U.S. embassy's evacuation is a worrying sign for Libya's democratic transition, but the United States can still work with its allies to push for meaningful intervention that would help put Libya's transition back on track.

Karim Mezran, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, summarized it perfectly in his recent op-ed for the New York Times: The West must combine threats, intervention, and mediation to stop the fighting that has already killed hundreds in the country. Simply waiting for a "political solution" is not enough.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.

BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

What Next for Venezuela's High-Rise Slum?

The Venezuelan government did something unusual last week.

I am not talking about pressuring the tiny island of Aruba in order to free a drug lord. I am not even talking about broadcasting a birthday party -- complete with "Happy Birthday" and cake -- for a corpse (the late Hugo Chávez). As bizarre as these things sound, they are part of the daily craziness of chavista Venezuela.

No, what I'm walking about is the government's unusual decision to evict squatters from one of the country's most notorious slums.

In spite of lying in an attractive tropical valley with spring-like weather all year round, Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, is not a particularly memorable city. It has few architectural landmarks, and most of the city's buildings sprung up during the 1950 to 1980 oil boom that spurred the country's growth -- not exactly a period that architects remember fondly.

It came as a surprise, then, that one building became a topic of much interest for foreign media and architects alike in the past few years. The building in question is the Tower of David, a 45-story glass skyscraper that lay abandoned for years after the bank that commissioned it went belly up. The tower -- named after David Brillembourg, the owner of the bank -- captured the world's imagination after it was invaded by more than 800 homeless families. The squatters quickly transformed it into the world's tallest slum.

Everyone from award-winning journalist Jon Lee Anderson to the BBC wanted to see this monument to urban decay. Squatters quickly created a mini-city that had everything from grocery stores to school to a Pentecostal Church. Of course, the tower was riddled with criminals, and several people -- mostly children -- have plunged to their deaths thanks to the tower's lack of railings and non-existent safety conditions.

The building captured the world's imagination. Photojournalists came to take pictures, and a project to transform it into a livable community won an architectural prize. The American TV show Homeland used it as the setting for one of its episodes. The building was an enthralling microcosm of chavista chaos.

Chavista lore explains that the presence of the squatters is due to the severe floods of 2010, which left thousands homeless. But the reality is different: Homelessness in Venezuela is caused by a dearth in the supply of housing. The private sector is hampered by red tape, and the financial industry is averse to mortgages; enormous budget deficits and high inflation means it's less risky to lend to the government than to potential homeowners. In an economy with double-digit inflation and scant respect for private property, giving mortgages to individuals is a risky proposition.

Add to that a deficit in cement and steel material production following the nationalization of both industries, and the result is unsurprising: Construction has not been able to meet housing demand for many years. It is estimated that more than 7 million Venezuelans lack proper housing.

Surprisingly, the government began the process of emptying the tower last week. (The photo above shows the Tower of David's residents carrying their belongings out of the building.) This was unexpected since the government has protected, and sometimes even encouraged, the occupation of abandoned housing or commercial complexes.

It has begun moving its residents to a government housing complex in the nearby city of Cúa, some 21 miles from Caracas. (A satirical website joked that the government was building a new skyscraper in poor, rural Cúa in order to accommodate the families.)

Press reports suggest the eviction was done at the behest of the Chinese. Apparently, the building was being eyed as a future headquarters for the Bank of China, and the Venezuelan government is deeply beholden to Chinese interests, particularly in light of generous loans flowing from Beijing to Caracas.

If this is true, one has to wonder why the Chinese picked that tower in particular as headquarters for its many Venezuelan interests. Many office buildings in Venezuela have plenty of room. Companies are leaving the country thanks to severe currency restrictions and a deteriorating business climate, and supply is probably outstripping demand.

The answer is in the symbolism. The Tower lies at the heart of Caracas's banking district, and as such it was an eyesore, a blatant reminder of the failed promises of the Bolivarian revolution. The Chinese probably viewed this as unacceptable, and they may have wanted to test the government's resolve in solving politically sensitive problems such as evicting thousands of squatters -- many of them chavista supporters -- from the middle of the city. It remains to be seen whether or not they will succeed -- so far, only 25 percent of the tower's inhabitants have left the building.

Regardless of what fate has in store for the Tower of David, it is clear that solving the underlying causes of the housing crisis is going to be much more difficult than getting the tower ready for its next use. Whether it is used for a Chinese bank or simply demolished, the tower will no longer be a monument to failed public policies. Even though the government has pushed for an increase in public housing as of late, those efforts are sputtering. One can only hope that the conditions that led to this housing crisis will change.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the RevolutionRead the rest of his posts here.

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images