When I entered Libya for the first time on April 8, 2011, driving in from Egypt, two opposed reactions fought in my brain. The exuberant greetings of the thuwar, or revolutionaries, manning the border and the Libyan liberation flags everywhere reminded me of nothing so much as my own country on a kind of permanent Fourth of July. But in other ways the country reminded me of Afghanistan when I first arrived there in May 2002: the shoddy, deteriorated infrastructure, the segregation of the sexes, the almost complete absence of culture (books, cinemas, local music).
And the first thing my travel companion, Mohamed Hilal el Senussi, a grand-nephew of King Idris, said when we reached Benghazi was, “How are they going to get all these guns off the street?”
My last day in Libya was September 11, 2012. At the airport in Tripoli for my morning flight to London, I had no way of knowing, of course, about the horrific attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound that would take place that evening. I stood in line for an hour behind a talkative British Libyan in full Islamic robes (he was hoping to fly standby), who told me that he was a religious scholar who had visited the Al Qaeda training camps near Derna in an effort to engage the fighters in dialogue. “There’s no dialogue with violent extremists”, I said, “They have to be killed.” Of course, he repeated what almost every Libyan I know said to me before or after, “No, they are Libyans too, we have to talk to them.”
General Khalifa Haftar’s campaign against extremists in Benghazi stalled due to this attitude—and because Haftar has a poor reputation. In the meantime the American embassy in Tripoli has been evacuated and shut down. And the group generally thought responsible for the 2012 attack on the compound in Benghazi, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, declared on Thursday that Benghazi is an Islamic emirate, and it’s in complete control.
Earlier this year, for the first time, Libyans I talk to regularly began wishing for international help in stabilizing the country. Usually, post-revolutionary Libyans are far too proud for that. Indeed, they’re usually far too proud to even listen to foreigners. (It’s one of the characteristics they share with Americans.)
One pilot friend in Zwara pointed out that just “two Apaches,” attack helicopters, would intimidate the militias into a ceasefire. A Libyan businesswoman friend sighed and said that if only the U.N. or U.S. had put a foreign advisor in every government ministry, things might have worked. Libyans tweeting in English started pleading for international intervention. My reply is always that they had better be careful about what they wish for: help like the Turkish who ruled them for hundreds of years, the Italians who invaded in 1911 and put a third of the population in concentration camps, or perhaps the British and European contractors, lawyers and bankers who allowed the Gaddafi regime to loot the country blind?
This isn’t to say Libya’s current crisis is the fault of others. To the contrary: since the 2011 ouster of Gaddafi, the world has cut Libya a lot of slack. No, the blame for the mess rests squarely on the shoulders of Libyans, especially but not limited to the governing class.
That’s what’s hard to convey to hand-wringing Americans, who are inclined to see every world drama as about us. We did not have much involvement with Libya under Gaddafi, we did not launder his money, and we did not have boots on the ground in the revolution. For the most part, Europeans flew the NATO bombing runs that pounded Gaddafi’s troops; we refueled them.
Libya’s descent into infighting and extremism following its 2011 NATO-enabled revolution is neither an argument for American intervention in troubled countries nor an argument against it. Nor does it lend support to generalizations about Islamic extremism—though it is not irrelevant to its dissolution that Libya is a Muslim country. Instead, as I’ve come to realize while working as a consultant to a branch of the Libyan government, the weakening of the state is a direct consequence of the culture Libya developed after 42 years of a chaotic dictatorship.
Libya’s state institutions are very young—the country only became independent in 1951–and the baseline was very low. Libya was then the poorest country in the world and nearly illiterate. Even in 2008, 20 percent of Libyans were illiterate—and that by the Gaddafi regime’s own statistics.
Add to that a large state bureaucracy—under Gaddafi perhaps 75 percent of Libyans worked for the government—and Gaddafi’s mad capriciousness, which made planning difficult and sanity impossible. People were told what to do, minute decisions were referred up to high officials, and doing nothing was usually a better bet than making a decision because it might be reversed tomorrow. Libyans who lived through the Gaddafi years have, if not PTSD, severely attenuated attention spans, problems planning and organizing themselves, and no confidence that others will keep their word.
Next, add the vices of a rentier state: laziness, irresponsibility, a sense of entitlement, and ignorance. As a European lawyer who worked for Libya for many years commented to me, “I’ve never known one Libyan official to be fired for incompetence.” Because the money and the salaries kept flowing no matter what one did, few Libyans who worked for the state seem to have developed any pride in their work or any sense of responsibility for it. When something goes wrong, it’s always someone else’s fault. I have never yet heard a Libyan say, “The blame is mine, I take responsibility, and I’ll fix it.”
In Gaddafi’s Libya, knowledge didn’t bring power, so it wasn’t valued. While there are many Libyan engineers and doctors, I met few Libyans who had a genuine love of learning and interest in increasing their knowledge. I don’t think I have ever seen a Libyan in Libya sitting and reading a book for pleasure. Even among other Arabs, not exactly known for their economic powerhouse states and innovative companies, Libyans were known as proverbially lazy and ill-educated.
Then there is the corruption. Since you couldn’t make an honest living under Gaddafi, few people tried to start businesses more elaborate than a grocery store or coffee shop. They either got by on their low state salaries plus informal small businesses and remittances from relatives abroad, or they took bribes. This culture of corruption led to an insane cynicism where, for instance, Libyans elected to their General National Congress (GNC) or Parliament convicted embezzlers from the Gaddafi years, on the grounds that they must have been framed. Not.
Anyone who has done business with post-2011 Libya can tell you the horror stories: constant replacement of officials, each more unqualified, lazy and unresponsive than the last; corruption and blatant nepotism up to the very highest levels of the state; delays of almost comic proportions in performing the simplest tasks. Many high officials do not know how to use email, and they keep their phones switched off more often than not. Many don’t read their correspondence and when they do, don’t understand it. One has to make 30 or 40 phone calls or (if one is lucky to be dealing with someone who uses email) send 30 to 40 emails in Arabic to get one or two simple documents sent.
The Libyan diplomatic corps has to shoulder part of the blame, too: the foreign minister has spent most of this year in Malta or Egypt. Libya’s diplomats often don’t speak English, French or the language of the country where they serve, and they include many thieves and even a violent criminal or two, in addition to the merely incompetent.
This noxious culture has led to a political mess where traditional city-state politics combined with massive amounts of weapons and the constant din of Islamist propaganda offered up by the ever helpful Gulf states, especially Qatar, has given an opportunity to fight to any Libyan too lazy, psychologically crippled or badly educated to get a job or a degree. And as a Libyan businessman who requested anonymity put it, “An alliance based on common interests has been built between the Islamist militias and those who stole public money under Gaddafi. They want the chaos to continue so they can retain power.”
Because it’s a Muslim country, any particularly damaged youth also finds close at hand a readymade extremist ideology.
Libyans are by and large charming, charismatic, humorous people with a Mediterranean joie de vivre. They also have a truly American love for freedom, even anarchic freedom. And so the Libyan revolution was intoxicating, which is why the world watched it much more closely than the dour Syrian struggle. It was great fun to be a part of it. But building a state is not exhilarating fun.
Americans come from many backgrounds, but one thing most of us share is a work ethic. Libyans do not. After the revolution, very few Libyans had the mettle for sitting at a desk 10 or 12 hours a day doing the mundane work of government or building a company. It’s much easier to lounge about with a militia/criminal gang or to leave work at 2:00 p.m. to spend the rest of the day gossiping with one’s friends and watching TV.
I don’t know what will happen to Libya in the future, but I know that what has happened so far is not the fault of the United States. And I doubt that the United States can do much to set things right in Libya, besides the occasional drone killing of particularly noxious extremists and some help securing the borders. (Why are they so porous? Well, the honest Libyan military official in charge of buying drones and suchlike apparently was replaced by a thief midway through the purchase process.)
Libya could be a wonderful example to the world, of Muslims who threw off their oppressive government and set out to govern themselves democratically and to create a vibrant and open society. But for that, they would have to have a different culture than the one they’ve inherited.