Jonathan López
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31 May, 2012

Libya was the only country within the Arab Spring uprisings where the West intervened to help to overthrow the dictator holding power. Consequently, the media paid especial attention reporting events there. But in recent months the nation seems to have disappeared from newspapers and TV bulletins.

Yet the changes in Libya keep happening and the country is heading to its first democratic elections. ‘From exploitation to exploration - Libya’s unpredictable path out of tyranny’ was the title of a talk given by Dr Peter Rundell, a former senior UK civil servant, at the Initiatives of Change centre in London on 23 May. Rundell headed up the team from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) in Benghazi and Tripoli throughout the rebellion against the Qadhafi regime.

Peter Rundell, right, inspecting unexploded munitions in Misurata
Peter Rundell, right, inspecting unexploded munitions in Misurata
Rundell worked with DFID since 1982 in many conflict areas including the Western Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. In Libya, he was part of the first British Government team to arrive in Benghazi in April 2011, and in August he was with the first civilian Government team to enter Tripoli.

Someone from the audience pointed out that, as Libya is an oil producing country, the Western operation could be seen as just in their own interest. Rundell suggested that if the West had instigated the Libyan uprising ’we would not have been caught by surprise’. He spoke of the challenges Libya faces now and the urgent task of developing a currently centralised, heavily subsidised economy. In Qadhafi's Libya the ‘Guide’ – the dictator had no official post – controlled every aspect of public life.

Rundell told how a litre of petrol used to cost six pence and food was cheap. It was a false image, to buy people’s consent. But the oil wealth wasn’t used to encourage or invest in other sectors. Qadhafi and the elite filled their pockets (or their Western bank accounts) with money which didn’t pass through any public control.

Rundell expressed confidence that the country will eventually move towards a more democratic and prosperous future. But Libya is fragile and things could still fall apart because of the inheritance of a difficult past and unhealed wounds.

The priority now was to form a legitimate Government which can take difficult decisions. ‘Under Qadhafi periodic brutality against opponents was commonplace, while money was used to silence the real problems,’ Rundell said.

Now Libyans ‘are feeling the intoxication of the taste of freedom,’ he said. It could be felt ‘in the squares which look like pop festivals on a Sunday afternoon’, where people use their freedom to discuss, dance and celebrate that ‘the Guide’ is finally gone.

Elections planned for June might be delayed, but everyone is willing to celebrate them and campaigning has already started. A real boom of candidacies, women heading lists in big towns, and the thirst for fresh ways of thinking are all elements in today’s Libya, Rundell said.

Peter Rundell (Photo: Owen Lean)
Peter Rundell (Photo: Owen Lean)
He enumerated several questions Libya is facing: the role which Islam will play in public life, to be reflected in a new Constitution; the role of the heterogeneous Libyan tribes; the role of the fighters who overthrew Qadhafi with NATO’s support; and the persistent economic issue: to create jobs for the frustrated young people who started the uprising. The relationship between men and women will also be crucial. Finally, security in the streets (quite stable under Qadhafi’s iron fist) is another challenge the Government will have to face.

After decades of tyranny, Libyans are suspicious of everything related to the old regime. However, many people, out of conviction or need, were complicit in supporting the regime. The way Libyans heal the wounds from those times will determine the country’s future, Rundell emphasized.

He outlined four main challenges for the new Libya. First, how centralised will it be? What should the relationship be between Tripoli and the regions?

Secondly, it was important to get the economy back on track, making sectors more dynamic and wealth better shared. ’I am afraid if the economy doesn’t create jobs fairly soon, people will go back to the old ways,’ Rundell said. “And how can Libya embed the transparency that can prevent corruption?’

Thirdly, he told how before the fall of the regime only the Scouts were allowed to be organised in associations. Now groups and societies will have to emerge so that everyone can feel their voice is heard.

Finally, Libya will have to come to terms with its difficult past. That won’t be at all easy. Scars from last year’s fighting are still open, and need skilful healing. The wounds of Qadhafi’s time are also unhealed.

Rundell quoted the National Transitional Council chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, as saying: ‘Everyone needs to be accountable, starting with myself.’ This was a good sign, Rundell said, though it now needs to be built on with reconciliation at every level.

He concluded: ‘I think Libya will stay the course. The citizens have got used to the state of freedom. But let’s be realistic: there’ll be fighting, there’ll be conflict; there are still violations of human rights – especially by fighters holding prisoners. The current situation is fragile, very difficult, in a deeply hurt country. My biggest concern in the short term is that economic pressures will push the Government to non-transparency and that will finish its legitimacy. In the long term, I am very concerned about the creation of jobs for the youth,

‘That said, I don’t think Libya will fall apart. The way ahead is very bumpy, but I trust that Libyans can find a way to heal the wounds of the past. If reconciliation can become real, I believe it will move towards a more accountable future.’

Watch short clips of the forum on YouTube:

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