Libyans fight on, but rebuilding could be bigger challenge

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 25, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The would-be leaders of a new Libya say they want to be good neighbors and participants in the world community.

But after four decades of misrule by Moammar Gadhafi, the rebels who are attempting to take over the country have a long and rigorous to-do list to establish their bona fides at home and abroad, experts said.

The tasks include: re-engaging the police so they become a credible and respected security force. Getting weapons and munitions off the streets. Ensuring basic services. Restarting the economic engine of a country that's rich in oil but saddled by weak infrastructure.

"Libya's future is far from guaranteed," Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns said Thursday at a meeting in Istanbul of some 30 nations to discuss aid for the Libyan opposition. "We know from hard experience that winning the peace can be more difficult than winning the war."

The National Transitional Council, the main rebel group, got a major boost later Thursday when the United States reached a deal to release $1.5 billion in frozen Libyan assets that the opposition says it needs to help finance its renewal, including paying government salaries and repairing oil facilities. Analysts estimate that as much as $110 billion in Libyan assets is frozen in banks worldwide.

Years of economic sanctions as punishment for Gadhafi's actions against the West have taken a toll. And since the Libyan uprising began more than six months ago, commerce has pretty much ground to a halt.

Re-energizing the country's crucial oil industry, which provides the government with 80 percent of its revenue, will be pivotal. It's always depended on skills from abroad, so ending the strife is important to luring back the foreign workers who fled the country when the uprising began.

"Gadhafi did a woefully poor job of creating a cadre of Libyan technical expertise," said Wayne White, a scholar at the Middle East Institute who's a former State Department expert on the Near East and South Asia. "Under Gadhafi, Libya became a technical and administrative unmade bed."

Geoff Porter of North Africa Risk Consulting Inc., a political risk-management firm, tells a story: A large confectionary company once was interested in a Libyan chocolate manufacturer and toured its factory. But company officials found that the Libyans were simply importing Chinese-made chocolate and putting new wrappers on it.

"The chocolate factory didn't actually manufacture a thing," Porter said. "That kind of illustrates, to a degree, that the Libyan economy was a farce. It just didn't work."

The U.S. so far has contributed about $90 million in humanitarian aid since the conflict began and many ports and overland routes were cut off or badly strained. Even as fighting continued in Tripoli, the capital, between the rebels and Gadhafi loyalists, opposition leaders met with foreign government officials this week looking for support.

Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the chairman of the National Transitional Council and a former Gadhafi justice minister who resigned after the regime's brutal reprisals against protesters, this week promised "strong relations with other countries, based on mutual respect and cooperation," the Al Jazeera satellite network reported.

"Even as the world is waiting with bated breath for what happens to Gadhafi, the new authorities need to be moving," said Mark Quarterman, the director of the Program on Crisis, Conflict and Cooperation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Italy says it plans to release about $500 million in Libyan assets, while Turkey has pledged $300 million in assistance. But one concern is what kinds of conditions would be put on money sent to Libya, where Gadhafi's financial system was anything but transparent.

"I don't know what auditing controls are within the TNC," Porter said, referring to the rebel council. "There are some members who have broader exposure to international auditing norms, but I think there's a real fear if the U.S. unfreezes the assets and they all channel back to the TNC, they would simply disappear."

Securing Tripoli and its surroundings remains crucial to paving a less rocky road ahead, according to Lisa Anderson, the president of the American University in Cairo and an often-cited expert on Libya. Key to the transition is getting rebel fighters to put down their weapons and allow political leaders to shift the focus to rebuilding, although many say that can't happen while Gadhafi and his coterie remain at large.

"The more you let these guys shoot in the air, in a couple of days they'll be shooting at each other," Anderson said. "You can't have that. It's important that Tripoli falls now, at a time when the transitional council seems relatively well organized."

She also said that while the council had been the "public face" of the opposition, "they were only one of the players there."

A report earlier this month from Chatham House, an independent international affairs research center in London, said the immediate aftermath of Gadhafi's ouster was crucial.

"There is a danger that a power vacuum left in the wake of the regime, even of a few hours, will result in a power struggle that will be the difference between a smooth transition and a slide into a chaotic, lawless situation," it said.

Basic services also have been under strain. In the Nafusa Mountains in western Libya, "access to water, electricity, food and fuel varies from village to village," said Andrew Lucas, the Libya country director for Mercy Corps, an international humanitarian organization and recipient of U.S. government funds. "There are definitely gaps in supply."

That's why restoring law and order quickly is paramount, Quarterman said.

"Across the country, not just in Tripoli," he said. "It's an important quality-of-life question for the Libyan people, a building block for confidence, for government to move on to the next stage for a political settlement."

(Hannah Allam contributed to this article from Cairo.)

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