Libyans overthrew hated dictator Muammar Gaddafi last October, but the country remains chaotic. Armed militias once allied with the US and NATO now attack government offices and engage in extortion rackets. While the west proclaimed a great victory for so-called “humanitarian military intervention,” the Libyan aftermath is far more sobering. On this edition, independent producer Reese Erlich brings us a special report from Libya.
see the full script below
Ibrahim el Mayet, Libya Progress Association leader; Master Sergeant Hamid Hijazzi, Benghazi Air Force officers spokesperson; Elhabib Alamin, poet & Ministry of Culture official; Abdul Azzuz, translator; Ahmed Alkoshli, Minister of Economy; Khalifa Sahli, Zawiya Oil refinery operations manager; Ibrahim Ali, Libyan Transparency Association chair; Ibrahim Layas, MedcoEnergi Oil and Gas official; Ahmed Ali, grocery store owner; Guma Assaiti, pro-Federalist political group leader; Fathiya Steita, retired English professor; Nadia Nour Mohammad, Abdul Wahab, Mohammad Riad, protestors.
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Andrew Stelzer: This week on Making Contact:
Reese Erlich: They are worried about a new strong man emerging?
Wahab: A new strong man emerging, using his own militia to impose his will on the Libyan people.
Libyans overthrew hated dictator Muammar Gaddafi last October, but the country remains chaotic. Armed militias once allied with the US and NATO now attack government offices and engage in extortion rackets. Elections recently took place, but the new government will have a hard time controlling the militias. While the west proclaimed a great victory for so-called “humanitarian military intervention,” the Libyan aftermath is far more sobering. On this edition, independent producer Reese Erlich brings you this special report “The Real Story of Libya and the NATO Attack.”
I’m Andrew Stelzer, and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas and important information.
RE: Dressed in military fatigues and carrying AK-47 assault rifles, the Zintan militia surrounded the building and entered without a fight. They weren’t seizing a Gaddafi stronghold; they were taking an oil company CEO hostage. The militiamen demanded extortion money. It was the second time the company had been attacked in a month, prompting one official to tell me “There’s a new Libyan mafia.” And Libyans are fed up.
RE: Recently tens of thousands of Libyans gathered around the country to demand dissolution of the militias. Over 60 armed groups compete for power with a weak national government. Here in Benghazi’s main square, spokesperson Nadia Nour Mohammad tells me the central authorities have got to take charge.
Mohammed: We want to have government control over the police and army, and have them as the official armed forces. They should dissolve all the militias. We want the government to collect the weapons and eliminate the militias. We want security for the country, and we don’t want anyone in power associated with the Gaddafi regime.
RE: Another protestor, Abdul Wahab, concedes that the militias won’t give up their weapons easily. I ask him what can the government realistically do?
Wahab: There’s no end of term solution. They have to tackle it gradually. You can’t collect the weapons by force because that will initiate another conflict we can do without. There are some other measures. Instead of giving the freedom fighters money for nothing, they should give it to them in return for their weapons.
RE: A weapons buyback program?
Wahab: Yes. A weapons buyback program.
RE: Others at the demonstration complain about the estimated 25% unemployment in Libya. Strikes and street occupations flare up regularly throughout the country. Protest leader Mohammad Riad says the government should be helping to solve the unemployment crisis.
Agoco: We want the government to provide jobs, and at a minimum, provide unemployment insurance and training programs. We’re asking that the government establish a data base that includes all the unemployed workers. Then it should start job training programs that can help small and medium sized businesses.
RE: But other Libyans say economic and political problems are understandable given the short time since the uprising. Ibrahim el Mayet [may’-et], leader of the NGO Libya Progress Association, comes from a prominent family and recently returned to the country from his home in Britain.
Mayet: Things are chaotic here in Libya. What else can we expect? We spent most of 2011 fighting Gaddafi. We just liberated the country last October. We have a long way to go in a country that lacks proper state institutions, a system of government, and has no heritage of political parties. Of course things won’t be simple. There are going to be a lot of problems; it won’t be plain sailing. But I think we are on the right track.
RE: So the Libyan glass is either half full or half empty, depending on who is drinking the water. But without question, Libya remains a fractured country. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
RE: In February 2011 Libyans rose up in a spontaneous rebellion. At first, most Libyans opposed foreign intervention. But the exiled leadership, strongly influenced by the US and European powers, quickly began calling for an outside military attack. The National Transitional Council, the US-backed exile body, exaggerated the dangers of massacres, at one time claiming Gaddafi would kill half the population of Benghazi. Gaddafi’s troops did kill civilians when they retook cities during the subsequent civil war, but such huge massacres never occurred. And, many dozens of civilians died in NATO attacks.
Many Libyans, particularly those living in the eastern city of Benghazi, are convinced that the rebels would have prevailed – even without NATO intervention.
RE: Interviewed during an outdoor rally, Master Sergeant Hamid Hijazzi, a spokesman for Air Force officers in Benghazi, says the rebels didn’t rely on NATO for victory.
Hijazzi: Even before NATO, even before the French Mirage jets attacked, we destroyed a lot of Gaddafi’s planes. We forced his troops back 100 miles from Benghazi. Even if NATO didn’t come, we would have destroyed Gaddafi’s army. Every day we were repairing more planes and sending them into battle. We had disabled planes and we made them fly.
RE: If there was no NATO attack, what would have happened?
Hijazzi: We would have fought door to door to the last man.
RE: But other Libyans are equally convinced that without western intervention, they would still be fighting a civil war, similar to what is happening in Syria. Abdul Azzuz holds that view. He was a construction worker in London before returning to Tripoli a few years before the uprising. I hired him as a translator and only later learned his fascinating story.
Tripoli street ambience
RE: Traffic was at a standstill and people jostled one another as we walked through crowded downtown Tripoli. Azzuz picked up a Cockney accent during his London exile years. He stands about 5’5” tall, with grey hair and is in his late 50s. But he’s one tough fighter. He tells me that back in late 2010, he knew a showdown with Kaddafi was looming. Azzuz bought an assault rifle on the black market.
Azzuz: Before February, Gaddafi had armed Libyans on his side. The only way to get weapons was to buy from Gaddafi’s boys. I kept it wrapped in plastic in the ground. On the 20th of Ramadan, we knew Tripoli would be liberated. We were under siege for 6 months and finally decided to come out.
RE: You bought a Kalashnikov from one of Gaddafi’s supporters. How much?
Azzuz: 1500 dinars.
RE: That’s a lot of money.
Azzuz: It was worth it. (laughs)
RE: What was it like to storm Gaddafi’s compound?
Azzuz: It was happiness. It’s happiness to get rid of a dictator.
Azzuz: He had been there for 42 years. Nobody could do anything about that. It was a big fight, a lot of deaths on their side and on our side.
RE: The next day you went back not looking for guns but for paperwork.
Azzuz: I wanted paperwork. I wanted to understand what was going on in that compound. I found a list of Gaddafi’s family bodyguards and bodyguards of his son, Mohammad Gaddafi.
RE: You could tell who were some of the top military aides to Gaddafi?
RE: Azzuz kept the original list, photocopied it, and turned the information over to the government for future prosecutions. But the judicial system barely functions. As a result, many of the militias take revenge into their own hands. Azzuz describes how, months after Gaddafi’s defeat, he found a former Gaddafi army officer hiding in a Tripoli neighborhood.
Azzuz: He had grown a beard. He was shopping in a supermarket. I spotted him. I phoned the boys and they came and got him right away.
RE: What happened to him?
Azzuz: I think he’s still in jail.
RE: As far as you know, he hasn’t had a trial?
Azzuz: No, not yet.
RE: Azzuz’ militia is holding the former officer in a makeshift jail outside Tripoli. Militias are imprisoning many hundreds of others around the country. Azzuz argues that the militias are only holding them temporarily.
Azzuz: People are doing it now just to help. I don’t think they mean to do damage to anybody.
RE: But such imprisonment without trial has come under strong criticism from human rights groups. It’s not clear how many months, or even years, such prisoners will wait before a trial. Since the end of the civil war last October, the US has sought alliances with Libya’s Army officers and militia leaders. The militias are allying with political parties. Such alliances could quickly develop into a system of warlords, with politicians illegally siphoning off government funds to pay for the salaries and arms of their militias.
I spoke with Elhabib Alamin, a famous poet, political activist and official with the Ministry of Culture. He says Libyans are quite familiar with the United States’ post-war political manipulations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Alamin: Those wars in Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t result in improvements for the people of those countries. I think some leaders here in Libya are trying to get western backing to become the next Hamid Karzai. I don’t want Libya to become an ATM for western oil companies while they abandon the people of the country.
RE: The National Transitional Council downplays such concerns. NTC officials argue that local and national elections show they are serious about building democracy. But Minister of Economy Ahmed Alkoshli admits the transitional government has limited powers.
Alkoshli: Ours is a transitional government, the next government will decide all important issues. We are setting the laws and stabilizing things for the next government to take action.
RE: I ask Alkoshli if the transitional government can stop the armed militias, which have become a power unto themselves. In May angry militiamen fought a 2-hour gun battle outside the prime minister’s office demanding bonus payments for the time they spent fighting Gaddafi. Alkoshli sounded almost apologetic about the attack.
Alkoshli: They had legitimate demands but it was not the right way to do it. Libya is seeking to be a country of laws with transparency. People who made the revolution didn’t do it to earn a bonus. Most refused the bonus. They returned to their jobs. For the rest of them, there is a mechanism to study who deserves to get the payment.
Andrew Stelzer: You’re listening to “Making Contact,” a production of the National Radio Project. If you’d like more information or for C-D copies of this program, please call 800-529-5736. Because of listeners like you, this show is distributed for free to radio stations in the U.S., Canada and South Africa. To find out how to support us, download shows, or get our podcasts go to radioproject-dot-org. Like us on facebook, and follow us on twitter—our handle is making-underscore-contact. We now return to ‘The real story of Libya and the NATO Attack’, produced by freelance journalist Reese Erlich.
Ambience— Traffic and driving sounds
RE: There is some good news in Libya, if you’re an oil company. One day I drive 45 miles west of Tripoli to the Zawiya Oil refinery, the second largest in Libya. Security is tight as we check in at a guard station. To my left stretches the tranquil Mediterranean Sea. On the right is a maze of buildings, pipelines and storage tanks. Muammar Gaddafi helped inaugurate the refinery back in the early 1970s and his smiling visage has only recently been removed from the walls. I meet Khalifa Sahli, the operations manager who has worked here for 34 years. Sahli, stops in front of an enormous grid of pipes and tanks. He boasts that the facility has very modern equipment. The refinery even produces most of its own drinking water.
Sahili: This is the seawater intake. The water is very clear here. This is mainly for drinking.
RE: I see, this is a desalinization unit for converting seawater to drinking water.
RE: The Zawiya storage tanks took a few stray bullets, but the refinery came through the civil war largely unscathed. Sahli says he had to persuade both Gaddafi’s soldiers and the rebels that they had an interest in preserving the facility.
Sahli: We had to convince both parties that the refinery is for the future generation. I’d like to maintain it safe. It’s not the right time to fight around it. I talked to them. This is not the proper place to make a conflict. If something goes wrong here, Zawiya township would be affected. We have tanks from NOC, from Agoco. We have lubricant tanks. It’s like a big bomb.
RE: There would be a huge fire.
Sahli: That’s right.
RE: So the Zawiya refinery and much of the country’s other petroleum infrastructure remained intact. I ask Sahli if the refinery’s production of gasoline and other fuels has reached pre-war levels.
Sahli: Today, at 11:15 am, the capacity is 102%
Reese: it’s over 100%
RE: While Zawiya escaped serious problems during the revolution, it faces the same kind of internal turmoil as many other Libyan institutions. In May, refinery security guards complained bitterly of not being paid by the government for 3 months. A group of guards trapped the head of the refinery in his office and beat him up. A shot was fired. Sahli says that the guards’ anger was misdirected. He says the Army, not refinery management or the National Oil Company (NOC), was now responsible for paying the guards’ salaries.
Sahli: If someone is not paid for 3 months, you have to do something. Yesterday they reached an agreement. We don’t expect that whatever happened, that some people use force and argue with the chairman of the company. It was wrong. You don’t use force. You don’t use guns. You state what you need, and we’ll take care of it.
RE: Despite such turmoil, Libya’s overall oil production is now approaching pre-civil war levels. British Petroleum announced it will resume exploration again. France, Italy, Spain, Great Britain, and the US are getting their crude. The National Oil Company says it earns 4 billion US dollars a month from selling oil.
But Libyans wonder where all that money is going. Ibrahim Ali, chair of an NGO called the Libyan Transparency Association, says the corruption from the old regime is being carried over into the new. He explains that in the old days European oil companies sold the oil at world market prices but purchased it significantly below market rates. He says the difference was pocketed by foreign corporations and Gaddafi cronies.
Ali: When you sell the price for $10, but inside the contract it might be $3-4. There’s corruption. They keep the difference for themselves through an outside commission. It’s still that way today but few people know about it.
RE: El Mayet of the Libya Progress Association, who we met earlier, confirms the problem of ongoing corruption.
Mayet: The entire system was riddled with corruption. Gaddafi destroyed institutions of state and created an environment prone to corruption, fraud and theft. We need to set up a new system, and that will take a long time. Until we stop the rot we won’t see an end to corruption in Libya.
RE: One way to limit corruption, according to NGO activists, is to make the oil contracts public. Mayet says that way the public can compare the terms to see if some companies are getting sweet heart deals.
Mayet: There needs to be a serious review of the old contracts. We need a good strategy for future contracts. No one can expect to come to Libya and get really favorable terms. Libyans want their own terms and to develop our country. We don’t want to be seen as exploitable.
RE: But foreign oil investors disagree. Ibrahim Layas is an official with MedcoEnergi Oil and Gas. He welcomes me into a modern office off of one of Tripoli’s major streets. Layas says companies don’t want their contracts with the National Oil Company, or NOC, made public because it could affect profits.
Layas: If you’re talking about the contracts between oil companies and the NOC, that’s very confidential. No third party can read it. You don’t want the other companies to see it. Some things, you don’t want the public to see it. For those contracts, you’re talking about companies and their assets, their shares and shareholders. Any news coming out of this might affect the shareholders.
RE: In fact, European and American oil company executives complain that they should be getting better terms on their Libyan contracts. After all, they argue, while Russia and China opposed military intervention, the US and NATO countries helped liberate Libya from Gaddafi. I ask Layas what he thinks of that view.
Layas: I agree with that. If we let things happen the way Russia and China wanted, we would not be free now. Those who stand with you will not be forgotten. This is normal.
RE: But the Libyan public doesn’t want to reward foreign governments who, until very recently, had cozy relations with Gaddafi. Alamin says, given the history of widespread corruption, oil companies should make their contracts public.
Alamin: The Libyan people need transparency about the relationship between foreign countries and our government, and about the economic contracts. Someday it will come out. If it’s secret, the Libyan people will be very angry at the government.
RE: While Libyans wrestle with how to regulate the oil industry, other economic sectors are showing signs of recovery. But it’s slow going. On a busy street in central Tripoli, I visited a hole-in-the wall grocery store.
Storeowner Ahmed Ali puts money in a cash drawer. He tells me business was disastrous for most of last year. There was a shortage of cash and banks severely restricted how much money could be withdrawn. Inflation was rampant.
Ali: During the fighting there was practically no business at all. We opened only a few hours a day. There were a lot of shortages. So prices skyrocketed. It’s 100% better now because people have money to spend.
RE: While business is better than during the war, the grocer still barely scrapes by. NGO leader El Mayet says that’s typical. The civil war increased the disparity between rich and poor. Oil industry executives drive BMWs while many ordinary Libyans have a hard time buying food.
Mayet: It’s a terrible paradox that Libya is an extremely wealthy country, and yet there’s a lot of poverty here. And our national infrastructure is in an appalling state. We have broken roads, poor sewage and terrible schools. We ought to be living very well. It’s only 6 million people. In the future Libya’s oil revenues should be spent for all the people in Libya.
RE: But that’s not the view of the US and the International Monetary Fund. The IMF issued a report recently offering many of its traditional, neoliberal prescriptions for Libya. The interim government is following the IMF lead by studying how to privatize state-owned companies, encourage investment on terms favorable to foreign corporations, and eliminate government subsidies for basic food items to poor people. The Ministry of Economy is considering eliminating the subsidies. Economy Minister Alkoshli acknowledges that complying with western prescriptions won’t be easy.
Alkoshli: We have a technical committee to study future policies and changing the subsidies. The study is not complete yet. It’s very difficult to suddenly cut the subsidies. It’s been part of our culture for 42 years. People will complain.
RE: And that’s not all Libyans are complaining about these days.
Ambience–sound of café ambience
RE: Late at night, men in suits and traditional dress mingle in the Tebisty hotel café here in Benghazi. The hotel is a monument to Gaddafi-era architecture, with a cavernous lobby and scratchy, overstuffed upholstery. The hotel café serves as an informal meeting place for government officials, political activists and reporters.
And no issue is more discussed than federalism.
A significant movement based here in eastern Libya now advocates autonomy from the central government in Tripoli.
Under Gaddafi, many everyday tasks, such as obtaining a business license, required a trip to the capital. So far, such policies have not changed, . –
Guma Assaiti, leader of a pro-Federalist political group, calls for a system that would leave purely national tasks in the hands of the central government while devolving power to the regions.
Assaiti: The federal government will control the foreign ministry, justice, central bank and army. What belongs to each side of Libya should belong to the local areas. Each side will have their own security, safety and development. That’s what we’re looking for.
RE: It’s an attractive proposition here, where most of the country’s oil is pumped. Earlier this year a gathering of tribal and militia leaders even declared the region autonomous. But it hasn’t had much practical effect because of continuing turmoil throughout the country.
RE: The demand for federalism is controversial, even here. Virtually everyone agrees that local governments should have more power, but that doesn’t mean breaking the country up into federated regions. Fathiya Steita, [fah-thee-ah Stay-tah] is a retired English professor in Benghazi.
Steita: I demonstrated against it. There were a huge number in the court square against federalism. The eastern part needs its own administration. We don’t need to go to Tripoli. This can be easily done: local government.
RE: The real debate isn’t about government democracy; it’s about money. Federalists want the east to take 35% of the state-owned oil company profits, a far larger percentage than its share of the population.
Opponents say that will effectively divide the nation. Steita says budgets should be based on need.
Steita: Libya is a unified country, a unified land. It isn’t just the eastern parts that are neglected. The revenues should be divided equally among all these areas. All the projects should be given to all these areas.
Reese: The federal government should allocate money for roads anywhere, depending on who needs roads?
RE: Many Libyans hope that the national elections held July 7 will help resolve many of the country’s problems. The pro-US alliance headed by former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril won the most votes with strong competition coming from two Islamist parties. While the major media trumpets the election as a victory of secularism over religious parties
Ambience–People talking and arguing at demo
RE: Back at the Benghazi demonstration, protesters split into small groups and debated the prospects for democracy. Protestor Abdul Wahab says elections will probably not resolve the ongoing issues of corruption and armed militias.
Wahab: We are going through a phase of change just like Europe and America. This disorganization and chaos will have to carry on for some years before we establish a firm nation, a nation with a constitution that everyone adheres to.
RE: Most seriously, Wahab says, Libyans worry that continuing political chaos could produce a new dictator.
Reese: They are worried about a new strong man emerging?
Wahab: A new strong man emerging, using his own militia to impose his will on the Libyan people.
RE: For Making Contact, I’m Reese Erlich, Benghazi, Libya.
Stelzer: That’s it for this edition of “Making Contact.” You’ve been listening to
a special report from independent producer Reese Erlich, “The Real Story of Libya and the NATO Attack.” Special thanks to Abdul Azzuz and Omar Almosmary in Libya for arranging interviews and providing translation.
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I’m Andrew Stelzer. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.