Libya Braces for Unrest on Anniversary of Qaddafi Revolt
By Brigitte Scheffer & Christopher Stephen - Feb 14, 2013 5:01 PM ET BLOOMBERG
Long lines of foreigners massed over the past couple of weeks at Tripoli International Airport looking to secure a flight out. Across town, Libya’s parliament meets in a tent.
As Libya gears up for the second anniversary of the revolution that ousted Muammar Qaddafi, the euphoria from his toppling and death after more than 40 years has given way to violence and political gridlock.
“Most people have taken the sensible decision, foreigners in particular, not to be around, it could be a celebration or a civil war,” said John Hamilton, of Cross Border Information, a U.K.-based consultancy. “It’s hard to imagine any politician from any country being able to tackle these challenges.”
The test may come today, when protests are expected in Benghazi, the birthplace of the uprising, raising the possibility of violence. Official commemorations are on Feb. 17.
The protests, in part, are against the militias and Islamists who are blamed for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left the American ambassador, Chris Stevens, dead. The Islamists argue the protests are an attempt by pro-Qaddafi elements to undermine the revolution, said Firas Abi Ali, head of Middle East and North Africa Forecasting with Exclusive Analysis, a political risk consultancy.
“If fighting leads to tens or hundreds of casualties, there would be a severe risk that rival militias would attempt to seize key government buildings and infrastructure, including refineries, state energy firms’ offices and airports,” he said in an e-mailed note.
The authorities have boosted security and temporarily shuttered the land borders with Egypt and Tunisia before the anniversary. Officials said 1,400 roadblocks are being set up by government security forces and allied militias.
While Prime Minister Ali Zaidan appealed last week for calm, the call has not impressed Libyans like 22-year-old Hani Al Aswad, who says the government, like its post-Qaddafi predecessor, has done nothing.
“We were all expecting so much, for it to be better, and there’s nothing,” the unemployed 22-year-old said in a recent interview in Tripoli. “Nobody gets a job, and look, there is rubbish everywhere.”
Unlike other nations that saw leaders ousted in the Arab Spring uprisings, Libya has no external financing needs because of its oil wealth. The country’s gross domestic product, which contracted 60 percent in 2011, is expected to grow by 17 percent in 2013 and average 7 percent for the period between 2014 and 2017, assuming an improvement in the domestic security situation, the International Monetary Fund said in November.
Zaidan, who assumed his post on Oct. 31, inherited a nation saddled with a dilapidated infrastructure, few functioning state institutions and an upsurge in Islamist militia activity. In addition, there are regional grievances, including unresolved demands for local autonomy in the east and south.
A declaration issued earlier this month by several political parties in Benghazi blamed the government for “leading the country into an abyss of extremism and anarchy.” Other groups and militias billed today as a “Day of Rage,” and are calling for protests.
Such warnings may have helped prompt a temporary suspension in flights to the country by Germany’s Lufthansa and Austrian Airways. Last month, the British Embassy advised its citizens to evacuate Benghazi -- a warning that came two weeks after the Italian consul-general’s car was shot at.
Attacks on foreign diplomats and the “enduring security concerns remain significant deterrents to foreign investment,” Torbjorn Soltvedt, senior analyst at U.K. risk consultancy Maplecroft, said in e-mailed comments.
Libya and the nations that supported the uprising against Qaddafi met on Feb. 12 in Paris, with the focus on border security. The issue gained importance after the widened conflict in Mali and the fatal attack by militants on an Algerian natural gas facility last month that left 38 foreigners dead. Algerian authorities say the attackers crossed through Libya as they made their way into the country.
The attack signaled increased risk for international oil company executives in Libya, many of whom work in desolate desert regions where security has been organized by the Libyan military and a new Oil Ministry security force.
Reviving investor confidence in Libya has also been made harder by a still-incomplete legal reform.
“To be fair, Rome wasn’t built in a day,” said John Brooke, an attorney with international law firm Clyde and Co, referring to a review of contracts by the government signed during the Qaddafi era. “The government is being sensibly cautious, but it’s reaching a stage where sensible caution is starting to look indecisive.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Brigitte Scheffer in Tripoli at firstname.lastname@example.org; Christopher Stephen in Tripoli at email@example.com