Libyan Reflections


Gaddafi's Compound

Col. Gaddafi’s compound at Bab al-Azizia or the “The Splendid Gate” located in the southern suburbs of Tripoli served as the main base for the Libyan leader until his ouster. The 6-square-kilometre base was somewhere most Libyans didn’t want to go when Gaddafi was in power but since his fall and mainly at weekends families and out-of-towners like to walk around the site and stare. They still seem amazed that the uprising was successful – at least in the sense that it got rid of Gaddafi.

One of the biggest attractions is the byzantine network of underground tunnels that connect all of the buildings. Some tunnels stretch to adjoining districts. Gaddafi liked to sleep in a Bedouin-style tent pitched on the grounds. Of course, it was air-conditioned.

Increasingly a visit to the base is perilous because it has been turned into one of the biggest fly tips in North Africa. With garbage collection at best unsure in the capital the base has become the preferred dump. And then there is the added bonus of feeling that you are insulting the former leader by fouling his home.

International workers – and this correspondent – like to criticize the transitional government for lack of coordination between its various ministries and parts. Certainly it is utterly dysfunctional. Spokesmen contradict each other and even themselves several times in the space of a day and the same with ministers and the leading members of the National Transitional Council.

From the bottom up and the top down there is confusion. But it is worth noting, too, that the various international missions and foreign NGO groups also lack coordination. Various UN agencies hardly talk to each other, for instance. And the domestic NGOs are no better: there are three umbrella organizations for domestic civil society groups that I know of alone.

My exclusive in the Daily Beast on the new NGO legislation caused a stir both in Libya and overseas, especially on Capitol Hill apparently, according to a friend of mine at the National Democratic Institute. Not that it made much difference or caused the Libyan authorities to rethink or pullback. Five days after publication, on June 1, they issued the new law anyway. In it there were some details I didn’t have, which, I think, make the regulatory framework they want to impose on civil society even more sinister.

The long and short of it is that funding by foreign NGOs of domestic NGOs is going to be difficult and the Ministry of Culture can always hold funding up by delaying or declining the registration of a foreign NGO. Another worrying area is the inexact wording of what constitutes a “grant”. The legislation bans open-ended cash “contributions” but allows “grants”. The ministry says that grants means project-specific funding. But they don’t define it. How will that play out? Can a project be extended and so too the funding?

Foreign NGOs will have to register in Libya if they want to fund a project and they are required to provide a tremendous amount of detail about themselves – the source of their money, the names and background of senior officers and board members, etc. Many foreign NGOs – and that includes charities, by the way — are just not going to go though all of that. This is how the crackdown on civil society began in neighboring Egypt in the winter.

Apologists for the NTC say that they can’t have just anyone funding domestic civil society and whisper of dark and dangerous forces: the ultimate purpose of the law is to hinder the Qataris just flooding the place with cash or the Russians or Al Qaeda. I can understand the worry about Qatar: the Emirate has been playing hard and fast and expects to get some reward for supplying the rebels with arms and training fighters during the uprising. The NTC has pushed back on the Qataris and refused some of its cash to fund various projects.

But I see the NGO regulations as having a wider purpose than shutting the door on just Qatar. They are part of a Gaddafi-era control reflex that remains deeply embedded in Libya’s body politic.

That control reflex is behind some other disturbing laws – the so-called Glorification law that until the Supreme Court nullified it made it an offence punishable with up to life imprisonment to say anything in praise of the Gaddafi regime or to be detrimental about the uprising; a law that grants immunity to rebels for any crimes committed during the insurrection; and another law, described by Amnesty as “encouraging carte blanche abuse”, instructing the country’s courts to accept as evidence confessions extracted through torture.

Libya’s transitional Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Kib said during a recent trip to London that some of the laws international NGOs have criticized will “disappear from the scene” following the national election. It is a line several members of the NTC have been pushing on visiting American and European officials. They have told them the laws were a mistake.

But if the laws are such a mistake why aren’t they being withdrawn now? And why did the Justice Ministry bothered to defend the Glorification Law before the Supreme Court?

Further, how can the Prime Minister or any NTC member guarantee anything that the next national assembly or government decides to do?

Of course, it is not just on the big public things that you see the control reflex playing out. Journalists have found securing visas very difficult. CNN’s Nic Robertson told me the other day that he applied for a visa back in January and it only came through in March after he asked the interior minister on camera about it.

Foreign NGO workers are also having difficulty. And that was before their visas and journalist visas started to come under the authority recently of the Ministry of Culture, the authorizing authority under Gaddafi. Of course, that ministry is still run by Gaddafi-era bureaucrats.

It isn’t the only one. Go to any ministry and you find the old boys are still in charge. Of course, that in some ways has been helpful in the transition: at least they know how things work (or don’t). But there are no signs, alas, of change in the ministries in terms of fresh approaches and ideas or new ways of doing things.

The control reflex also plays out on the streets with various militias insisting on seeing your permission to film or to take photographs. A Libyan camera crew working for a foreign broadcaster tried to resist this the other week when militiamen told them they couldn’t film in Martyrs Square near the main souk and across the street from Libya’s national museum. A Libyan female member of the crew screamed at them that she had fought in the revolution for a new Libya not the return of the old. Apparently unidentified militiamen tell people that foreigners taking pictures are almost certainly western spies.

Depressingly, not even the NTC spokesman Mohammed al-Hareizi is a fan of the free press. The other week at his regular midweek news conference he lambasted the irresponsibility of the media and talked about how he hoped a future government would crackdown on the press and punish those who didn’t put national unity first, etc. Disturbingly, some local journalists agreed with him – including a reporter from the English-language Tripoli Post, who had urged the spokesman on by denouncing another newspaper for publishing a false report.

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