Friday, February 25, 2011

Libya On My Mind

Tripoli: Old Medina and Bay
In early 2007, on two separate trips, I taught entrepreneurial business planning to an executive training program in Libya. The course was organized by Monitor Group, which I had worked for in the early 1990s, and was now consulting to the government on economic planning and "capacity building." In all, I got to know about 300 trainees rather well, over more than a month of days and classes.

This was a very narrow slice of Libyan society, 30-and-40-somethings who started small engineering companies attached to the oil industry, store owners, people in tourism, some low-ranking government ministers, the scions of families who had owned businesses before The Leader took power in 1969--older and younger, men and women (some in head scarves, some not). Call it Tripoli's bourgeois intelligentsia-in-the-making. 

Our trainees were exceptionally hospitable and grateful people, even for an Arab country. Their children and grandchildren would kiss you, a perfect stranger, as if you were an uncle. They were hungry for the moral oxygen coming from European businesses and tourists. They were wondering if The Leader's son, Seif-Al-Islam, who had hired Monitor, and who was studying political philosophy at LSE, would really prove liberal, really eventually come to power, really open the country to the West.

The Son told one of my colleagues that he would never agree to hold a position in government he was not elected to. His recent television speeches in defense of his father's rule, delivered in a Gucci suit, before and after The Leader's soldiers and mercenaries began killing protesters in cold blood, leave one wondering if The Son's notion of election really needed to be nuanced by an LSE degree.

LIBYA, OR AT least the educated and urbane part of it, seemed to me a painfully promising tranche of the Arab world. The inhabited part of the country (much like Israel, actually) is a strip of land along the Mediterranean coast, with desert in the hinterland. The population of citizens, perhaps 7 million people (along with another couple of million guest workers from sub-Saharan Africa), has been concentrated in the cities and suburban towns. They still think of themselves as great merchants and traders, tied to the sea. 

Libyans despise the memory of the Italian occupation, but will still proudly explain to you that they were "the fourth coast of Rome," the site of Leptis Magna, the great city from which Emperor Septimius Severus had come, its ruins still a wonder of the world. From here, thousands of trapped African slaves, and wild beasts for the Forum, were exported. (The Leader's famously pleated jacket, a traditional Libyan garb, hearkens back to the toga.) Libyans see themselves a part of southern Europe, a short hop to Malta, a few hundred miles from Sicily. Saint Augustine was from here. They awaited European tourists like people waiting for long lost relatives.

Libyan agriculture, which is bountiful, depends on depleted water reserves and is hardly fit to support an export industry. Oil reserves create all wealth, about 95% of what is sold to the world. Cash reserves create all power. We heard rumors that the state--i.e., The Leader--had amassed reserves of upwards of a staggering $150 billion, though nobody really knew, since no standard auditing standards applied. We did know that one of our trainees, still in his early thirties, and running a new sovereign wealth fund for the first time, had responsibility for $5-6 billion.  You walked around the old city market, or Medina, of Tripoli, and you passed a fruit, stand, cigarette stand, and cell phone stand, in trio after trio.

The small population, in other words, along with the oceans of cash sloshing around in the economy, the foreign educated elites identified with Europe, the new technology, the tourism, etc., should have made the place an entrepreneurial paradise. But all things depending on the state--water, roads, hospitals, schools, telecom, airports--were either developed by foreign management or dysfunctional. My trainees spoke openly--surprisingly so, I thought--about the difficulties of doing anything without having to pay-off government officials. Corruption was by far the biggest impediment to doing business, they told me. 

Then again, a good many of them were themselves government employees, pocketing the equivalent of a few hundred dollars every month, pretending to work until just after lunch, at which point they went to their own retail or service start-ups.

I CAME TO know Tripoli rather well. What I cannot get out of my mind, as I hear the radio reports of machine gun fire from the city, is the sense of frustration our trainees would express with the direction of the regime. They were bored listening to the litany by now; bored hearing themselves whisper about the incompetence of the regime and its absurd personality cult, yet aware that with so much oil money circulating, and The Leader keeping the peace, they might well make a future under the radar. We were all on Yahoo groupware, and people were already tasting what seemed like progress in cyberspace. Opening Libya would be like opening Cuba. 

More important, they saw themselves not only as an economic class, but as the beginning of a genuine civil society--and thought The Son their ally, which perhaps he was back then. (For the record, trainees knew I was living in Jerusalem, and most spoke of Israel with grudging respect, believing that the conflict with the Palestinians had become stupid and small, and that Israel had so much more to gain by doing business with them than from any settlement.)

And yet. Everybody knew The Leader was a maniac who pretended to be an eccentric intellectual, producing his little green book (which I actually read: imagine marrying the ideas of the young Marx to those of an Islamist, tribal Rousseau, all written in the style of the Book of Mormon) for guests to his tent-and concrete compound. These included world intellectuals from Francis Fukayama to Robert Putnam to Richard Perle, whose own books The Leader was reputed to have spent $10 million to translate for his private edification. 

We also knew The Leader funded a vicious security apparat, including another son and other close members of his family, that was happier to be simply rich and in control, than mega-rich from globalization and having to share power with people like our trainees. Agents lurked about everywhere, smoking and smiling, spying comings and goings from the Corinthia Hotel. 

And we knew, alas, that The Leader was in his sixties and, unlike Fidel, might be around a long time. We spoke, with forlorn hope, about marrying his sham village councils to groupware and social networking sites like the one we are on and building democratic institutions from the ground up. Then we went out to eat fish.

NOW WE KNOW, finally, that The Leader will not be around a long time. 

It is heart-breaking to think of the good people who will die, or already have died, freeing themselves from his pathetic grip. I see many faces before me. I fear that among them may be people from our classes whose hopes were so palpable just three years ago. 

I realize that the shores of Tripoli seem too much for American forces just now, and perhaps never should have been in an American military song in the first place. But I cannot help wondering what use are aircraft carriers if one cannot be used to keep Libyan airspace free of the lunatic's planes and gunships, so that fewer good people will die taking him down.