On Libya

Since I’ve covered news stories in Libya half-a-dozen times or more, and interviewed the late Colonel Moammar Gaddafi on several of those visits, I was asked by 9News to talk about him on the day he was caught and killed. And when the reporter asked, “What’s next for Libya?”, my answer was, “If I sit here and actually tell you what’s next for Libya, kick me out of the room.”

No doubt, plenty of experts will authoritatively tell us anyway. But here’s why they shouldn’t: no one knows. And if you don’t believe that, consider this: at the beginning of this year, you could have asked that question, “What’s next?”, to the leaders of the very nations where rebellions rose up— Gaddafi in Libya, Mubarak of Egypt, Assad in Syria, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Saleh of Yemen— and they themselves didn’t have a clue….even though each one had eyes and ears on every street corner of his country.

So we can only guess about what’s next, and we can only base those guesses on our experience. Mine, covering many nations rent by revolution, is that a whole spectrum of opinions and ideologies bands together to fight a common foe; the Arab adage is, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But that bond sometimes doesn’t last beyond the last rifle shot. One thing we know about Libya is, some of the rebels who fought shoulder-to-shoulder were guys who, before the revolution, wouldn’t have sat at the same table together.

History also shows that when so many have waited so long for a place at the table, they’ll push everyone else out of the way to get a chair. Such conflicts can torment a nation.

What’s more, those who speak now for Libya liberally use the word “democracy.” However, that means different things to different factions. For some, it means American-style freedoms of everything from speech to religion to opportunity. But for others, democracy means too much freedom— the freedom to upset moral and cultural norms that have stood them well for millennia.

But I also can cite encouraging signs that date back to my times in Libya. I never went there without meeting someone who told me, “Oh, I have a brother living in the United States,” or “My son is going to college in your country.” There is not the kind of intellectual vacuum in Libya that I’ve seen in less sophisticated countries like Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen, a vacuum that can enable the radical forces of terror to gain a dominant hold on power. Quite simply, Libya has an educated and comfortable middle class— not by our standards, but a middle class of merchants and technicians— whose lives have gotten better these past few decades and they know it wasn’t thanks only to the force of Allah.

If I see a problem, now that the rebellious factions in Libya must actually govern, it is that Gaddafi gave them no foundation to start. That’s because for forty years, Libya was a one-man show with Gaddafi at the top of everything: government, military, business, oil. Under his leadership, there was no individual initiative. Not even individual sports; everything had to be a team endeavor, everything had to be in the collective.

That’s one reason he stayed in power so long: he didn’t permit the organization of any kind of civic group that might grow into organized opposition. Libyans didn’t have the equivalent of our chambers of commerce, or PTAs, or even Girl Scouts. Every decision about people’s lives emanated from the top. The new Libya is born without a skeleton to build on. That’s worrisome. On the other hand, the new Libya is born without a likeable legacy to emulate. That’s encouraging.

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