In Tripoli, misery rules as the state is conspicuously absent

With temperatures soaring and the air conditioners switched on, power cuts are back, running 6-8 hours a time, sometimes twice a day.
Sunday 08/07/2018
Power vacuum. An employee of the electricity company fixes cables in Tripoli. (AFP)
Power vacuum. An employee of the electricity company fixes cables in Tripoli. (AFP)

Every few weeks there is an announcement of an international organisation or a foreign government giving money to Libya to help it rebuild or just survive the present crisis. The World Health Organisation and France recently sent medical supplies to treat 50,000 people in southern Libya.

It is a far cry from the situation before the 2011 toppling of the Qaddafi regime when Libya was constantly handing out cash, mainly to sub-Saharan African countries to buy influence and goodwill­. For most Libyans it a painful demonstration of the extent to which the country has collapsed.

A couple of months ago, in an announcement that hardly made headlines, Italy’s ambassador said his country was giving $2.3 million towards improving garbage collection and waste management in Tripoli.

Piles of plastic bags of garbage stacked up, usually in the middle of streets, are not a new sight in Tripoli but the problem has never been so bad or so visible, not to mention pungent. Simply trying to cross the road in parts of the city is impossible because of the rubbish piled up. Noticeably, though, the area around the prime minister’s office is clean.

There are many reasons for the mess, all of them the direct result of the absence of a functioning government: a lack of sufficient street cleaners, most of whom come from Bangladesh, because they are afraid to work in Libya; no money to pay those that are there; no money to replace garbage trucks; landfill sites full and closed and no new ones opened because there is no one with sufficient powers to do so.

That did not stop the deputy head of the Tripoli-based Presidential Council, Ahmed Maiteeq, from giving authorities in the capital a 10-day deadline to clean up the city, nor the same local authorities boldly declaring the previous day that the matter was well in hand.

For many ordinary people in Tripoli, such statements are just hot air. With temperatures soaring and the air conditioners switched on, power cuts are back, running 6-8 hours a time, sometimes twice a day.

Water cuts have reappeared and there are warnings that the situation will worsen unless people reduce the amount of water they use.

Meanwhile, although security in the city is better than a few months ago and crime down, there is no money available in the banks and the price of basic foodstuffs, particularly bread, continues to rise. Three loaves now cost a dinar ($0.72). That compares to ten for a quarter-dinar ($0.18) before the revolution and eight for half a dinar in 2013.

Other stable foods such as tomato paste and pasta have also rocketed. Cooking oil costs four times what it did before the revolution. It makes life almost unbearable for ordinary people.

The result is that respect for the authorities has often turned into contempt, particularly for the internationally backed Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Fayez al-Sarraj.

“No one here has anything good to say about Sarraj,” claimed a prominent journalist who asked not to be named. “They do not like him or trust him. They don’t believe in anyone now. People are thinking only about getting through each day as it comes.”

Since 2014 when Libya split into what remains a low-intensity civil war, every summer has been a time of misery for almost everyone in the country. Albeit this year in most of the east under the control the Libyan National Army led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar there is none of the despondency or resentment so noticeable in the capital.

In Tripoli, Sarraj and members of his government are clearly aware of the economic crisis and the potential political backlash. They have been trying to ensure that the shortages end and the garbage mountains disappear.

For ordinary citizens, though, the misery continues. Few are reassured by claims such as those made July 3 by a GNA spokesman that the fault lies elsewhere. Warning that people’s standards of living could suffer unless Haftar hands back the eastern oil terminals to the official Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation (NOC), enabling oil revenues to rise again, the spokesman blamed the Audit Bureau for blocking contracts to expand the number of power stations.

After recapturing two of the main eastern oil terminals last month, Haftar gave them to the parallel NOC in Benghazi set up by the eastern authorities.

The inevitable response on social media has been that living standards have plummeted and that the Sarraj government has had two full years to do something about increasing the power supply.

Mustafa Sanallah, the chairman of the official NOC, is reportedly calling for international sanctions against almost everyone involved in the parallel NOC following Haftar’s handover while pessimism in Tripoli deepens.

The fear is that it has made a clash with the LNA more likely and that things can only get worse.