Libya watches the neighbours, but has problems all its own

Libyans are deeply interested with events in Egypt and Tunisia, but their own concerns are rooted in local corruption, nepotism and a stagnant economy.

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By the time Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunis, I was at a hotel in Rabat sipping coffee, trying to make sense of the escalating situation. I had just finished presenting a paper at a conference discussing challenges facing North Africa, which was appropriate considering that the results of those challenges were now unfolding on live television.

There were a few omens of what was about to happen when I visited Tunis several months ago. It appeared that Mr Ben Ali may have had the same feeling; in his last TV appearance he looked as frightened as he was incredulous.

But what has been happening on the television cannot be ignored in my own country, Libya, which is bordered by both Tunisia and Egypt. As Tunisia's leader fled, many Libyans were occupied with local government meetings, where, at least in theory, decisions about local problems are made. The proceedings of one such meeting in a remote western corner of the country, broadcast on Libyan television, were an improbable spark.

The Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has a habit of attending such meetings, dropping in unannounced at local halls. But when he arrived at this particular meeting in western Libya, the discussion quickly shifted to a rather difficult subject. A member of that local council pointed out that many people had no place to live.

Col Qaddafi appeared angered, not that the issue had been raised, but that apartments he had personally ordered built were still unfinished. Many young Libyans were waiting, living in miserable conditions in some cases. On live television, he responded: "Go and take those apartments."

But it wasn't just the occupants of those units who responded. Hours later, hundreds of young Libyans invaded and occupied apartments, mostly unfinished, across the country.

I arrived back in Tripoli a few days later after seeing these events in Libya described in the media. Now that I was back in the country, I knew that there were few sources of information as useful as the taxi drivers in Tripoli, as in other big cities in North Africa, to measure the social consequences. Immediately my taxi driver asked me if I had heard of what happened over the last couple of days before giving me his own opinion. What disappointed him most was the lawlessness that was rampant at building sites in many parts of the country.

Citing the experiences in Tunisia, my young driver pointed out: "What we have here is much worse ... people there appear more concerned about their country so they started organising themselves." He was referring to the response of many Tunisians to the threat of lawlessness that descended upon their cities immediately after Mr Ben Ali left the country. Groups of residents joined together to protect their properties and neighbourhoods. My taxi driver was agitated that some of his countrymen had decided to do the opposite.

I know a developer whose projects had been ransacked. His view was the same as the driver's but he added an important detail: "The police did not do anything to protect the properties and damage could amount to millions." He described how looters invading his site managed to get away with thousands of dollars worth of building materials after breaking into a warehouse.

I thought of all the projects that were unfinished in Libya, a fact quickly clear to visitors to Tripoli as they take the 30-minute drive into the city from the airport. There are many new apartments along the way. None are finished, yet one can see people on balconies and outside the incomplete units. They have made these places their homes but there are few signs of any authority. People have decided to make their own solutions, bypassing the local meeting halls.

Many young Libyans lacked housing as a result of international sanctions against the country and the government's long-term freeze on projects that required major expenditures. But when sanctions were lifted, something had to be done and there was no one left to blame. When the country embarked on massive building projects, officials could not deliver. Corruption and mismanagement prevented the majority of developments from being completed. Many young Libyans remain unemployed, with little education and less confidence in their government.

There are a few local councils in Libya who have called on the current government to resign after discussing these events. When the national general congress meets in the coming two weeks, we will see if these calls grow in number.

What really pushed people to take over these apartments was a deep distrust of the government. They are fed up with corruption and incompetence. Education and hard work matter little compared to family connections and bribes. Apartments were built for the poor, who usually have a hard time getting one, while the rich and connected have no problem.

But is there any connection between what is happening in Libya and what transpired across the border? When I put that question to my taxi driver, he was firm with his answer: "No."

Mustafa Fetouri is a Tripoli-based academic and political analyst who won the Samir Kassir Award for Best Opinion Article in 2010