Not Yet There, but Exceptional Progress Since 2011.

Two years ago the entire world watched the Arab Spring unroll across the Middle East, successfully deposing entrenched regimes in Tunisia and Egypt with remarkably little violence, and spreading a wave of optimism in both countries. But when a Revolution began in Libya on February 17, most observers inside and outside the country saw little prospect for success, given the strength and determination of the Qaddafi regime to remain in power. Having many Libyan associates and friends, I shuddered when I heard his threats to wipe out the opposition “like rats”; I knew his security forces would show no mercy.

The events of the next few months riveted the attention of the world on Libya, and we watched with bated breath as the Revolution took hold, and liberated more and more of Libya from the Qaddafi tyranny. But we also felt deep forebodings when his security forces began to move against their poorly-armed and under-strength adversaries, fearing a bloodbath across the country.

Buoyed then by the decision of the USA and NATO to support the Revolution and stop this despotic regime from the barbarity it threatened against its own people, and cheered by the superb effect of the NATO bombing, we came to believe the Revolutionary forces might just prevail, and our prayers were answered when we heard of Qaddafi and his clique fleeing Tripoli with Revolutionary forces hot on their heels, and when those forces won the fight and deposed Qaddafi with minimal blood and disruption.

In the two years since then, Libya has slowly but surely opened to the outside world. Transition to democracy is never easy, especially in a country that never had a democratic tradition, but despite many obstacles and bumps in the road, the transition has been a striking success. For the first time in its history, Libya has seen open and free elections with all parties able to compete, and avoided the voter fraud that has plagued too many other emerging “democracies.” That transition may not have been as fast or extensive as many Libyans would like, but in truth its progress to date has been prodigious, and has given every indication of the capacity to keep evolving in ways that will benefit all Libyans.

Of course more progress could have been made, but let us appraise Libya’s achievements relative to its neighbors. Syria’s brutal civil war, with no real end in sight, has killed tens of thousands, disrupted the lives of millions of others, and threatens to spark a wider conflict. In Cairo, Tahrir Square is often again packed with thousands of Egyptians protesting new government policies, including alleged Mubarak supporters seeking to discredit the new administration and force a return to the old ways. Egyptians are dispirited, the Government paralyzed and the economy stagnant just when Egypt desperately needs economic development and recovery. The promise of Egypt’s Revolution has not begun to be met.

Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, has avoided such violent demonstrations, but has seen increasing tension between hard-line Salafi groups and the more moderate parties, and the assassination of a leading secular-minded Opposition figure has greatly increased fears of targeted violence against those who differ with those fundamentalist groups. Some are already calling for a new government, and for general strikes to protest alleged “pandering” to the extremists. Tunisians in general have been greatly disappointed by the slow pace of change and improvement in daily lives. Lacking natural resources, Tunisia cannot quickly build its economy and provide jobs and a stake to all Tunisians. The Government remains stable, and is not yet facing Egypt-like dissent, but too little real progress has dented the hopes and expectations of the Tunisians who inspired the entire Arab Spring movement.

To the west, Algeria has seen its own oil and gas production encounter serious declines, which can have a great impact on the national budget, exacerbated by a sharp rise on demand for electricity which has outpaced supply and resulted in power outages that further impact gas production. Moreover, the Government remains ambivalent about outside investment, being ranked 152nd by the World Bank global index of business friendliness. The terror attacks on the natural gas complex earlier this year have also raised fears of security – and the attendant costs of outside firms to do business there.

Libya is far from ideal, and its Government still has far to go to fill the aspirations of citizens who joined the Revolution. Much obviously remains to be done. However, we cannot overlook its achievements to date. Free and fair elections returned a government eager to develop institutions and bring Libya firmly into the 21st Century, economically and politically, and tap the vast resources at its disposal. Libya has already returned to (and often exceeded) pre-war oil production, and with more technical assistance could produce some 3 million bpd. The new Government is in place, with new Ministers seeking ways to improve the lives of Libyans in health care, security, infrastructure, education and so much more beyond the traditional oil & gas sector. This is not a political issue: Libya is keen to bring American companies ready and able to provide assistance and expertise to achieve that goal.

Security of course remains a challenge, as the Government strives to control the militias that played a key role in the Revolution, and now need to secure good jobs in a flourishing economy and reintegrate these fighters into mainstream society. Libya critically needs to quickly develop that economy, and help these fighters achieve the quality of life that propelled them to Revolt in the first place.

There is no doubt that the technical expertise and assistance of companies from America can accelerate that process. These opportunities have already attracted business and government officials worldwide to come to Libya to explore profit from this, and that competition from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, etc, means American companies can ignore or defer this market at their own peril. We must move now!

America remains highly popular with Libyans, who want to cement closer ties with American companies whom they see as honest and direct, and able to bring the best technology and expertise to projects. Qaddafi-era corruption and business tactics left Libyans disillusioned about the nations and companies who profited from that regime, and they want business done transparently, and to benefit all Libyans, not just the select elite few. This can give America a significant advantage – if we are willing to pursue it.

Libya has not suddenly become a true democracy where corruption is a distant memory. Competitors still seek every advantage, fair or unfair, and this remains a tough market. But Libya’s natural resources allow it to rebuild its infrastructure and bring it into the 21st century. American firms willing to explore this market will be warmly received by Libyan officials and companies who know corruption is unsustainable for long-term goals, and want to replace the wasteful past with a sound global presence. American companies willing to navigate the turmoil can find good partners to maximize success there.

This is not easy, but groups like the American Libyan Chamber of Commerce & Industry can effectively introduce companies to Libya and potential partners there. Our ties with the new Government and next generation business leaders reinforce a reputation for integrity that was never tainted by relations with the Qaddafis, and can help assure American business goals in this dynamic new market, and help make Libya a potential economic and political leader of the new Middle East. Libya’s nascent democracy is fragile but very practicable, and can become a model of sustainable development if more American firms will partner and cooperate with their counterparts in Libya, for the mutual profit of all involved.

I hope you will let us help you explore and realize the many opportunities for business that will help bring Libya firmly into the 21st Century, and provide an excellent platform for American companies to seek and win more business throughout a region poised for huge potential growth as soon as the security situation allows. This is not just a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Libya and its neighbors are determined to break with past inefficiencies and to develop economies that can benefit all their citizens. American companies can and should he an integral part of that economic revolution, and the ALCCI is resolved to be a catalyst of that process – and the success for both sides!

 

Robert J. Marro

President

American Libyan Chamber of Commerce & Industry Inc (ALCCI)

Washington, D.C.