BENGHAZI, Libya—Young men in fatigues hang around outside the offices of the National Transitional Council, carrying rifles and flashing V (for victory) signs at visitors. Inside, older men in leather jackets drink tea on sofas, while temporary officials cope with clashing appointments and race up and down the hallways. It’s just how one imagines the Smolny Institute, Lenin’s St. Petersburg headquarters, in 1917: amateur, enthusiastic, disorganized, rumor-filled, and slightly paranoid, all at once. Though in Smolny there were no ringing cellphones to add to the general cacophony.
And at least the Russian revolutionaries were operating within what had been a functioning society. By contrast, Libya’s late dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, has left an unprecedented, even weird vacuum in his wake. Post-revolutionary Libya is truly a desert, not only in the geographic sense but in the political, economic, even psychological senses too.
Look, by contrast, at Libya’s post-revolutionary neighbors. Egypt has a sophisticated economy, a middle class, foreign investors, and an enormous tourist industry, not to mention a long history of financial interaction with the rest of the world. Tunisia has a highly educated and articulate population, which has long been exposed to French media and political ideas. More than 90 percent of Tunisians voted in the country’s first free elections last weekend. Outside observers proclaimed the voting impeccably fair.
Libya, by contrast, has neither a sophisticated economy, nor an articulate population, nor any political experience whatsoever. There were no political parties under Qaddafi—not even fake, government-controlled political parties. There was no media, or even reliable information, to speak of. Libyan journalists were the most heavily controlled in the Arab world, hardly anyone has Internet access, and there is no tradition of investigative reporting. During four decades in power, Qaddafi destroyed the army, the civil service, and the educational system. The country produces nothing except oil, and none of the profits from that oil ever seem to have trickled down to anybody. Some 60 percent of the population works for the government, at very low salaries—a few hundred dollars a month. There is hardly any infrastructure, outside of a few roads. There is hardly any social life, since so many young people were too poor to marry. And even if there were social life, there wouldn’t be any public spaces to enjoy it: Trash is scattered along the undeveloped beaches, and old plastic bags blow across weed-clogged city parks.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and of course, in the absence of an army, militias may step into the breach. At the moment, some 27 of them, from cities all over Libya, have taken up residence in Tripoli compounds and spray-painted their names on the barricades. In the absence of regulatory bodies, newborn newspapers may well fall into the hands of business and political groups with foreign or old regime connections too. When I met the deputy chairman of the NTC, Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, we discussed another “Russian” scenario: Newspapers start out enthusiastic and free, as they did in Moscow in the 1990s, but are gradually bought up by business conglomerates—until eventually they return to government control. The same fate could await new political parties.
And yet—Libya’s unprecedented vacuum also offers unprecedented opportunities. One Libyan journalist, the editor of a brand-new magazine that he has personally financed and staffed with volunteers, points out that none of his journalists ever learned to write regime propaganda, and all of them are therefore committed to telling “the truth.” The nonexistent economy and the absence of political institutions also means that there aren't any entrenched interests that will set themselves against change, as they have done in Egypt. There aren’t even any well-organized Islamists, as there are in Tunisia.
On top of all of that, Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa, and (depending on who is counting) some $250 billion in foreign currency reserves. Much of the money Qaddafi never spent on his people is now sitting in the bank. In fact, I can’t think of another group of revolutionaries, at any time in history, that found itself in quite such a fortunate situation. Usually, revolutions are born out of national bankruptcy. The first task of the new regime is to fill the state’s coffers. The second task is to tear down the institutions of the old regime. Libya’s task—how to spend its money wisely, and how to build new institutions from scratch—is both easier than anyone else’s and harder. And no, I’m not going to predict what will happen next.