When the Prime Minister of Libya was kidnapped this week, it was a shock to many. It was a shock because people thought things were going more or less smoothly. I’m reminded of the old story about how frogs, if put in a pot of water in which the heat is very slowly raised, will keep adjusting to the new normal and won’t jump out before they cook to death. The story is not true but it is highly illustrative of something about human behavior. We are susceptible to what scientists call the shifting baseline syndrome. If we get used to a problem on Monday and then it gets a little worse on Tuesday, we notice that it’s a little worse and forget what that normal really should mean the way things were on Sunday.
People in Libya did not expect – and many do not now expect – an increase in conflict. People have started to think the recent conditions are normal and tenable. Libya in recent months is a country with assassinations or bombings several times per week (victims include high-ranking military and government officials), with armed gangs that claim to be al-Qaeda controlling large sections of the second largest city, with not one but many military groups of which the national army is not the most powerful and with all armed groups extorting the government and getting away with it. Earlier in the week, armed men walked past the security of the Prime Minister’s office building and entered his office to make the point that they could do this. Yet when he was kidnapped, it seems that many frogs were surprised to learn the water has become hot.
As Zeidan’s release was being announced, I listened to Libyans’ reactions. “He’s a weakling. If only the people who grabbed him were in charge,” said a woman to friends as her children played at her feet. All nodded.
Discussing the public response to the incident is difficult, given that there has been no polling. Analysts can only use anecdotal evidence, such as the overhead comment above. Still, it is established that Zeidan is not a popular leader. He is widely seen as ineffective. The US military action this month, carried out in Tripoli without consulting the Libyan authorities, has not helped; it reminded Libyans that Zeidan is not considered a reliable partner abroad. Without polls or data, we can assume that the kidnapping will also not help to counter the image of an impotent leader.
My favorite news coverage of the kidnapping and public response is yesterday’s article in Libya’s English language daily, the Libyan Herald. Writer Houda Mzioudet, who spent the day of the kidnapping at a book fair and didn’t feel like leaving it for a press conference about the Prime Minister, has written a article to make the case that Libyans, or at least English-speaking young Libyans who hang out at international book fairs, are anti-kidnapping. If this is a position that needs to be argued, then Libyan society has really gone off course.
I am also fascinated by Ms. Mzioudet’s article because of its focus on the importance of social media. Rather than pushing for peaceful change through practical civic engagement, many Libyans (not unlike many Americans) think they have contributed to public life and the course of events just by “liking” a position on Facebook. Mzioudet finds it significant enough for newspaper coverage to note that “a young social media activist…Khalifa El Beshbesh, firmly denounced the kidnapping.” Translated from gibberish to English, this means a person who writes things online (i.e. on her Facebook page) said she doesn’t like kidnapping. Note the use of the phrase “firmly denounced”; on some level Ms. Mzioudet must know that there’s no way to wanly denounce kidnapping. You’re for it or against. She chose the qualifying word firmly because it sounds like an important position, like something that would come in a State Department of White House press statement. The US doesn’t just denounce a coup or a genocide. It firmly denounces it. And so it must be meaningful when Mzioudet’s online friend does the same. Prime Minister Zeidan and his kidnappers are surely all studying the phrasing of this “social media activist” to ascertain her level of commitment to her stated position.
I suspect that things will not improve without two changes. Firstly, there will need to be one government and only one army. Currently there are many “militias” – this brigade, that qatiba, the such-and-such Defense Force, etc. – answering to different bosses (that is, warlords). The government is not in charge but rather is a victim of extortion. It shares public funds with the militias even when they are believed to be behind bombings and murders. The country cannot move forward until there is one military under one elected government. Zeidan will need to convince the militias to decommission or come under the elected leadership’s command. If he cannot create one country via negotiations, then it will need to be done by the sword. His restraint until now has been admirable but is not respected within Libya.
Secondly, Libyans will have to become engaged in public life and politics. There are many models of democracy but no such thing as a non-participatory democracy. Democracy needs civil society, group advocacy; it needs interest groups pushing (in ways other than kidnapping and bombing) for their desires.
Today, some Libyans think that saying what they want on Facebook counts as “activism.” Others think that kidnapping and terrorism are legitimate political practice. If the country is going to have a happy future, both these mentalities will need to be replaced with an understanding of what public discourse looks like in a democratic society.