Libya's Future Comes Down to Keeping the Lights On and the Water Running

The Libyan revolution is unfolding with all the sights, sounds, and intrigue we’ve come to expect from the Arab Spring. Libya’s future will certainly be one without Qaddafi, but in this divided, tribal nation the pendulum is presently swinging much closer to anarchy than stability. Libya is inches from joining the long list of failed states, where extremists and citizens alike battle each other house to house and street to street. We’ve seen this movie before.

Political solutions, reformed government institutions, new laws, and new Libyan leadership will take time to be developed and accepted by the population. While debate rages about the kind of new government Libyans will fashion, the rebel leadership and the international community should look east to Iraq to define their priorities during this formative period.

The first step toward reform and a better future is oddly grounded in Libya’s present structures. Stabilizing the everyday living environment must be a top priority. It is the only way to buy the rebels enough time to create a new government that has the confidence of the population.

People want and need the same things, whether they live here in the U.S., in Iraq or in Libya. They of course want security, but security is fueled by a sense among the broader populace that their immediate needs are being met, be they power, food, medical care etc. People who believe they have everything to gain are more likely take to the streets and fight. Those who believe they have nothing to lose are less likely to help fight against forces who encourage instability. Those who live in fear will be paralyzed to point of enabling chaos to descend around them.

Job one for the new government is literally keeping the lights on. It’s a difficult task but essential to the success of the nation’s transition. In Iraq we saw first-hand how security and stability are inextricably linked to the maintenance or providing of essential services. In Baghdad, we often speculated how much better the security situation would improve if the electricity, water, sewage systems, banks, food supplies and other services were not interrupted by the chaos that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein.

To be sure, the decay of the infrastructure in Iraq and the lack of essential services were in many cases the fault of a regime that either neglected those delivery systems or intentionally rationed services to oppress minority groups. Libya has a better maintained infrastructure, but keeping the lights on and water flowing will be an ongoing challenge for the new government and must remain its top priority.

Then there is “people infrastructure.” Here in the United States we often lament the size, scope and cost of our bureaucracy – and with good reason. Our politics of late have focused on a battle between public employee unions and those who want to shrink the government workforce. In Iraq, the total collapse of the military and other security services along with the shutdown of many agencies, albeit for a short period of time, added to widespread fear and shook the public’s confidence in the future.

In Libya, the reverse must be true. People need to continue to get paid, including government employees and the military, particularly in Tripoli. Government agencies need to stay open during the transition and interruptions in government services should be limited.

Then there’s the money. Banks also need to stay open and the financial system must continue to operate. In Iraq, the banking system was entirely offline following the fall of the regime. The Coalition undertook an unprecedented and successful effort to reform the currency system and banking regulation in record time, but the disruption of regular commerce, and the perceived collapse of the economic system increased the tension among the public.

Where shortages exist, the new government, U.N. and the international community must also move quickly to fill gaps. With Qaddafi loyalists and Islamic extremists still posing a threat to stability, the future of Libya comes down to commerce, power, food, and water. Keeping those flowing will be the first step toward generating the confidence that will turn rebels into leaders and give Libya chance for a better future.

Thomas J. Basile served as a Senior Advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq from 2003-04.