The changing of the thematic agenda on Libya is a yearly affair. International organizations operating in and around the country meet in working groups to decide what area of activity is the easiest to focus on in the unstable country. These thematic areas of work are often chosen as the easiest work-around for whatever challenge the country imposes on them in that year. Political legitimacy crisis on the national level? Work with municipalities. Militarization of youth? Give grants to civil society organizations made up of young people who’ve never touched a gun.
The more recent focus in the past few years has been on economic reforms. Rather than working with the government to diversify the country’s revenue streams, the international community has decided that strengthening the private sector is the way to go. Nevermind the fact that there are is no real regulation on the private sector, that there is no legal framework to protect private sector employees, or that neoliberalization causes more problems than it solves in most countries where it runs rampant. In a country already strife with inequality, strengthening the private sector is not the magic bullet they think it is.
But my gripe with the private sector is about one issue in particular: paying to access a public park.
Now, paying for private outdoor space is not an entirely new concept in Libya. After 2011 there was a massive increase in the number of “family-only” private commercial compounds, which normally include a number of cafes and restaurants, a children’s play space and outdoor garden seating. And that’s perfectly fine. It’s a private business built on privately owned land (who probably should be regulated anyways to make sure they pay their employees a fair wage and are not destroying the environment to maintain their ecologically-inappropriate grass).
No, I’m not against these types of projects. But what I’m seeing at an increased rate in Libya these days is the privatization of public space. At its most basic form, a businessman will build a fence around a public space, build a kiosk and plant a few trees in it, and charge people money to enter and use it. This happened in Tobruk earlier this year, when a park that was renovated by local organizations was taken over by a private businessman who offered to continue renovating the park, in exchange for charging families 10 LYD a person to use it. Of course he railed about the incompetency of the local government who are unable to maintain these spaces, and how the kiosks he built would employ local residents.
Now look, I’m not a die-hard Marxist. I don’t hate the private sector and any project that can provide some much needed services to Libyan cities, especially smaller towns, is not something I view as a bad thing. But this is public land we’re talking about. This man is undoubtedly making money off of an asset he didn’t even pay for. A publicly-owned asset. It should alarm every Libyan citizen when our public land is taken over by the private sector under the guise of better management, because it won’t just end with land. Electricity, water, healthcare, education, everything can be improved by the private sector, but at the expense of people who do not have the means to afford these basic human rights. We must guard our public assets with a passion that aims to improve them for everyone.
The tragedy of this turn of events is that Libya has spent the better part of 5 decades as a Socialist country. Gadhafi’s push to nationalize the oil and gas sector, build affordable housing, strengthen social security and pioneer agricultural projects have been distorted behind the long list of human rights abuses and crimes that were committed by his regime. The approach to “building the new Libya” is to throw the baby out with the bathwater and build a country from scratch, when in fact, there are many elements of the old system that should be kept and improved upon. Libya has invested in new university graduates with scholarships to finish studying abroad, it has subsidized basic food items to ensure that no one goes hungry and it has labour laws that puts neoliberal countries to shame. To celebrate and protect these things does not mean that you love Gadhafi, only that you want the best for your fellow countrymen and not just the elites.
But today, as Libyan families become poorer by the day with the devaluation of the Libyan dinar and the loss of purchasing power, we’re seeing massive privatization projects that disenfranchises already struggling people. Across Benghazi we’re seeing resorts, malls, housing projects and private hospitals with astronomical fees. A night the Al-Marwa Hospital will put you back a few thousand dollars, and the entrance fee to a beach resort has reached 200 LYD; about as much as a teacher makes in two weeks. The affordable housing projects that were once accessible to any Libyan family now go for no less than 200,000 LYD for a two-bedroom apartment.
Like I said, I’m not suggesting we should kill the private sector and return to the golden age of a Socialist Libya. All I’m saying is, don’t also take away the small public park that acts as one of the few free activities left for Libyan families.