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Libya heads toward unknown future

A year after the war that dislodged Muammar Gaddafi began, Libya finds itself in the political doldrums. North Africa expert Geoff Porter discusses the difference between chaos and anarchy in the Sahara.

Kai Ryssdal: It's been a year -- just a bit more, actually -- since the start of the civil war in Libya that ended with the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi last October. Since then there's been little progress in forming a government and getting the Libyan economy back to something resembling normal.

Geoff Porter's a long time student of Libya -- he runs a company called North Africa Risk Consulting. And he's just back from Tripoli. Good to have you with us.

Geoff Porter: Oh, it's my pleasure.

Ryssdal: So what's it like in Libya right now?

Porter: It's somewhere between euphoria and tremendous anxiety. There's an overwhelming revolutionary spirit, which seems to be carrying the country forward despite a huge amount of deficiencies -- ranging from traffic to identifying expiration dates on consumer products to putting in place some sort of national auditing and accounting system.

Ryssdal: Can you say anybody's in charge? They've got this council, but is anybody really running things?

Porter: There's a nominal leader -- Mustaf Abdul Jalil, who is the chairman of the NTC, the National Transitional Council. But the extent of his authority isn't all that clear. Just to give you one example, I was in Libya last week and I was hoping to visit some of the historic sites, the Roman ruins. And I was told by the minister of foreign affairs that it wasn't unsafe for me to travel from Tripoli to Leptis Magnus, which is approximately two hours outside of Tripoli. So you get a sense of the limits of the control that the central government has if you can't travel two hours outside of the capital.

Ryssdal: Can you, if you live in one of the larger cities, can you go outside and buy some bread? I mean, is there a functioning consumer economy?

Porter: Oh, without a doubt. There's a lot of daylight between anarchy and chaos. What you have in Libya is anarchy, but it's not chaos. I was able to walk about Tripoli freely. I was able to buy a cup of coffee. I bought some T-shirts to bring back home to commemorate the revolution.

Ryssdal: That's great. That's great. They're selling revolutionary T-shirts in Libya.

Porter: Oh, tons of swag. Absolutely tons of swag.

Ryssdal: What about big-time investment though? Oil companies going in to get what they can and then in return building some part of the Libyan economy back up. Is that happening at all?

Porter: Yes and no. The companies from whom Libyan production represented a large percentage of their global portfolio have returned to Libya. They've been sort of obligated to in order to protect their share price. The companies that can afford to hold of -- where Libyan production represents an insignificant or relatively small percentage of their global portfolio -- haven't gone back. They're in a holding pattern.

Ryssdal: But if they're waiting for stability in an environment where I imagine -- correct me if I'm wrong -- there are a lot of young men running around with a lot of guns, how's that going to work out?

Porter: Well you're kind of betwixt and between. First, there are a lot of young men with guns. They're not out during the daytime, but they're kind of like vampires and they do come out at night. But they behave in relatively predictable fashion. It's not willy-nilly violence. There's no terrorism, so to speak. But again, there's a big difference between predictable militias and a regularized military. So what people are looking for is the professionalism of the militias, but that's going to be a long time coming.

Ryssdal: So here comes the internal political question. if you went to Tripoli or Benghazi or any of those cities that you've been talking about and asked people in the streets, 'Are you better off than you were a year ago?' What's the answer?

Porter: Oh, I think people would overwhelmingly would say yes. Like I said in the beginning, there's this profound sense of euphoria. It's a real revolutionary spirit that sort of imbues everything. Just to share with you one anecdote, I was out for lunch with some functionaries from the ministry of foreign affairs and the waiter brought over three soup options. You had vegetable soup and Libyan soup. One of the members of the ministries of foreign affairs said he wanted Libyan soup and then he recited sort of the motto for the revolution... So ordering soup has become a revolutionary gesture.

Ryssdal: Geoff Porter, just back from Libya. Geoff, thanks a lot.

Porter: Thanks Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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