By Michel Cousins.
Tunis, 1 August 2016:
You can sense the depression as an acquaintance in Tripoli explains the situation on the phone.
“There is no money in the banks. There is no electricity, no water. Prices have gone up. The fridge is almost empty. My husband is angry all the time. No one is buying anything at the shop. He comes home and shouts at everyone. The children are afraid of him now. I don’t know what to do.”
Aisha is not alone. So many others have similar stories.
Located in Algeria Square, just a stone’s throw away from Shara Haiti where she and her family try to cope with their disastrous situation, are the offices of Central Tripoli municipal council.
There, Mayor Abdulrauf Beitelmal and the other councillors are being blamed for all the problems, even though they are way beyond their remit. Electricity is the responsibility of the power company GECOL, the plunging value of the dinar and the lack of money in the banks that of the central Bank of Libya.
In fact, Centra Tripoli municipal council, like all other municipal councils in the country, has very little responsibility for anything. Because of the way the Qaddafi regime set things up, services that would normally be thought to be their affair are completely beyond their control as well.
The municipal police come under the local government ministry. Cleaning services come under one centrally-run organisation. Road maintenance comes under another. It was the way Qaddafi organised it. He did not want the local authorities, or anyone else, to exercise any power.
That is the basic problem at present, Beitelmal explains.
“We’re paying the price of Qaddafi’s dead hand on everything”, he says. Qaddafi was the state and everything was ultimately controlled by him. “The minute he died, everything collapsed,” the mayor adds. The top-down system of control stopped.
In fact, Beitelmal declares, all Libya’s difficulties at present come down to Qaddafi.
Despite the mountain of public expectations, he is both calm and, more surprising, even optimistic.
Mayor for just 10 months, after he replaced the politically ambitious Al-Mahdi Al-Harathi, he has set a number of intial priorities for the council.
- Street cleaning and rubbish removal;
- Filling potholes and resurfacing roads;
- Reinstate traffic signs;
- A solution to Tripoli’s traffic jams and car parks;
- A public transport system;
- Cleaning up and maintaining public parks and children’s playgrounds.
Of these, the absolute priorities are rubbish collection, cleaning up the streets and repairing them, Beitelmal says.
Three parks have also already been reinstated, he points out, in part with voluntary help. Additionally, a new prefabricated health clinic is being built in Zawiat Al-Dahmani district, in the garden next to the Eye Hospital, to replace the one nearby that in 2010 was closed for maintenance that never happened.
The municipality has also built three other buildings, one each for the local traffic police, the municipal police and the fire brigade.
As for the public transport, a bus company is being set up which, the mayor hopes ,will go some way to deal with Tripoli’s appalling traffic problem. The plan is for it to operate routes across the city with a fleet of buses in six to 12 months’ time.
None of this, though, is officially the municipality’s responsibility. But with no one else dealing with the Tripoli’s myriad of problems, the council has has had to take on the task.
With that in mind, Beitelmal and his colleagues are now working to legally remove the dead hand of Qaddafi and assume responsibility for services that in other countries are automatically the remit of the local authority. They are working on changes to the law that will give the council control (and the funding) over street cleaning and refuse collection, the municipal police, road maintenance – not to mention the many properties that it once owned until Qaddafi took them away.
“We’re fighting to get the rights and funds to deliver services,” Beitelmal explains.
Finance obviously remains a major struggle in the absence of an effective government that is in control of Libya’s income, although some money did come in from the authorities.
“Last year, we got LD 1 million but it wasn’t enough,” the mayor notes
Much of it was used to pay outstanding salaries to the 200 staff the municipality had on its books. Many were paid off and the payroll is now down to 90.
The council is still waiting for more government cash but in the meantime is looking to other means of funding. One has been to buy goods and services on credit from local suppliers: “Buy now, pay later”. A number of companies, too, have provided some funds out of their social responsibility budgets.
There are, Beitelmal adds, promises of other monies for the council and he is confident they will come. The fact that they have not so far does not deter him.
Moreover, Tripoli’s problem, he declares, is not just about funding. It is also about having the right people in the right position with the will to achieve something. That, he says, is now the case in the municipality.
Unlike some other mayors with national ambitions, he certainly appears firmly fixed on what central Tripoli needs.
“We are getting used to the situation we are in. Running the country is not our job. The basis of our work has to be serving the people”.
He adds: “We can now see the possibility of major work being done. We are seeing light at the end of the tunnel.” That is the reason for his optimism, he says.
Asked if he has thought of giving up the struggle in view of mountain of problems and the lack of funds and support, he says a firm no.
“It’s not because I want the job. It’s because it would be to admit failure”, he states.
At present when there is talk about there being two Libyas, the automatic assumption is that the reference is to the split between the alliance of the House of Representatives, the Thinni administration and the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Hafter in the east and the Presidency Council and the Government of National Accord in the west. But the work of Beitelmal in central Tripoli and that of mayors in other towns points to a different divergence. At national government level, Libya remains a mess; but at local government level, people are working to deliver services.
For the capital’s families, weighed down by power cuts, the lack of money and all the other problems they currently face on a daily basis, it has to be cause for hope.