Monday, 8 August 2011

The Libyan crisis: a personal view

While business is important nothing is as harrowing as human loss

After the quick ouster of Ben Ali from Tunisia and Mubarak from Egypt some thought or hoped that Gaddafi would be hounded out of Libya in a few days or weeks. The scenario imagined was that the swift transition would then hopefully lead to a type of democratic government; after a few months or years of reconstruction all would have turned rosy and business-like in Libya and also in the neighbouring lands. Dreams obviously are hardly the usual currency used in these times and situations. And the dream of a resurgent, free Libya has sadly turned into a veritable nightmare with its attendant loss of lives and material.

The Libyan crisis has gone on for quite a while and for a long time did not seem to abate or find any solution. Only lately, and after incessant attacks by Nato and some other allies and a seeming draining of the inestimable riches of the old regime, does it seem probable that the fall of Gaddafi is imminent. The rebels, even if assisted by some pounding from the air by NATO and other allies, did not seem to have made much headway against the forces of Gaddafi. Deaths, strategic rape and maiming by the Gaddafi troops, coupled with inefficient and ineffectual rebel forces had contributed to the long-drawn-out stalemate. Gaddafi, his inner and extended family and his cohorts of business associates and backers, desperately tried to keep their hold on Libya and take back the parts of the country they had lost to the rebels. In the meantime people were dying and getting injured.
It is quite amazing that after 40 odd years of subduing and subjugating suffering, the Libyan people, following on the lead of neighbouring populations, rose and seemed to be heading to the same quick results. Gaddafi seemed lost and in a panic – notably when, for some strange PR or morale effect, he first spoke to the nation under a clown’s umbrella after descending from a battered car. Even Saif el islam, his heir apparent, seemed cornered and promised in a bizarre way even “more” democracies and liberties. Now he has once again promised free elections. This promise, coupled with his father’s infamous threat to go from house to house and seek, hound and kill the rebels, seemed to indicate that even in the Gaddafi household not all was rosy and united.

Saif el islam Gaddafi, the son with the influential friends from the west and a loved champion of opening up Libya to more humane western-friendly methods, seemed to imply that in return for remaining in power the Gaddafis would shower the population with ‘more’ liberties. He said this while emphasising that the population is not exactly the most intelligent or deserving: but it doesn’t really matter as, he further implied, we Gaddafis have plenty of liberties in our sack to dish out. It is one of those bizarre stories that show up these tin-pot dictators, even if savvy-sounding and highly educated in the west, for what they really are: to them dishing out a few “liberties” would solve the problem. When the reality was, and unfortunately has, remained that what the population, or a vast majority of it, wants, first of all, is the immediate removal of the regime in toto, and the hope of a better way of life afterwards. Sadly when you have been suffering for over 40 years, any respite is good, so although there might be strange hands lurking behind the rebels, the ones who matter most –the people−want just that: the ouster of the tyrant and basic rights to live happily without constant worries and to have all the western attributes of free press, proper justice and the possibility of running your business or enterprise without interference.
That was the common dream but the nightmare scenario goes on and people go on dying. Unconfirmed and unconfirmable statistics talk of 10,000 dead amongst the rebels. The country which has one of the world’s most lucrative oil supplies is in a paralytic state and all this has contributed to more jitters in the world and plenty of worrying on our shores especially regarding the immigration influx, business and tourism angles.
It is only fair and right to worry and shed tears about the troubles we, as a nation, are facing. But it would be rather more humane and even proper decency to be more concerned with the shed blood and tears of the peoples of Libya. Even if one does not go into the merits or demerits of who is right and who is wrong, we all appreciate that there has been a horrid loss of lives. After living for so long in a country where basic human rights, which we in Malta and in the west take for granted, were denied, they asked for their own share of a better life and all they got was a barrage of tank and sniper fire. So even if the crisis in Libya comes off the centre stage of media attention, we should all keep in mind that all our suffering or potential suffering is a non-starter when compared to what the Libyan people had and have to endure.
We rightly worry about the consequences of the business backlash we are suffering in Malta; we also talk about the effects on the employment of people who were working in Libya; we talk of the potential harm to our tourism sector with bookings being cancelled because of our proximity to the war; we talk of the business ventures of Maltese companies which invested heavily in Libya; we talk of companies which have Libyan co-ownership and which therefore have an inflow of capital suspended because of sanctions; we talk of the very real onslaught of immigrants who are coming to our land and whom we cannot accommodate properly. All this is most blatantly and worryingly true but all pales into insignificance when we think of the dead and maimed and the grieving family members of the dead. All this should be kept in its proper perspective if we are to keep alive our humanitarian viewpoint.
When some of the comments regarding “our” suffering are taken into consideration it does seem that the racist slur on us is valid. We are not seen to commiserate in our feelings towards the Libyans because we, as a nation, seem to look at them with distaste. Would this apparent coolness of ours be the same if all this human suffering was happening in Britain, Spain or Italy? Only a hundred kilometers divide us from Libya and most Maltese people sound and look more like them than the vast number of Europeans to our North. And yet we do not seem to empathise enough. Malta definitely has a headache which has grown to a worrying degree because of the neighbouring troubles. But do we keep in mind that the neighbour, especially some of its people, has a terrible and, most probably, a malignant tumour? Our headache will take a few days to pass unless we speed up the recovery by popping a few pills into our system. Libya’s condition and the condition of its inhabitants is more worrying and could last long years of suffering and surgery. The country as a country we knew till a few months ago could die and out of it a warring or worrying two countries could be born. And we dare worry about us?
But although we should give more time and thought to the Libyan plight it is not right to sit back and do nothing. After all it is a terrible headache we have. And so to work and to proper work we should go. Is there anything that can be done in these circumstances and if the authorities, the nation in general and the institutions are doing anything, are they doing enough?
The Labour Party in opposition had called on Government to hold a parliamentary debate on the subject with a view to assisting the companies most at risk and most likely to have problems, with special emphasis on employment. The motion presented by the Labour Party talked of discussing the “real situation” of Maltese investment and investors in Libya. Real as opposed to fictitious? The Maltese Parliament seemed to be lost in simple semantics and long drawn out discussions regarding divorce or, to be more precise, the exact dating and wording of the divorce referendum. Now we will be going on and on about the proper wording of the divorce bill both before and after it is promulgated.
Offering assistance to companies stuck in the Libyan quagmire might seem right at first sight but can government intervene in this way and help companies which invested in a country which had a high risk factor? Further reading of the proposed Labour motion in Parliament which, it seems, will remain collecting various mothballs and whatever happens to undiscussed motions, reveals that the opposition are proposing that government assists the companies affected by the Libyan crisis without adding new tax burdens on the Maltese and Gozitan taxpayers. I doubt whether there exist too many options to assist these companies without a dip into the government’s coffers but maybe that is why government should accept to discuss the motion. It would be interesting to hear what the opposition’s ideas are to help the companies in distress without any money flowing out.
Government had pledged to give all stricken companies a longer timeframe to pay off their tax dues. This was a positive step. But if government does assist these companies materially this could give out the wrong message. In the future, if companies invest in countries with risky economies which usually give tantalising returns, they will do so with more confidence knowing full well that if that country falters the government would be there to bail them out.
A comparison was made with the way government acted when the 2008 recession to end all recessions hit or was soon to hit Malta. Then the government had rightly made calculated and opportune undertakings with some manufacturing companies which were most hit by the economic meltdown. What government offered these companies was help to give them enough oxygen to keep their employee levels and to generate more business. The turnaround of the world’s economies then found these companies even stronger so thanks to government assistance the employment levels of Malta were kept intact and this contributed to the economic turnaround of the whole of Malta. But no single market or line of markets was singled out.
No one has yet said what the investment level of Maltese companies in Libya is. And few have actually terminated any employment of staff stationed in Libya. Neither has the investment of Libyan companies in Malta been quantified. The estimated number of Maltese personnel working in Libya was at the time of the start of the hostilities given as 500. One of the few statistics that was announced by government was the number of companies that applied for assistance to Malta Enterprise. The number was 70 but no more details were announced of size of investment or of the assistance sought. Whatever the quantifiable numbers are, the ripple effects of all this is enormous. Besides the direct involvement and suffering of Maltese companies with huge investments in Libya and all the employees affected there are a vast number of effects the Libyan problem has and will have on the Maltese islands’ economy. Schools, accommodation rental, services rendered to people working in Libya, flights of expats who had a base in Malta but worked in Libya.
Just as Government is giving extended timeframes to these companies to settle their tax dues, maybe some assistance could be offered by associations like the Chamber of Commerce to make a case to places like the Freeport and the bonded stores to charge less for storage of merchandise which was destined for Libya. Right now the stock in these warehouses is not worth anything, as Libya and Libyan companies are not in a state to accept any commercial purchases. If Government owes anything to these companies maybe some form of expedited payment could be introduced to assist them in their cash flow plight.
All this and more creative thinking on the part of all the stakeholders needs to be done immediately so that the companies and the people who are suffering the indirect consequences of the problem in Libya will not carry on doing so unduly. Business of course will eventually stabilise. Countries ravaged by bitter civil wars, like Spain back in the thirties, have managed to somehow resolve their problems and suffering. Libya will be back on its feet, hopefully soon, although at the moment this seems rather unlikely. Hopefully the little assistance, whether moral or financial, offered to the companies caught in this Libyan crisis, will keep them buoyant and successful in other markets.
Government and the opposition were uncharacteristically united in how to tackle the Libyan crisis when it came to UN resolutions and any military action. They opted not to join any military strikes and hardly condemned the Gaddafi regime and when they did condemn it was always done to make sure it wasn’t too blatant. Except for one or two oblique comments, the Prime Minister, Dr Gonzi, hardly came out in favour of the rebels. The Labour party did even less. Was all this done most to ensure our investments remain intact? It also made us sound as the lovers of double speak, saying little as vaguely and in as contradictory a way as possible. There have been comments by our Minister of Foreign Affairs which could never be fully understood even by an expert in official verbiage.
By not taking sides we are trying to guarantee doing business with both sides. This could be more of a millstone for the Maltese nation and its investments than a good move. We have been acting like the perpetual indecisive people who prefer sitting on the fence and never taking sides. We dilly dally, hoping not to antagonise anyone when in actual fact we annoy both sides in the Libyan conflict as well as all the countries which are waging attacks on Libya. The fact that it has been a complete disaster does not mean we were right. Malta never condemned the attacks on Libya; it just said we are neutral and cannot be a part of a military campaign. Neutrality is an anachronism that should be binned as soon as possible. Neutral from whom? This neutrality stance was adopted when the world was divided in two superpower blocs intent on building unbelievable stockpiles of nuclear warheads and other war-like strategies and stratagems. As a concept it sounds more like a neutering of us even in the face of UN actions. Have the Maltese politicians forgotten that Bush (the older, less bellicose one) and Gorbachev ironically met in Malta and since then the cold war and all its attendant miseries have ended? And just because Germany did the same and did not offer to assist in the attacks on Libya does not mean it, or the decision, is right. The German fear of being tainted again with war and blood seems to have gone deep into their psyche and made them incapable of taking proper, decisive steps in military matters. It seemed strange and rang hollow that the biggest and the smallest nation in the EU washed their hands of any assistance in the military strikes in Libya.
This does not mean that the military action in Libya has been successful. It has been a disaster of a scale that even the old rat Gaddafi, who should be cowering and seeking refuge in some strange pariah state, has withstood it all for way too long. He will never regain his former ludicrously pompous glory and cannot hope to regain all his former bullying stands even if he miraculously still clings on to power by playing a game of chess. Ironically the USA, the former bully in any intervention, even when not sanctioned by the UN, wasnot bellicose enough and tried hard to be a jolly non-aggressive policeman.. Although a bungler and a bully, if George Bush (the younger) was in power he would have sent in his troops even faster than the UN could have called for a meeting. This might have compounded the problem but at least Gaddafi would have quaked and shook and could have fled even before the troops were sent. Instead all Gaddafi heard were some whimpers from the UN and the rest of the Western allies. France and Britain tried hard to act tough but alone, without the USA, they are a toothless couple.
Whatever our economic investment and whatever our status as special neighbour to Libya, we should have denounced the Gaddafi regime as corrupt, violent, anti-democratic and ruthless in its attacks against its own people. And we should have stated most strongly that we oppose the Gaddafi regime even if we might lose his support if he is to ever take over the whole country. It has always been a very strange country, with Gaddafi and his children holding a terrible grip on it. Strangely, the Gaddafis who seem mainly in charge ─ Muammar and Saif ─ both hold no official post and in fact the father once actually asked in his half-jocular half-ominous way what he was to resign from if he was not in charge and held no official post. So although they are de facto in charge they have no position. Having said all this, everyone – Gaddafis included−knows they were very much in charge and have unleashed long anti-democratic powers over their countrymen since Gaddafi took over way back in 1969.

Economies suffer, companies crash, and terrible consequences like unemployment and relative deprivation could seem not just earth-shattering but also the worst scenarios. All this however pales into insignificance when compared to blood, death and human suffering.
As a tail-end to this insight into the Libya situation I would like to quote a story highlighting how wrong articles can be. Please bear with me if the contents you are reading will prove to be completely wrong, unprophetic or wholly out of date. A few months ago the Economist had the following comment: “One of the obvious difficulties with lead times in the magazine industry is the way events can overtake stories. This is problem enough with a weekly publication such as The Economist, but the results can look even more bizarre in a monthly. Thus in an article in its April issue titled ‘The 15 best places to see right now’, Conde Nast traveller told readers to head to Libya. It said ‘With Syria being called the new Morocco and Beirut the new Provinectown, travelers with an eye for antiquity are moving on to Libya.’ The magazine went to press on February 15th, the same day as thousands of Libyans held a rally to protest against the arrest of a well-known human-rights campaigner. In an online version of the article the editor points out the unsuitability of the recommendation.”
How apt to keep this in mind when reading this appraisal and realising that if I am off the mark in some or all of my comments think of the time it takes for articles to be written, processed, checked and ultimately published.

This article first appeared in The Executive

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