World and Nation

Some Libyans Seeking Economic Growth Without Political Change

For more than three decades, Libya has been an experiment in one man's ideology. The result is a country with few functioning institutions, an unreliable legal system, inadequate schools and hospitals, and a population isolated and unprepared for modernity.

That is the assessment of some of the government's own consultants.

Yet the leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, will be holding a huge celebration on Friday to observe the 30th anniversary of the system that has led Libya to its current crisis. So as efforts to change get under way, pushed by a small group of reformers, talk is restricted to economic change.

The question on many people's minds is how that can be carried out without political change as well.

"Do you think we can create social and economic prosperity without political reform?" Ahmed Shebani, a local businessman, asked at an economic conference last week.

The Libyan political system is centralized and decentralized. Gadhafi, called Brother Leader, says that representative democracy is a fraud and that each citizen must participate in the state. So there are 3,000 committees that meet twice a year. There is a 3,000-member council made up of the heads of those committees that assigns priorities and budgets. There are committees on health and finance, as well as local committees that coordinate the national committees.

Even though Libya is the wealthiest country in North Africa, roads often do not get paved, housing built or hospitals stocked. In fact, it is far behind its neighbors in almost everything related to human development, especially education, the government consultants say.

The government hired the Monitor Group, a consulting business based in Cambridge, Mass., to assess the economy and chart a path forward. Challenges were found in every sector.

The consultants are here as guests of the nascent reform movement, and they appeared at a conference last week organized by Gadhafi's son Seif el-Islam Gadhafi, the main force behind the drive to retool the economy.

All stepped quietly around the question of true political reform.

"Look, we have all reached the conclusion that political change is impossible," said a former political prisoner who like other dissidents here was afraid to be identified for fear of punishment. "It is impossible to change the system. So the only thing we can do is support the initiatives taken by someone like Seif and hope that it leads eventually to where we want things to go."

It is hard to see how change can come quickly in such an undeveloped economy and in a system whose leaders have been resistant to change.

Officials here announced recently that they would eliminate 120,000 government jobs as part of a far-reaching effort to restructure the ailing economy. Then they announced that they were not immediately ending the jobs but would give people three years' salary while they looked for work in a private sector that barely exists.