Published on Arab Voices

"Democracy can never die"

One experience during my recent trip to Libya really stands out. Some 70 km to the west of Tripoli on the picturesque Mediterranean coastline, lies a city of some 20,000 inhabitants. This city has a history that traces itself back to prehistoric times, with Stone Age settlements followed by Phoenician, Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic civilizations all having made this spot their home. Beautiful ruins speak of a people steeped in history with a deep sense of time and an inherent understanding of change. And it was in this city that I saw without any shadow of a doubt the strength of Libyan determination for their new-found democracy and freedom to succeed. 

World BankI was met by the elected head of the city council, a young man in his thirties representing the new democratic face of Libya.  He first took me to see the breathtaking Phoenician, Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine ruins.  At the edge of the sea, where the African continent meets the Mediterranean, this ancient city speaks of power, endurance, tolerance and glory. But it also speaks of a city serving its people.  In the vast city square one could almost hear the hustle and bustle of traders and their commerce bringing wealth and opportunity to the town; all around the city intricate water-supply and sewage systems demonstrate that the city leaders understood their power could not be based on might alone, but that service delivery to the people was key; the market and deeply dug fish tanks speak of trade and nutrition; public baths speak to an understanding of hygiene; a vast theatre offered the city entertainment; and a stadium, yet to be excavated, speak of serving the youth of the city and athleticism.  Roman temples and Byzantine churches speak of the importance of the spiritual life of the city. 

Most people in this beautiful country have never known life other than under the dictator who ruled with an iron fist for 42 years. Pervasive fear and quiet whispers to only the trusted few were the norm. Absurd and eccentric decrees were handed down by the dictator to create constant uncertainty and to prevent any institutional continuity which could form an alternative power base. One distinguished university professor in Architecture and Urban Planning in Tripoli told me of the time when a student who had failed all his courses was appointed president of the university to emphasize to the faculty that they were powerless. The professor told me that the only reason she continued to work was because she needed her monthly salary of $100 to feed her children.

Every Libyan has countless similar examples of an absurd and eccentric reality.  It is this background that makes the recent Libyan experience all the more remarkable.  As the conflict was dying down, the major cities of Benghazi, Misurata, Tarhouna and Sebha as well as the smaller city I am now visiting, organized local elections.   They were organized locally by each city, without central government instructions and based on a grassroots demand.  In the power vacuum, people in local communities saw that they needed to step in to serve their communities.  Institutions were designed, campaigns organized, seats contested and a set of grassroots, city-based, local elections held, heralding a new era of democratic representation at the municipal level.

Now sitting with the elected municipal council, they ask the World Bank for our insights into urban and municipal planning, service delivery, subsidies, finding a sustainable footing for the municipal budget, delivering services such as water, garbage collection, sewage, and roads. They also ask about institutional organization in the city and ensuring that the voice of the people will be heard and reflected in the work of the council.

We discuss examples of municipal governance across the world, especially in countries that have transitioned from dictatorship to democracy.  And we undertake to establish a program of support to municipal capacity building.  As we walk together to lunch, I ask the head of the council for his views on the city's new-found democracy after so many years of dictatorship.  "It is simple," he says, "Democracy can never die."

Libya is a country with extremely high urban agglomeration. Some 80 percent of its population is concentrated in urban centers.  This means that irrespective of the constitution that Libyans will frame, the role of the local will matter. After years of highly centralized governance, with essentially one man and his family holding all the power, people crave decentralization.  They want to have representative local governments of people from their area, and they want to be able to hold the local municipal government accountable.  Therefore, strengthening the third tier of government, the municipal level, will be key to anchoring pluralism and the trust of the nation. 

Before I leave the city, an older gentleman tells me he studied in the US when he was young.  He is a municipal engineer in the city I am visiting and has lived there his entire life, except his student years abroad.  My colleague asks him what his opinion is of the young man elected head of the municipal council.  "People trust him and that is very important for us," says the elderly engineer, "He does not talk too much, but he focuses on delivering for the people."  Now if only all elected politicians followed this path, the world would surely be a better place.


Inger Andersen

Former Vice President, Middle East & North Africa

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