Monday, February 21, 2011

Libya is a very different place

Watching Seif al-Islam's surreal "demonstrators are on Ecstasy and want to create an Islamic Emirate" speech yesterday, I recalled my own experience with Libyan officials some years ago. Libya has no one who is even remotely qualified in government ... And qualified Libyans have no government experience. To understand the depth of the problem, here's my first hand experience with some Libyan officials:

I will not name the officials, or their exact functions. Let's call them X and Y. Both were very senior cabinet level officials who were attending an international meeting. Their attendance was confirmed at the last minute. They were unwilling or unable to speak any foreign language, and the "official translator" they brought with them was a very attractive Palestinian woman who simply went shopping.  It was not possible to procure another translator/escort for them in time, and so I had to stick with them for 2 days.

1.  The Medical Exam:
X was not interested in going to his first scheduled meeting. Instead, he called and asked if I can help him find an eye doctor. He needed new reading glasses. I spent half an hour "translating" a Snellen chart. Finally, the doctor asked "can you see with these lenses better than without them?" X replied:"In Allah's name, I don't know. You're the doctor. You tell me."

2. Momma's bra:
Y never said a thing in any meeting. He listened, but neither he nor his assistant took any notes. He warmly shook hands with everyone at the end of the meeting, though. Finally, Y came to me and spoke in a hushed voice: "I need to go to a pharmacy". He paced up and down the aisles, and finally found his target: He picked up all the available containers of Johnson's Baby Talcum Powder. My mind started racing: Is this guy trying to conceal large quantities of cocaine? Could it be even more sinister: Anthrax? He noticed the worried look on my face and explained: "my mother gets a terrible rash in the summer. She likes to use this under her bra", he smiled contentedly.

3. The Great Madman's River:
As I headed to see them off at the airport, we chatted about infrastructure development in Libya. I asked about the great leader's manmade river. "The water is no good, you can't drink it" Y thundered, "it's blue."  Blue?  He explained: "I've seen the water reservoirs, they look blue, like sea water."

Libya has a serious problem, and it is not just Kaddhafi. The problem is that everyone in government has to be replaced. The country needs rebuild everything, from scratch.  There is no capable bureaucracy that can hold the place together in the interim. Unfortunately, Seif maybe right about one thing: chaos is on the horizon.

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