By Jacob Wirtschafter
Civil war, weak to nonexistent government authority, an Islamic State insurgency and waves of African refugees bound for Europe have made this country one of the most unstable in the world.
But the chaos is not deterring Michael Guidry, a former Texas state trooper who manages the Guidry Group, a Houston-based crisis management company.
In the most inhospitable of investment environments, Mr. Guidry is trying to build a $1 billion port in Susah, a coastal town 20 miles northwest of Beida, Libya’s fourth-largest city.
For years, Mr. Guidry’s core business has been protecting corporate clients from kidnappings in unstable countries. He has now turned to infrastructure investment in “high-risk areas” where he sees potential for security stabilization and economic growth. Three years ago, he won a contract to build the deep-water port in Susah. He now hopes to break ground in 2020.
“At the moment, we are the only American company working in Libya, but I’m hoping we can start to pave the way for other U.S. firms to assist us in rebuilding the country,” Mr. Guidry said in a recent interview. “I don’t think it’s good for America if the Russians or Chinese get in before us.”
Mr. Guidry’s work is a sign of how oil-rich Libya may return to economic growth — if it can avoid more violence and find a measure of political coherence.
Although the government in Tripoli is floundering, farmers in this region about 120 miles east of Benghazi have resumed their cultivation of grapes, peaches, almonds and pistachios.
Meanwhile, Libyan National Army Commander Khalifa Haftar declared victory over rival militias and Islamist fighters in the eastern harbor city of Derna and handed control of the oil ports under his authority to the country’s national oil corporation this summer.
“Haftar and the Libyan National Army did the impossible when his fighters took on ISIS — the so-called Islamic State — and freed the east,” said Abdalla Alhasse, a 40-year-old financial and trade consultant in Beida.
The commander brought in enough fighters and heavy weapons to dislodge the radical Islamist terrorist group.
He had little time for the European diplomats who met recently in Palermo, Italy, to discuss the future of Libya. The Europeans said they would help Libyans organize nationwide elections in June, but they couldn’t broker an agreement between Algerians and Egyptians over who should train Libyan security forces. Italian and French negotiators also disagreed over the elections process.
“The Palermo talks were more an event for the Italians to confirm their status as a power broker in Libya,” he said. “They are basically arguing with French over who gets to profit from our oil resources.”
Other analysts said American involvement could tip the economy toward growth, especially if the Trump administration is seeking ways to replace Iranian oil after reimposing harsh sanctions on Tehran. Washington has agreed to let China, India and six other countries continue to buy Iranian oil despite the sanctions, but only temporarily.
“With almost 50 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves — the largest in Africa — and at such high quality that you can actually put it in an engine and it will run straight away, we can help the world escape from the Iranian alligator,” said Ahmed Shebani, a construction engineer from the western city of Misrata and founder of the Democratic Party of Libya.
A secular leader who calls for “separation between mosque and state” and civilian control in a country run for four decades by military dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Mr. Shebani said Libyans crave U.S. administrative expertise and professional management.
“We Libyans can finance this plan from our sovereign funds,” said Mr. Shebani. “It is imperative that the American administration manage these funds to prevent theft and embezzlement. We are desperately in need of technical assistance from Washington to disburse this money and provide the technical expertise.”
Wolfgang Pusztai, a security analyst and chairman of the advisory board of the National Council on U.S.-Libya Relations, said American support will be needed for a stabilization period as long as six years before Tripoli is capable of providing security and achieving economic progress.
“The American main focus with regard to Libya until now has focused on counterterrorism operations,” said Mr. Pusztai, who expressed optimism about a U.N.-sponsored summit in January where international negotiators would iron out plans for the June vote. “We hope the convention in January could be a real chance to change the path of the efforts for stabilization and mechanisms to use oil revenues as a glue to keep the country together.”
Meanwhile, the Trump administration slapped sanctions last month on Misrata militia leader Salah Badi after determining that the warlord was trying to undermine Libya’s government and stability.
Mr. Shabani acknowledged that the security situation was precarious.
“Sometimes we do get in the crossfire between the different warlords,” he said. “These guys have strangled the capital of Tripoli, and we are locked up in our houses while they constantly keep taking new wives and fill their bellies every night with roasted lamb.”
But it is private entrepreneurs like Mr. Guidry, rather than Italian and French government officials, who are most likely to help, he said.
“We need American support to eliminate the threat that the warlords, the counterrevolution and the old Arab order all pose to democracy and the rule of law in Libya,” he said.
Jacob Wirtschafter – Special to The Washington Times