Paying for UN Abstention: German Businesses Unwelcome in Postwar Libya

 

Before the Libyan revolution, Germany was the country’s second-largest trading partner. But then Germany abstained in a 2011 UN vote to militarily intervene in its civil war. Now that the war is over, German businesses and think tanks are finding that most Libyans want little to do with them.

Henning Schnaars, who works for a shipping company in the northern German port city of Bremen, is standing with his two trolley cases on the side of a road in Libya. He has just been handed his first setback.

Schnaars stands with his back to the Benghazi airport, looking at a billboard. It depicts Libyan revolutionaries with outstretched arms and making the V-for-victory sign with their fingers. At the bottom of the billboard are the words, written in capital letters, “Merci La France.”

“Oh, well,” Schnaars says. At the moment, the French aren’t exactly his favorite people.

Schnaars landed in Benghazi an hour ago and has just finished meeting with the airport’s new director. It was a short conversation, with not even enough time for the coffee he had expected to be served. The director, who returned to Libya from exile during the civil war, had cut the meeting short after apologizing profusely, saying that he unfortunately had another appointment.

Schnaars was annoyed. He stood up reluctantly, took his briefcase and made his way to the door. It opened, and a delegation of well-dressed Frenchmen walked in, some wearing sunglasses. They saw a stocky German who hadn’t had enough sleep and was standing there in his shirtsleeves without a jacket. A few of the Frenchmen grinned. One wished Schnaars “good business” as he walked by.

Schnaars was served his coffee, but it was in the waiting room, where he could hear his Libyan host enthusiastically greeting the French delegation through the closed door.

Punished for Its UN Abstention

Schnaars has come to Libya to re-establish his business here after the war — and after Germany’s abstention in the March 2011 United Nations Security Council vote to militarily intervene in the Libyan civil war. Schnaars, 55, a member of the Worphausen Volunteer Fire Department and a fan of small-town fairs, is the head of logistics for Carl Ungewitter, a family-owned shipping company in Bremen with 50 employees, which specializes in shipments to Libya. For more than 30 years, Ungewitter has been shipping parts for pipelines, asphalt pavers, oil rigs, cranes, excavators, trucks and all the other pieces of equipment needed to transform a desert into an industrialized country.

Business was going fairly well despite the unpredictability of Libya’s leader at the time, Moammar Gadhafi, a man who once tried to dissolve Switzerland with the help of the UN because the Swiss had dared to arrest his son, and who once had Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death because they had allegedly infected Libyan children with AIDS.

Then, a year ago, the rebellion began in Libya, and things went sharply downhill for Ungewitter from there. Hardly any money left the country for nine months, which is a long time for a mid-sized company in Germany. If the company hadn’t had a source of natural asphalt in a lake in Trinidad, some of which was used to resurface a major road in the western German state of Hesse, things would have been bleak for Ungewitter. Instead, it only managed to avoid bankruptcy by cutting back employees’ working hours under the German government’s Kurzarbeit (short-time working) program.

Still, by the end of last year, Libyan companies still had outstanding debts to Ungewitter in the six-figure range, and there were rumors that Libya’s second-largest oil company was refusing to work with German companies anymore. That was because the Germans — unlike the French — hadn’t sent in fighter jets in March 2011 but, instead, looked on as Gadhafi’s troops massacred their fellow Libyans.

Business and Freedom

Schnaars has come to Libya to find out what the situation is really like. Of course, he also wants to reduce the amount of money still owed to his company. He has brought along a suitcase full of unpaid invoices, and he hopes to collect payment from the companies for which Ungewitter had organized shipment of goods.

Like Ungewitter, many German companies have done business in Libya, including the construction company Bilfinger Berger, oil producer Wintershall and technology giant Siemens. Until 2010, Germany was the Libyan dictatorship’s second-largest trading partner, with only Italy doing more business with Gadhafi.

German politicians could not possibly benefit from being associated with Gadhafi, which led Germany’s political parties and their affiliated foundations to keep their distance. Even today, after the war, employees of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation are the only ones venturing into Libya. Ironically, it is the foundation maintained by the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), the party of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who was primarily responsible for wriggling Germany out of involvement in the conflict.

“These are no longer the days when the clever white man goes to Africa to explain the world to people there,” says Ronald Meinardus. He and a few Egyptian colleagues landed in Benghazi soon after Schnaars’ arrival. Now Meinardus is driving around the city to get a look at it. He is the organizer of a conference on the subject of freedom to be held in a Benghazi hotel over the next few days.

Meinardus is the Friedrich Naumann Foundation’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. The 57-year-old lives in Cairo and wears custom-tailored shirts with his monogram stitched into the chest pocket. He walks through the dusty Libyan streets in polished shoes, hoping to drum up support for economic liberalism among the Libyan people.

If Meinardus is successful with his conference, and if he manages to have his ideas about freedom take root in a new Libya, he could pave the way for the long-term success of Schnaars, the logistics manager, and the shipping company he works for. The FDP and its foundation aren’t just interested in freedom; they also seek to promote the free market economy.

Trying to Sow the Seeds of Economic Liberalism

Meinardus and Schnaars are two of many people who have come to Libya on business since the end of the war.

When Meinardus is asked why he does what he does, he replies: “I love freedom. But please don’t print that. It makes me sound too much like a missionary.”

He looks out the window of his car until some graffiti catches his eye. Then he stops the car, gets out and contemplates an image of a German flag along with the words, in misspelled German: “Duetschland & Austria: Ihr seid spät! Aber vielen Dank!”(Germany and Austria: You’re late! But thanks very much!)

Meinardus takes a picture of the graffiti, puts the image online via his Twitter account and writes: “Very warm welcome from all sides during my first visit to Benghazi – vote in the UN Security Council is not a big deal here (anymore).” Meinardus’ trip is also an effort to make amends.

The next morning, Meinardus walks into a conference room at his hotel. About 100 Libyans are attending his conference, including liberal politicians, journalists and students. Meinardus gives a speech in Arabic in which he talks about freedom. The Libyans politely applaud.

‘Wars Don’t Stop Themselves’

Meinardus is followed by a local politician who talks about the despot Gadhafi. But now the Libyans applaud loudly.

An old man wearing a little red hat shakes Meinardus’ hand and quotes, in perfect German, a “freedom song” from the former communist East Germany: “Water doesn’t flow uphill on its own / And wars, too, don’t stop themselves.”

“I studied economics in East Germany,” the man says, adding that he is now a member of a liberal Libyan party.

“What do you think about the conference?” Meinardus asks.

“It’s very good, but people are afraid. Liberalism is light, but it’s very bright for the Libyans. What do you call it when a room is without light?”

“Darkness,” says Meinardus.

“Yes, Gadhafi was 42 years of darkness.”

“How strong would the liberal parties be if there were elections today?” Meinardus asks.

“People would vote for the Islamists,” the old man says.

Meinardus walks around the room until a young man in a tracksuit top gets up and blocks his path. “You want to separate Islam from the state? But that’s the opposite of freedom,” he says.

“No, no,” Meinardus says. “Liberalism also means religious freedom.”

As Meinardus walks away, the man in the tracksuit top says that he believes liberalism is an ideology of infidels. “We will rebuild Libya on our own, inshallah (God willing).”

Then he walks to the cold buffet.

Meinardus leans against the wall and says: “I believe our job is to explain to the Libyans that liberalism is actually the will of God.”

Given the Cold Shoulder

Schnaars, the logistics manager from Bremen, just wants to do business in the newly liberated Libya. He wants to find out what conditions are like in the country, how its oil industry is doing and how people feel about the Germans, especially those who did business with Gadhafi. He wants to get a feeling for how his company could further its business interests in Libya.

“They actually want us,” Schnaars says, sounding almost as if he were trying to convince himself. “The really good shipping companies only exist in Germany and Japan. The others don’t really know what they’re doing.”

Schnaars was in Libya for the first time 30 years ago, just after finishing his training as a shipping agent. He spent a year on a construction site in the desert that Carl Ungewitter had leased to another company. Schnaars has fond memories of those days. “There was always good food,” he says. “They had their own kitchen.” There was also beer, which was brewed on- site. In the evenings the men played Risk, a board game in which players try to conquer the world. “There was no TV,” Schnaars says, adding that there was also no overt evidence of the dictatorship. The Libyans he encountered, he says, didn’t talk about those things — and he never asked.

Schnaars sounds effusive when he talks about his past adventures. This time around, he says it feels like an adventure all over again, but for completely different reasons.

He parks his car in front of an iron gate on the outskirts of Benghazi. The headquarters of the Arab Gulf Oil Company, or Agoco, are behind the gate. Agoco is the second-largest oil company in Libya. It supported the rebels early on in their struggle against Gadhafi, providing them with gasoline as well as trucks and tractor-trailers to transport weapons, ammunition and medications. Schnaars has heard that some of the managers here are no longer interested in working with Germans. If true, it will be a problem for Schnaars and his company because Agoco is an important customer.

To prove that there is a difference between the German government and a German company, Schnaars plans to talk about the research he has done on behalf of the new Libya. He will say that he has discovered some of Gadhafi’s accounts with a British bank, and that he has convinced government officials in Berlin to make sure that Agoco is removed from a European Union embargo list. “I’m the fifth column of the rebellion,” he’ll tell his Libyan counterparts. It’s the same thing he told the airport director in Benghazi.

Schnaars walks into the Agoco headquarters building, carrying his briefcase full of invoices. In the afternoon, he leaves the complex. He has been able to hand the invoices over to the bookkeepers, and he has spent a lot of time sitting around in hallways and waiting rooms. But he has received no answers to his questions.

The next day Schnaars, hoping to improve his luck, spends even more hours in the hallways, waiting rooms and offices at Agoco. He speaks with managers. One tells him that Agoco is not happy with his company, while another says the opposite. Officially, the Libyans accuse him of having billed the company more costs than had been specified in an estimate for a particular order that was handled long before the war. But estimates are estimates, Schnaars says, and actual costs can sometimes be higher or lower than estimated.

The managers at Agoco seem unconvinced. They tell Schnaars that they don’t want to hire his company for one year, but that the final decision hasn’t been made yet. But at least he has spoken with them, and at least his meetings have yielded an outcome, if only a preliminary one. Schnaars suspects that the issue is politically motivated, and he knows there’s nothing he can do about it.

Part 2: The Price of Freedom

In the evening, Ronald Meinardus of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation is drinking a non-alcoholic beer at the hotel bar. He talks about a liberalism that is rooted in the Enlightenment, one that guarantees the individual freedom of every human being. Meinardus says that it would be presumptuous to try to tell the Libyans how to live their lives. But when he talks to people from Benghazi, he sometimes injects one of his cleverly loaded questions into the conversation: Do Libyan women deserve freedom? Do religious people in Libya deserve the right to believe in any religion? What’s so bad about drinking a glass of ouzo with fried calamari? Indeed, it’s astonishing to see how easily Meinardus moves from John Locke to Moammar Gadhafi to a Greek aperitif.

When Schnaars asks his business associates how freedom is changing their lives, an engineer tells him freedom “is being able to establish my own party,” adding that it should be Islamic.

A doctor says: “Freedom means that no dictator can bulldoze my house just because he wants to expand his palace.” And when Mohammed al-Awjeli, who works for Sirte Oil, is asked about freedom, he says: “Come with me.”

Awjeli takes Schnaars to the court in Benghazi, where the walls are covered with photos and posters of young fighters. He stops in front of a photo of a young man who looks to be about 20. He is carrying two guns, one in the crook of his right arm and the other slung over his shoulder. The young man is wearing a baseball cap backwards and making the V-for-victory sign with his fingers, but he still looks nervous. A second photo shows the man with his eyes closed and a pale face. He is wrapped in a white shroud.

Awjeli stands in front of the photos and says: “This is the price of freedom.” Then he adds: “They just got going, without thinking too much.” His words sound regretful, admiring and envious, all at the same time.

Schnaars meets other men with stories similar to Awjeli’s. Most are older than 50 and have grown or almost-grown sons, who would ordinarily respect their fathers as their elders. But now, after the war, age and experience are no longer as important as they once were. The important question today is: Did you fight?

Ready to Reconcile — but not with Germans

The next day Schnaars takes a short domestic flight to Tripoli, where he first meets up with a friend who has many contacts in the city and has arranged a dinner for him. Two days later, Schnaars is sitting in a restaurant in the old section of Tripoli, facing the house specialty on the table in front of him: baby camel in a clay pot. He is sitting next to a Libyan folk hero.

In 1984, Benghazi-native Wanise Elisawi was part of a group of conspirators who had planned a coup against Gadhafi. The Revolutionary Guards uncovered the plan, which led to the arrest of roughly 2,000 people. Twelve were hanged, and Elisawi spent the next 18 years in prison. He was tortured with electroshocks and forced to repeatedly run into walls at full speed.

Some of his fellow prisoners went insane. Elisawi and some of the others fed them and cleaned them. He says that this task — and the Koran — helped him maintain his sanity.

These days, Elisawi — who calls his former powerlessness his “great trauma” — wields considerable power. He works in the office of the prime minister, a modern glass cube in the city’s government district, where men search for outlets to charge their mobile phones among moving boxes. Elisawi is a man of few words. He likes to be in control over others as well as over himself and his feelings.

Elisawi supervises the work of the cabinet ministers on behalf of the prime minister, checking to make sure that they’re doing what they’re supposed to. “This is a very meaningful job,” he says. Elisawi spends a long time talking about retribution and justice in the way they are described in the Old Testament. But then he talks even more about reconciliation.

When asked about the members of militias who Amnesty International accuses of being responsible for the recent torture and killing of prisoners, he only says: “The majority of Libyans are against this.” Then he adds that he has little interest in seeing Germans doing profitable business in Libya. Schnaars sits next to him looking uncomfortable.

Changing Times

Over the next few days, Schnaars continues driving around the city, meeting with Libyan shipping companies, customs agents, importers and exporters. To his great relief, he discovers that not everyone is against him because he’s German, that they want to continue working with him and that it doesn’t bother them that he and his company did business with Gadhafi for 30 years. In fact, most of the people he meets did the same thing.

Of course it’s important, says the head of the purchasing department of an oil company, to exact revenge on those who were closely aligned with Gadhafi, but it’s even more important to make a living for one’s own future and for one’s children. This is already difficult enough, he adds, now that so many things are changing.

For example, the 30-hour work week in government-owned businesses is now subject to negotiation. Loyalty, which Gadhafi greatly valued and consistently rewarded, suddenly carries little weight. What’s important today are the willingness to work hard, knowledge and competency. “This in itself is a completely new situation for many people here,” Schnaars says, “just as it was back at home when East Germany ceased to exist.”

Dreams for the Future

A bird market now stands in the spot where people were once tortured in Gadhafi’s barracks. A woman has taken Meinardus, the importer of liberalism, to the site. Her name is Nada Ebkura, and she is a student and a guide of sorts for foreigners.

The market is swarming with hundreds of men, only men, and here she is in their midst, a woman without a headscarf.

“Whether it’s car markets, weapons markets or bird markets, these are simply not places for women in Libya,” Ebkura says. Then she talks about a Libya that, despite having killed its dictator, continues to oppress its people. “I can no longer go into a café without a male companion, without having to fear being berated as un-Islamic,” she says. “Hardly any women dare to wear their hair uncovered anymore.”

Men and women fought side by side during the revolution, Ebkura says. But today, she continues, she is the only woman at demonstrations and she is mishandled by men during them.

In the evening, Meinardus is sitting in a seafood restaurant on the shore, eating fried calamari — without ouzo — and discussing the state of the Libyan nation. He says: “Every reasonable person is really a liberal.” Meinardus thinks the FDP’s problem is that liberalism has already been implemented in Germany. “We have nothing left to do in Germany,” he says. He then reflects for a moment and adds: “But we’re needed here.”

He looks out the restaurant window at the beach, where men and women would be swimming together in the future if he had his way. He gazes out at a city where walls are covered with graffiti calling Gadhafi a dirty Jew, a city where young women like Ebkura are afraid to drive a car alone after 8 p.m. lest it push the Islamists over the edge.

Meinardus had invited Ebkura to join him for dinner. She told him that perhaps her father would drive her. But she doesn’t show up.

When Meinardus boards his flight at Benghazi’s airport the next morning, he remarks on how nice it would be if the Libyans could relive the Enlightenment in their own way.

When Schnaars steps onto the plane that will take him home, he remarks on how nice it would be for his company if it were once again allowed to pave Libya’s streets.

(Source: Spiegel Online)

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