Kaber’s power has stemmed from the bank’s control over Libya’s oil revenue. He also oversees the payment of the country’s militias, which despite their fratricidal wars and disrespect for the law have been on the state’s payroll since 2011. Libya now has the highest proportion of state employees in the world, Kaber told me. The problem started under Qaddafi, who destroyed the private sector and then bought social peace by doling out endless government jobs, many of them no-shows. The state now spends so heavily on subsidies that gasoline is cheaper than water, which has made large-scale smuggling unstoppable. At times, the central bank’s eastern branch, in Benghazi, was using ersatz Libyan dinars printed in Russia. “We made a decision not to accept those dinars, but then they were accepted at commercial banks,” Kaber told me. His position, he said wearily, is “absolutely unique.”
One of the great mysteries around Kaber is how he has kept his job. No other major political figure has survived the decade since 2011. He has made plenty of enemies, but someone has always intervened to protect him. Libyans will tell you this is no mystery: Kaber has played his cards masterfully, handing out favors and selectively closing his eyes. He has the power to increase or minimize the gap between Libya’s official and black-market exchange rates, which has at times been very large. By granting certain people access to the official rate, he can, in effect, make Libya’s nouveaux riches even richer. The bank has most likely presided over fake import schemes with fabricated letters of credit, according to Global Witness, a nongovernmental organization based in London. On some occasions, Kaber acknowledged, large stores of cash have simply disappeared. Even the head of Libya’s National Oil Corporation last year accused Kaber of squandering billions of dollars of oil money and allocating credits to “fat cats.”
Kaber moved his family to Britain years ago. He later moved them to Turkey, perhaps a better refuge now that some are calling for him to face a reckoning. There is no doubt that he is a shrewd man.
When I asked about accusations of embezzlement, Kaber told me that he had done nothing improper and that the bank had taken measures to combat money laundering and fraud. Yes, billions of dollars had gone missing. But when it came to the false paperwork that enabled those crimes, “the job of the bank director is with documents,” Kaber told me. “The people at the border have the authority to verify them.” One man could not be held responsible for the country’s failures. The interview came to an end soon after. He smiled politely before walking me back down his long office to say goodbye.
During our talks, Seif returned again and again to the idea that Libya has not had a state since 2011. The various governments that have claimed power since then, he said, have really just been gunmen in suits. “It’s not in their interest to have a strong government,” he said. “That’s why they are afraid of the elections.” He went on: “They are against the idea of a president. They are against the idea of a state, a government that has legitimacy derived from the people.” The corollary could not have been clearer: Seif seems to believe that only he can represent the state for all Libyans.
This dynastic presumption is pretty brazen, not least because Muammar el-Qaddafi prided himself on having transcended the idea of a state. He vaunted his Libya as a jamahiriya, a portmanteau of the Arabic words for “masses” and “republic.” Qaddafi’s most lasting crime may have been his destruction of the country’s civic institutions. His erratic decrees left Libyans in a constant state of fear for their lives and property. His revolutionary committees were bands of zealots who intimidated ordinary Libyans and could arrange to have them jailed at will. In 2011, there was a constant confusion around the word “revolutionary,” because the rebels and the loyalists both identified themselves that way. Often, their tactics were the same. In a sense, what happened in Libya after 2011 was not so much a revolution against Qaddafi as a replication of his methods on a local level. “Libya did not divide,” Ghassan Salamé, a Lebanese diplomat and former United Nations envoy to Libya, told me. “It imploded.”
Over the past year, Libyans have been riveted by an atrocity that seemed to recapitulate all the worst aspects of the Qaddafi era. It took place in Tarhuna, a farming town about an hour’s drive southeast of the capital. After the ruling militia — run by the notorious Kani brothers — was forced out in June last year, residents began finding human remains near an olive grove at the edge of town. Excavating teams uncovered the bodies of 120 people, but other mass graves were soon discovered and more than 350 families have reported missing relatives. The victims included women and children, some of them shot as many as 16 times. As their stories emerged, a window opened onto a bizarre reign of terror that lasted for almost eight years. No one did anything to stop the Kanis, because they made themselves so useful to everyone in Libya’s political class, allying first with Tripoli’s political bosses and then with Hifter. Their reign turned Tarhuna into a police state with echoes of the Qaddafis’ own: Six brothers put their stamp on everything and terrorized their people, all in the name of revolution.