The handouts are not meant as loans to be paid back, but simply free money given to people to help them get married. Governments, around the world, help people get married, but only under certain conditions like, for example, to deal with population decline. Such decisions are made after serious consideration and debates among experts. Not in Libya, where corruption is out of control and accountability is unheard of.
Al-Hadi Ali, professor of family law at the University of Zawia, west of Tripoli, told MEMO for such policies to "produce the right results with minimum negative consequences" they should be properly debated, not "surprisingly implemented" without any due process. His microeconomist, Saleh Amar, thinks such a policy is a "waste of public money" at a time when the majority of Libyans are "facing economic hardships." This makes the policy "discriminatory" too since it benefits those wishing to get married, Professor Amar added.
The Marriage Fund first announced last August by Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, Prime Minister of the Government of National Unity (GNU), initially had a budget of one billion Libyan dinars ($222 million) to be handed out to any Libyan couple wishing to tie the knot.
On 28 December, Dbeibeh announced a second handout of money by earmarking another one billion LYD to the fund. People had to apply on a government-created digital application, which was overwhelmed by people trying to access it.
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Dbeibeh, who is only a caretaker Prime Minister, is accused of, illegally, using public funds to rally support for his presidential bid which he announced last November in the now-suspended elections. He is also accused of forging his university degree by claiming that he graduated from a Canadian university with Masters in engineering. However, that university has, repeatedly, denied that he ever studied there. He has been silent, so far, about it despite the huge public condemnation.
The Prime Minister found himself entangled in another controversy earning him more public condemnation when, on 29 December while speaking in an event in Tripoli celebrating the second wedding grants, he said grants were meant to "revitalise the market" of unmarried women. His GNU came up with the idea of offering "bonuses" on top of grants to encourage older women to get married. He went on to say that, in Libya, any woman older than 25 years is "considered old and by that age" she should already have "seven children"; an outrageous comment by a leader and a supposed role model.
The comments enraged Libyans across the country, who took to the internet to express their outrage and a hashtag in Arabic which states that "Libyan women are not commodities" is widely trending across social media platforms. Amal Al-Mansouri, a Twitter user, tweeted quotes from the Green Book, written by the former leader, Muammar Gaddafi, that says "women and men are humans and should not be discriminated against" on any human basis.
A Benghazi-based activist and parliamentary candidate, Reem Elbreki, tweeted her picture holding a placard in Arabic, that says "[Dbeibeh] use the bonuses to print books [school textbooks]" in reference to the scandal surrounding school textbooks which have not been made available and prevent pupils from going to school while sending the Minister of Education to jail.
Libyan Women Platform for Peace (LWPP), a civil women organisation campaigning for women inclusion in peacemaking, launched an anti-Dbeibeh campaign, after his most recent comments. Many LWPP members saw the comments as degrading to Libyan women and discriminatory at best. Dozens of LWPP members posted scathing attacks against the Prime Minister with many on Facebook.
Zahara Langhi, a prominent Libyan academic, activist and member of the Libyan Political Dialogue Form, that elected Dbeibeh as Prime Minister, tweeted "corrupt political money is a complete system that considers people as market commodities."
The policy of funding marriage is neither urgent nor moral, LWPP's campaign concluded. In the platform is a debate many participants described the policy as "ill-advised" and "bribery for votes", intended to help the Prime Minister to widen his public support in the presidential election, whenever they take place.
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LWPP also claims that the policy has, so far, resulted in hundreds of underage girls being forced into marriage. Many are said to have accepted marrying men decades their senior just for the money. Others were forced into such marriages by their families in order to receive the handout to help them make ends meet. As a result, dozens of divorce cases are already before the courts.
Prices for basic food items in Libya have been rising after the overthrow of the Muammar Gaddafi's government in 2011. Ali Abdeljaleel, a Tarhouna based teacher and father of six told MEMO "I pay forty per cent more for the same basic foodstuff" I used to buy in 2011. He points to the price of bread, a staple of the Libyan diet, as a prime example. Under Gaddafi, the price of a loaf of bread and other basic commodities were subsidised up to sixty per cent, in some cases, making it easier for people to feed themselves.
Economic mismanagement and corruption have all but ended government subsidies over the last decade. Abdeljaleel, the high school teacher, said that corruption has become like a "national league" joined by all officials "in education, public services and police, all the way to the level of the minister."
Public money waste, embezzlement and mismanagement have, over the years, depleted the government treasury from cash that could be used to continue the subsidy policies of the Gaddafi era.
Late last year, the country's top public Prosecutor General, Al-Siddiq Al-Sour, ordered the detention of the Minister of Culture, Mabroukah Toughi, accusing her of financial corruption. Her colleague, the Minister of Education, Mussa Al-Mgariaf, was arrested because of negligence after he failed to print school textbooks, despite having the required funds as early as last summer, in time before the school year started.
Despite everything, Dbeibeh is still popular. Whether or not he can translate that popularity into votes in the elections is another issue. Many women, though, will not vote for him.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.