As I write this, the battle for Sirte, Colonel Gaddafi’s birthplace, seems to be entering the final phase. As many as 10,000 people have fled the city, NATO airstrikes continue and reports of major casualties and an acute shortage of medical supplies reinforce the hope that the fighting will cease soon. Then only Bani Walid will remain among Libya’s major cities in the hands of Gaddafi loyalists.
Last week in Tripoli the sense of triumphalism was palpable.
For a capital city with no formal government that is essentially run by a series of militias it is in remarkably good shape with all basic services up and running. Much of the city has little physical evidence of the fighting and is basking in the exuberant joy of having dispatched Gaddafi and his odious coterie. His former compound is now a post-revolution carnival as Tripoli residents roam all over the buildings celebrating the end of 42 years of dictatorship by setting fire to some buildings, covering the rest in graffiti and ransacking everything.
The atmosphere in the compound is joyful. There is no obvious animosity towards foreigners and we were able to walk freely among the generally good-natured crowd; mothers with push chairs, children on bicycles. The only peril is the extraordinary amount of “Happy Firing” as the militia members fire endless rounds in the air. Posters urging people to remember that “Weapons are for defence not for celebration” are obviously ignored.
Checkpoints are common throughout the city and on the road leading to and from the Tunisian border as are the ubiquitous “Technicals”, pick-up trucks with anti-aircraft guns mounted in the back and spray-painted in the red, black and green colours of the old and now revived Libyan flag. Again the militia seem well-disposed to visitors and we faced only occasional questioning. Militiamen who until recently had never handled a weapon are now reluctant to be separated from their AK47s. Our hotel – an upmarket international establishment on the main corniche overlooking the Mediterranean – has now managed to persuade the resident militia to check their Kalashnikovs when entering the lobby although they still insist on carrying their side arms at mealtimes.
Tripoli is attractive. An exquisite climate, superb coastal location, a fortified old city and the remnants of some fine colonial-era architecture hint at what might be if the country can navigate the post-Gaddafi era sensibly. Add in some of the finest Roman remains at Sabratha and Leptis Magna (currently all but deserted but still open and a short drive from Tripoli) and with a national population of only six million now potentially able to enjoy more fairly the benefits of living on top of two per cent of the world’s oil output and you can see why a good number of the Libyan diaspora are heading home. Militia men with broad Manchester accents are not as uncommon as you might think.
The sight of a children’s bouncy castle in Martyrs’ – formerly, Green – Square in the centre of Tripoli gives some hope that there is now a strong desire and chance for peace. There is enough wealth to go round, a clear sense of Libyan identity and an absence of fanaticism for there to be a legitimate sense of optimism about the immediate future.
The chaotic nature of the revolution is in a way a strength. While many revolutions are in truth the replacement of one elite by another masquerading as the popular voice, the fragmented nature of this opposition probably reflects a genuine groundswell of grassroots organisations. And this is Libya not Iraq. There is no sectarian split, no particularly hostile neighbour intent on destabilising the situation and no occupying army. The Libyans have been willing participants, not reluctant bystanders in this regime change.
But a more pessimistic outcome is also possible. There are a lot of unemployed, heavily armed young men with very high expectations of what is now rightfully theirs in the new Libya. The protracted nature of the efforts to conclude the fighting and find Gaddafi has delayed the formation of an interim government and the move to elections.
The delay is giving time and room for divisions within the National Transitional Council and between the various militias to take root. The Benghazi/Tripoli split – perhaps often overstated – will over time become more of a reality as will the distinction between the militia that have been hardened by brutal fighting in Sirte, Misrata and elsewhere and those that have kept their head down in Tripoli or abroad and are now riding the wave of liberation.
For investors, Libya’s wealth and geographical location make it impossible to ignore. The hydrocarbons industry is already returning, tentatively in some cases and keen to avoid misreading the delicate intricacies of the new politics. For their part, Libyans are determined to avoid the stigma of being at the mercy of foreign benefactors and equally determined to assert their sovereignty in their dealings with investors and foreign governments alike. They may hate Gaddafi but after 42 years of the Colonel denouncing the evils of imperialism, an aversion to neo-colonialism – real or perceived – is strongly ingrained in the national DNA.
Libyan politics and the consequential security environment are finely balanced and require careful watching and planning. But it would be a validation of the heady idealism of the first weeks of the Arab Spring if Libya becomes the unlikely standard bearer for the region.
It is easy to find reasons why this will not happen – the track record of oil rich countries with chronically weak state institutions moving peacefully to meaningful democracy is not encouraging. But very few people predicted that by the beginning of October so much progress would have been made in a largely secular, mostly responsible and balanced fashion.
An unusual thing has happened. Let us hope for an unusual outcome.