Flip-Flops and Kalashnikovs

Tom Stevenson reports from Libya

‘Honourable was the swift and timely aid offered to them in their struggle by the West,’ the Times said of the Libyan rebels who rose up against Gaddafi during the Arab Spring in 2011; Western military intervention on behalf of the rebellion was ‘a good deed in a weary world’. Today, more than five years after Gaddafi’s fall in October 2011, Libya has been relegated to that class of countries (Afghanistan, Somalia) from which we hear occasional news of US drone strikes but little else. Gaddafi’s overthrow was quickly followed by a national implosion. The historical divide between Tripolitania in the west and the cities of Cyrenaica to the east reopened; disparate bands of militias hacked up the country; arms dealers enjoyed a surge in business unmatched since the collapse of the Soviet Union; paramilitary forces took control of the oil infrastructure. By 2014 two competing governments had emerged, neither of which was in a position to govern. Algerian and Tunisian jihadists found a haven free from French-trained counter-insurgency units. Islamic State established its most powerful satellite in Gaddafi’s ancestral seat of Sirte, where it named the city’s mosque after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and carried out public executions for witchcraft. Feuds which had lain dormant or been actively discouraged in Gaddafi’s time resurfaced and still persist, with varying degrees of severity, between at least a dozen tribal groups and rival towns. The small town of Tawergha, for example, devastated in 2011 by rebel forces from its large industrial neighbour Misrata, remains an empty ruin, its former residents scattered in four refugee camps around the country.

Western-led regime change has produced a catastrophic breakdown: 400,000 people are internally displaced out of a population of six million; more than a million have fled abroad. Many layers of conflict – tribal, regional, ethnic, religious, for and against the old regime – are now superimposed, one on top of another. Libya is now a country of several governments and none, where rival entities with grand titles – the Government of National Accord, the Government of National Salvation, the House of Representatives – fight for the right to claim authority over a state that no longer exists. The real forces in Tripoli are the militias that roam the city. In the country as a whole, there are two increasingly hostile power blocs: one consisting of old army units under an ageing general in the east, the other an alliance of the tribal merchant elites of the city-state of Misrata in the west. Both blocs have their eyes fixed on Libya’s capital in anticipation of another round of brutal fighting.

Tripoli itself has an unmistakable air of decay. The cranes above the grey edifice of what was supposed to become the Intercontinental Hotel haven’t moved in six years. The crumbling, unfinished tower blocks on the edge of town loom beside the remains of others burned out or bombed in the war. Many still bear slogans from the time of the revolt. There are oases of wealth, tidy streets that could be in some dull part of urban France, but turn a corner and you encounter others as squalid as anything in the poorest quarters of Niamey. Countless posters of martyrs plastered onto roadside billboards in the heady afterglow of victory are faded now, nearly to white.

In the shabbier areas of Tripoli long lines of people queue for bread each night. For the last six months markets which were once regulated by the state have been closed and the price of food has tripled. Even in affluent areas many of the streets are either unpaved or so broken and covered in mud that they look unpaved. Roads and drainage systems are in disrepair. Even a shower of rain leaves narrower streets flooded and beaches dozens of cars along the ring road. At present power cuts last 14 hours a day, but in mid-January the whole country from the Tunisian border to Benghazi was without power for more than 24 hours after a militia stopped up the gas pipeline to the al-Harsha powerplant west of Tripoli. Outside the nearby city of Khoms I saw more than a hundred people queueing in single file along a desolate road to refill small gas cylinders. Every morning hundreds of people queue, usually in vain, in the hope of withdrawing the equivalent of $50 from their banks, which are desperate for hard currency. Those with access to euros or dollars are better off with the black market pedlars, who stand in suspicious-looking huddles in Essaah Square in the Medina, up beyond the gold merchants and the cafés with Italian names.

Wealthier people talk of migration (‘Believe me, if someone has a way out they take it’) and admit to a sense of regret (‘It’s a mess that will take decades to fix’; ‘Gaddafi was no angel, but …’). I spoke to a bomb disposal expert who had taken many risks as an underground activist in 2011, hanging ‘Free Libya’ flags by night and later joining the uprising. Now he was riddled with guilt. ‘They were different times, but when I look back I ask myself: if I had stayed home, would Gaddafi have stayed in power, and would all of this never have happened?’

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