Libya’s failed lib­er­a­tion

Gaddafi’s fall in 2011 was meant to free Libya, but the coun­try is mired in chaos, cor­rup­tion and mili­tia rule


The drive through the south­ern out­skirts of Tripoli takes fright­ened trav­ellers past the dev­as­ta­tion caused by the lat­est bat­tle be­tween the mili­tias over the wreck­age of Libya’s civil war.

There are smashed homes and rub­ble-strewn streets left by the blasts of tank and rocket fire dur­ing fight­ing in September. Some com­pare mili­tia-dom­i­nated Tripoli with Al Capone’s Chicago but the com­par­i­son is false: Al Capone never had ac­cess to heavy ar­tillery.

Meet­ing op­po­nents of Libya’s gov­ern­ment these days is no easy mat­ter. Do­ing so means slip­ping past the of­fi­cial min­der as­signed to me in a Tripoli ho­tel, get­ting out into the street and into a car parked dis­creetly around the cor­ner. From there, it is a long and el­lip­ti­cal drive through the city’s back­streets, the driver per­form­ing sud­den turns to shake off a tail.

Seven years af­ter Muam­mar Gaddafi was de­posed and killed in the Arab spring rev­o­lu­tion, Libya has gone full cir­cle from dic­ta­tor­ship through rev­o­lu­tion, democ­racy, chaos and back to a new kind of tyranny. Ex­cept this time there is not one dic­ta­tor but dozens, in the form of the mili­tias who de­feated him. Also back are the dis­si­dents, and af­ter days of hushed phone calls I have a meet­ing with one of the most prom­i­nent, Hameed al-Mahdi, a lawyer.

Driv­ing through this city means nav­i­gat­ing a po­lit­i­cal fog as you try to work out who among the rag-tag gun­men in as­sorted uni­forms and bat­tered pickup trucks are gang­sters, and who con­sti­tute the of­fi­cial se­cu­rity forces of the United Na­tions-backed gov­ern­ment. Af­ter a while you re­alise they are the same. One unit is freshly kitted out in smart blue uni­forms of the in­te­rior min­istry, but it re­mains a mili­tia, as vi­o­lent and threat­en­ing as be­fore. Ten­sions are high af­ter the body of one war­lord was dumped by

ri­vals out­side a city hos­pi­tal in the lat­est tit-for-tat killing.

I meet Mahdi at his home, which he re­built af­ter it was burned down by Gaddafi thugs as pun­ish­ment for his op­po­si­tion. Now he has rein­vented him­self again as a dis­si­dent, op­pos­ing the new tyranny he de­scribes as “a coun­try of chameleons”.

Fresh from Fri­day prayers, he meets me wear­ing an el­e­gant white jal­abiya robe and of­fers a glass of highly sug­ared tea. “We killed Gaddafi, but many small dic­ta­tors, the mili­tia lead­ers, were born from the ashes of his corpse,” he says.

In an­other coun­try, or an­other time, Mahdi’s house would have a blue plaque on the wall out­side, de­not­ing the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of the place where the dis­si­dents met, risk­ing ev­ery­thing to dream the dream of free­dom. We sit in the room where in the Gaddafi years the ac­tivists would talk and plan. “This room was called the pro­test­ers’ hall,” he says with a grin. “This is the place in the house that is dear­est to me.”

Gaddafi’s regime was bru­tal and Mahdi was beaten and thrown into jail. Yet even in jail he nur­tured the hope that Libya would one day be free, a hope that is dy­ing as the fruits of free­dom be­come clear.

“We did not ask to tor­ture and hu­mil­i­ate a dic­ta­tor so we would be­come like him. Where has this blood­shed brought us? To a daily hell.” Then he low­ers his eyes: “I think the rev­o­lu­tion was a mis­take.”

The UN pro­claimed three years ago that the hell Mahdi de­scribes would end with the cre­ation of the gov­ern­ment of na­tional accord, parachuted into Tripoli to rid it of gang­ster­ism. But far from ex­pung­ing the mili­tias, the gov­ern­ment is be­holden to them.

Tripoli’s war­lords are on the state pay­roll, through the sim­ple ex­pe­di­ent of gun­men threat­en­ing the bankers with kid­nap­ping or worse. Sim­i­lar pres­sure re­sulted in the gov­ern­ment hand­ing its in­tel­li­gence and sur­veil­lance port­fo­lio to an Is­lamist mili­tia. Even as mili­tias fight each other in the cap­i­tal, they also fight the army of the na­tion­al­ist war­lord Khal­ifa Haf­tar, a brood­ing pres­ence far to the east.

Mean­while, the ci­ti­zens suf­fer: there are short­ages of petrol, elec­tric­ity, water and ban­knotes. Libya is rich, with $79bn of for­eign re­serves and boom­ing oil pro­duc­tion. But only a hand­ful of banks – those con­trolled by mili­tias – are per­mit­ted to dis­pense cash. Ci­ti­zens form kilo­me­tre-long queues to col­lect it.

My ex­cur­sion to meet Mahdi is a rare breath of fresh air in a city where in­for­ma­tion is tightly con­trolled. In the Gaddafi era, vis­it­ing jour­nal­ists needed a per­mit just to step out of their ho­tel. Now I need two – one from the gov­ern­ment, the other from the mili­tia con­trol­ling what­ever district I plan to visit.

No­body elected this gov­ern­ment, which was ap­pointed by a UN-chaired com­mis­sion, and it has two faces for the world. One is for vis­it­ing western diplo­mats, who make oc­ca­sional vis­its to the city to be pho­tographed smil­ing with the prime min­is­ter. The other face is for Libyans them­selves, and it is not pretty.

“Don’t take pic­tures of the bank queues. Don’t in­ter­view the peo­ple there,” says my gov­ern­ment min­der, Ish­mael. His or­ders are to fol­low me ev­ery­where, clutch­ing a mass of per­mits and per­mis­sions, and this has a faintly comic as­pect. I can buy cof­fee at one of the city’s ubiq­ui­tous cof­fee bars, but I can’t talk to the cus­tomers as I have no per­mit.

Nor can I talk to the thug­gish young men, lit­tle more than boys, lolling out­side. They wear ex­pen­sive branded cloth­ing and play with ma­chine guns, clus­tered around their shiny black Mercedes. They know they are the true power in this city, and so does ev­ery­one else. In frus­tra­tion I ask Ish­mael what re­port­ing I can do, with no per­mits to talk to any­one. “I don’t know, maybe noth­ing,” he says.

An­other dis­si­dent is Ibrahim, a ra­dio pre­sen­ter who has formed a lit­tle band of like-minded souls called the cri­sis com­mit­tee. They hold earnest meet­ings to de­bate the way ahead, which are ei­ther noble or fu­tile, de­pend­ing on your point of view.

Ibrahim tells me Gaddafi-style me­dia cen­sor­ship, in­sid­i­ous and sin­is­ter, has re­turned: “We can crit­i­cise the gov­ern­ment, the UN or Haf­tar, but there are two things it is bet­ter not to talk about. The mili­tias, and the bearded ones [Is­lamists].”

Sev­eral TV sta­tions have been burned down be­cause they failed to un­der­stand these in­struc­tions and oth­ers broad­cast, for safety, from abroad.

All of which makes Ibrahim think Libya can’t han­dle free­dom. “We weren’t ready for rev­o­lu­tion,” he says. “We didn’t have the means to deal with that free­dom. We were like a child who had asked for a toy for a long time, and then fi­nally got it. But the toy was disas­sem­bled and we didn’t know what to do with the pieces.”

And then there is the cor­rup­tion. Un­der Gaddafi it was widespread, but cen­tralised. Now it is chaotic. Mo­hammed, a 35-year-old who does evening shifts at my ho­tel, tells me Tripoli has cor­rup­tion on every level but he no longer both­ers to re­port it. “Those to whom I should de­nounce the cor­rup­tion are as cor­rupt as oth­ers,” he says. “Prob­a­bly more.”

In the rev­o­lu­tion Mo­hammed picked up a gun and joined the rebels, but says now it was a mis­take: “If I could, I would erase those days from my mem­ory. I know Gaddafi was a dic­ta­tor, but we were not ready for democ­racy.” The un­likely ben­e­fi­ciary of this mood of res­ig­na­tion is Khal­ifa Haf­tar, whose forces are built around Libya’s reg­u­lar armed forces. A former Gaddafi ally who later turned against the dic­ta­tor, Haf­tar ac­cuses the new gov­ern­ment of be­ing be­holden to Is­lamists and has vowed to march on Tripoli and crush the mili­tias. Many sup­port him, de­spite their fears that he wants mil­i­tary rule.

A rare opin­ion poll, com­mis­sioned by a US gov­ern­ment agency, found his army the most pop­u­lar Libyan in­sti­tu­tion, its 68% sup­port eclips­ing the gov­ern­ment’s 15%.

Mo­hammed ex­plains the sen­ti­ment. “Now we are all just re­signed, and in this res­ig­na­tion many of us think, with pain in our hearts, that it is bet­ter to have Haf­tar. It is bet­ter to have a strong­man back.”

‘Where has this blood­shed brought us? To a daily hell’

A Libyan Na­tional Tran­si­tional Coun­cil fighter MARCO LONGARI/GETTY


The Libyan na­tional flag holds lit­tle in the way of hope for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions

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