Why does Tripoli not resemble Baghdad?

After entering Libya four days after the fall of Tripoli, Rory Stewart wrote:

There were many reasons to fear that the aftermath of the fall of Tripoli would resemble the first days after the fall of Baghdad. For decades, Libya had been controlled by Gaddafi and his secret police. His sons, allies and a few tribal chiefs had grown fat on largesse, oil, sanctions-busting and the remnants of a state-owned economy. When these men fell, others would scramble to seize what they could. Gaddafi’s civil servants would spend their last moments burning documents and trashing desks, and leave with televisions and armchairs. Their successors would steal the ministry cars. Gaddafi’s cronies would flee for the border with cousins and jewels; and militia groups would squat in their marble-floored villas (with squalid bathrooms because there was no water supply). Gangsters would seize petrol stations; and opportunists would strip the computers from schools and perhaps the beds from hospitals. Garbage and sewage would fill the once tidy streets.

Meanwhile, Islamist brigades might challenge the religious values of the new government. The militias might ask for money to protect businesses. Fights might break out between teenagers with mortars looted from the state arsenals and those with foreign-supplied, truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns. Minor fissures, in the past often irrelevant, between Benghazi and Tripoli, Berber and Arab, desert and coast, Salafi and Brotherhood, tribe and tribe, could suddenly become decisive splits. The villas and the farms, the banks and the hotels of Gaddafi’s children would be up for grabs; so too would be the land transferred illegally by Gaddafi to tribes now out of favour. Others might well fight to gain control of state monopolies; the commissions, agents’ fees and franchises from foreign companies; the contracts from international donors; and $120 billion of overseas Libyan assets. The new self-appointed transitional government, with its expatriate professors, mid-level businessmen and aged dissidents, would struggle. Gaddafi himself predicted much of this.

And it was easy in my first few hours in Libya to find evidence for this way of thinking. Within ten miles of the border, I was stopped at six different checkpoints, manned by teenagers with new-model Kalashnikovs and American rifles. In Bir-al-Ghanam, five pick-up trucks roared into the square and men in clean blue jeans and tight T-shirts leaped out, firing round after round into the air. Who was in control of them? Who could control them? Weapons were everywhere: on the outskirts of Tripoli, I saw, lying on the grass, a gleaming, finned, three-foot live rocket, and nearby, still in its packing case, a seven-foot-long surface-to-air missile.

The militias that clearly were under someone’s control were even more troubling. The man with the long grey beard, combat trousers, aviator shades and quiet voice who told me to get out of my car had the manner of an intelligence officer. The very tall young man in flowing robes with a soft curly beard – whose limousine was waved through the checkpoint with such deference – looked like a Saudi. Mahdi al-Harati, the commander of the Tripoli brigade, who wore his military beret for the Eid prayers, had been the only member of his family not to be imprisoned as an Islamist; he had lived in Dublin, run Islamic relief organisations, sailed on the Gaza flotilla and been shot by Israeli special forces. What were his views? And what of Abdul Hakim Belhadj, who was on the military council and was detained by the CIA in 2004 because of his links to al-Qaida?

The interior minister, in his grey suit and grey tie, held a press conference flanked by overweight mustachioed men in police uniform with colonels’ tabs. One of them told me he had worked in the ‘interrogation’ department under the old regime. ‘When I went to Martyrs’ Square and said I was the interior minister,’ the minister boasted, ‘there was far more shooting in the air than normal – it was to greet me. If you don’t believe me, come with me to the square, I will show you.’ I was not confident of his ability to keep order.

Yet so far Libya has proved, not unpredictably awful but unpredictably good. After 15 years working around interventions, I was watching for any hint of disaster. I noted, for example, that a Berber militia had occupied a prime hotel beside the arch of Marcus Aurelius on the grounds that the owner ‘was a Gaddafi sympathiser’. But even after 24 hours, I couldn’t escape the sense that things were not that bad: that Libyans were delighted and confident, and with justification.

The celebration in the central square that night was far happier, more joyful than any I’d seen in Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan. Hundreds of young men in jeans and T-shirts were hanging off cranes, 50 feet in the air. Five-year-olds in bright pink dresses were lining up at popcorn stands. A 50-year-old director of the audit department of the national airline had brought his mother and teenage daughters to see the crowds at midnight. ‘No one in the world has ever seen anything like Gaddafi,’ he said to me. ‘You cannot imagine what it was like. We are just so happy he is gone.’ Like everyone else, he joined in the revolutionary songs, and seemed to know the words. As a mullah tried to make a ponderous statement about God and the martyrs of the revolution, the crowd clapped and chanted: ‘Poor old Gaddafi – it’s time to move on.’

When my new friend the interior minister appeared on stage at two in the morning, in front of the crowd of ten thousand, he had lost his grey tie and his police escort and gained a smile. ‘Young people,’ he began, ‘please, one minute, please – do not fire your weapons in the air – it gives a bad image to the foreigners.’ The crowd continued to fire (one man was hit, it seemed fatally, by a falling bullet) and some teenagers continued to chant. But the minister slowly got the measure of his laughing audience: pausing for long stretches and luring the crowd into moments of silence. Eventually, they even cheered him. And everyone sang the national anthem.

Libya did not look as shabby or dangerous as Iraq. Despite six months of fighting and uncertainty, the lawns in Tripoli were mown, the bougainvillea bushes were bright, and the rubbish was still in garbage bags, not strewn, as in Basra, in suppurating ditches. The shops and petrol stations were reopening, the water supply was beginning to return. The armed 15-year-olds were polite. No one at any of the checkpoints asked for a bribe, or our satellite phones. The Misrata militia in their jeeps were as friendly as the Knights of Zintan in their pick-up trucks. There was little talk of revenge. No one was shooting anyone else.

And to my surprise, there was little looting. In the executive offices, it was not just the furniture and the televisions that were untouched: even the silver ashtrays and gold paperknives were still on the desks. It seemed that no one had slipped even a fountain-pen into their pocket when the government left and the rebels came in. At night, the streets of Tripoli were so jammed with honking cars, waving flags, boys wearing the national colours, that one might imagine Libya had just won the World Cup. The government and the police were not in any position to prevent disorder, but it seemed that the Libyans were not drawn to looting or violence. And no one I spoke to, from expatriate engineers to young gunmen, expected that.

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One thought on “Why does Tripoli not resemble Baghdad?

  1. Nemo

    Tripoli is not Baghdad.
    Libya was not under years of sanctions, no-fly zones, or had seen half million of its children die due to sanctions.
    Gaddafi was a freak, but Libya was not Iraq. Don’t expect the exact same thing that happened in Iraq to happen in Libya.
    But, it is still early, and the NTC has work to do; tribes to please; and a few countries with fighter jets that will want their pound of flesh.

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