New old Libya

Robert Draper writes: The bronze likeness of Muammar Qaddafi’s nemesis was lying on his back in a wooden crate shrouded in the darkness of a museum warehouse. His name was Septimius Severus. Like Qaddafi, he was from what is now Libya, and for 18 years bridging the second and third centuries A.D. he ruled the Roman Empire. His birthplace, Leptis Magna—a commercial city 80 miles east of what the Phoenicians once called Oea, or present-day Tripoli—became, in every meaningful way, a second Rome. More than 1,700 years after the emperor’s death, Libya’s Italian colonizers honored him by erecting a statue of the imposing, bearded leader with a torch aloft in his right hand. They installed the statue in Tripoli’s main square (now Martyrs’ Square) in 1933—where it remained for a half century, until another Libyan ruler took umbrage.

“The statue became the mouthpiece of the opposition, because he was the only thing Qaddafi couldn’t punish,” says Hafed Walda, a native Libyan and professor of archaeology at King’s College London. “Every day people would ask, ‘What did Septimius Severus say today?’ He became a figure of annoyance to the regime. So Qaddafi banished him to a rubbish heap. The people of Leptis Magna rescued him and brought him back home.” And that is where I found him, reposing in a wooden box amid gardening tools and discarded window frames, awaiting whatever destination the new Libya might have in store for him.

Qaddafi correctly viewed the statue as a threat. For Septimius Severus stood as a wistful reminder of what Libya had once been: a Mediterranean region of immense cultural and economic wealth, anything but isolated from the world beyond the sea. Spreading over 1,100 miles of coastline, bracketed by highlands that recede into semiarid wadis and finally into the copper vacuum of the desert, Libya had long been a corridor for commerce and art and irrepressible social aspiration. The tri-city region of Tripolitania—Leptis Magna, Sabratah, and Oea—had once provided wheat and olives to the Romans.

Yet Qaddafi squandered the country’s advantages: its location just south of Italy and Greece, which made it one of Africa’s gateways to Europe; its manageable population (fewer than seven million inhabiting a landmass six times the size of Italy); its vast oil reserves. He quashed innovation and free expression. To schoolchildren, who memorized Qaddafi’s tangled philosophy as inscribed in his Green Book, the story of their country consisted of two chapters: the dark days under the West’s imperialist bootheel, and then the glory days of the Brother Leader.

Today the dictator and his warped vision for Libya are dead, and the nation is undergoing the spasmlike throes of reinvention. As Walda says, “The journey of discovery has just begun. In many ways this moment is more dangerous than wartime.” Temporary prisons are overstuffed with thousands of Qaddafi loyalists awaiting their fate as laws and court procedures are reformed. Militias control whole swaths of the country. Guns are less visible than they were during the war, but that only means the hundreds of thousands who possess them have learned to keep them out of sight. Highways in rural areas remain thoroughly unpoliced (not counting the checkpoints manned by former rebels, or thuwwar). Immigrants pour into Libya from its western and southern borders. Key Qaddafi associates, as well as his wife and some of his children, remain at large. Several new ministers are already on the take. [Continue reading…]

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