Tuesday 23 August 2011

Libya comes out of the long night

Far from the normal concerns of this blog, I choose today to reflect on Libya because I have visited the place. I went there, with my partner and a lot of other westerners, in 2006, for the total solar eclipse that was visible from the Sahara Desert on 29 March 2006. This was only a brief visit, but I saw something of the country and its people, and I include some of the pictures I took on that visit.

Libya is not a very solid country: it is basically a green coastal strip a few miles deep fronting the vast desert that was arbitrarily divided by the straight lines of international borders set up by the western powers in the 19th century. Virtually everybody lives in the coastal strip, but the country's income comes entirely from the oil under the desert. Libya is virtually a one-road country, the road that runs along the coast, and along which the rebel army has recently advanced. I went through many of the towns that have become famous since, through the reporting of the civil war: Benghazi, Ajdabiya, Tripoli. It has been very sad therefore to experience the news reports over the last six moths of the war and hear of the suffering of the Libyan people in these places.

Looking from the hill of Cyrene across the narrow strip of green Libya to the Mediterranean
Greek ruins at Cyrene
Libya struck me as a country with huge potential, sadly strangled by 42 years of the mediaeval repression of the Gaddafi rule. The Libyans are an educated, cultured people, heirs to a great ancient civilisation. The wonderful coastline is an equivalent of that of Italy or Greece, on the other side of the Mediterranean, and could potentially be a huge tourist destination, with its exoticism, spectacular Roman remains and beautiful beaches. However, the environment is a squalid mess, as it usually is in dictatorships. The coast is a mass of plastic bags, and the desert is full of discarded lorry tyres. I saw a similar environment in Morocco, when I did a cycle tour there with a couple of other London cyclists, but Libya was environmentally much worse, and the war will have made it worse still. International isolation and lack of investment have prevented proper exploitation of the potential and resources of the country. But I think Libya now has the potential to emerge from its 42 year dark age and become a modern, successful, democratic state. There is no reason why it should not become the most forward-looking country in the Arab world, alongside an Egypt under new democratic rule.

The amazing Roman city of Leptis Magna, near Tripoli
Remains of the Roman port at Leptis Magna
The westerners I was with on my visit found the whole Gaddafi thing rather funny. In a way it was. It was even commercially exploited, with Gadaffi souvenir tea towels on sale at the tourist sites, and the maps, totally devoid of useful detail, and bearing the ludicrous official name of the state, the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arabic Jamahiriya (the longest official name of any country in the world). The absurd posters everywhere of the leader, in his many eccentrically-varied guises, often in his sunglasses, depicted as liberator and King of Kings of Africa, and his country as the rising sun of Africa, were good for photos. To the tourists it was all so funny. But really it was horrible.

One of the ubiquitous roadside posters, symbolising Gaddafi breaking the chains of Africa, with the profoundly ironic dove of peace
Gadaffi created a state where information was controlled perhaps more tightly than anywhere else in the world. All media was under his direct control. The internet was totally banned and blocked. The only thing he could not stop was the receiving of satellite TV. Gadaffi imposed a crazy economic and political system on his country based on his incoherent Green BookUnder the pretence of the Great Socialist People's Republic, citizens were forced to serve on peoples' committees that were without power. Those who disagreed with him were executed, sometimes on TV, unless they could flee abroad, where they continued to be hunted by Gaddafi's agents.

In the end, in the Arab Spring, Gaddafi could no longer hold back the new forces unleashed by the outside world of electronic information. His propaganda became impotent. But the rebellion organised using Twitter needed firepower to take on his military machine. I have to praise the decisions of David Cameron, Barack Obama and Nicholas Sarkozy over Libya. I think they got the strategy of intervention right. Intervening militarily in another state is always the hardest of political decisions, but in this case there was a coincidence of what was morally right, what was politically expedient, what was militarily possible, and what was good for the people of Libya, good for the interests of the western powers, and good for the peace and stability of the region. Gaddafi had been a destabilising factor in international relations all through his reign.

The level of intervention chosen, of supporting the uprising militarily, diplomatically and through targeted sanctions, while not putting western troops on the ground, ensured that Gaddafi would not be reinforced by a perception of a new colonialism, and things were left so far as possible in the hands of the National Transitional Council. Italy, as the colonial power with an unsavoury reputation among the Libyans, stayed sensibly on the sidelines.

There will be those who say "It was about oil", but it wasn't. Gaddaffi was on good terms with western leaders before the civil war, particularly with Berlusconi, who signed a co-operation treaty with him in 2008, and Tony Blair had chatted the monster up in his tent as well in 2004. The West could have had all the oil it wanted from Gaddafi's Libya. But, to their credit, Western leaders realised that their interests were wider than this.

It appears that the National Transitional Council have the right instincts and can, with the support of the international community, potentially lead Libya towards an open, democratic, united, prosperous and sustainable future. I hope so. As arabnews.com said today in its editorial headed End of a nightmare:
There is every reason for guarded optimism. The Libyan uprising appears deeply committed to the notion of democracy. The fact, too, that pro-Gaddafi forces, when captured, have largely been well treated is also encouraging. The basis for reconciliation is there. As to who takes over, that will be for the Libyans to decide.
Dawn over the port of Tripoli

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