[Picture credit: François S. Truffaut© -- An iconic flag adorned with the face of 'Brother Guide' Col. Muammar Gaddafi hangs over a street in Tripoli, Libya's Mediterranean-coast capital.]
TRIPOLI, Libya (DM) -- Spending two weeks in Tripoli feels like being stranded in a deserted Sudanese airport for several days. I know, I’ve tried it.
At first sight, Libya’s capital and largest city looks like any other urban mess in a lost desert. Scatterings of gray, box-like unfinished buildings of bare concrete surrounded by dusty roads and dirty-green, under-watered garden plots. No trees. It would seem entirely barren if it weren’t on the Mediterranean seashore.
[Pictures credit: Courtesy Libyan government via Wikipedia of Tripoli.]
Libya, otherwise known to Libyans and others as the Great Socialist Peoples Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, is one of these places where you’re very quickly made to grasp the absolute power of the authorities. Anyone in uniform behaves as if he (it’s always men) owned the country. The police forces’ favourite pastime seems to be spoiling one’s day. At the airport, I was made to wait in line for 20 minutes for an immigration stamp (the fifth one). The young officer made quite a show of snapping his fingers at me (that’s local cop sign language for “come to the booth”) and then waving me back to the line, three consecutive times. He then came out of the booth, lit a cigarette, and wandered around ostentatiously waiting for signs of exasperation…
I was expecting something like this after the attendants aboard our flight told us our landing would be delayed by 30 minutes because “a VIP is landing.” Don’t laugh, Tony Blair, the former English prime minister, is said to be a regular visitor. Silvio Berlusconi and Sarkozy’s former wives drop in from time to time, too. It seems these days everyone is rushing to visit the 'Guide,' or 'Brother Guide,' as they call leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. He has been in absolute, autocratic power since the coup d'etat in 1969.
I admit I’ve been puzzled by his seemingly overnight popularity with Western leaders for a while. (DM ed. note: He is quite popular throughout Africa, too, doling out money for development and peddling his influence at the same time.) That was until somebody explained that Libya has traditionally had the largest proven oil reserves in Africa -- way ahead of Nigeria or Angola. Libya is a major player in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), though that could be changing.
Tripoli’s airport verifies Tropical-Trip Rule Number 1: The weaker a country’s institutions, the more stamps your passport will get. After a single-entry trip to Libya, I counted eight of them -- in green, purple, red and black. The airport looks a lot like the bombed-out center of Brazzaville (capital of the Republic of the Congo) a few years ago. But cranes everywhere attest to the investment rush storming the country. Half of the country’s six-million people live in or close to the capital. Actually. I was told it’s now more like seven million, as the Guide has supposedly granted Libyan nationality recently to roughly one million desert-roaming Tuareg peoples, probably to annoy his southern neighbours in Chad and Niger, who are constantly fighting Tuareg rebellions.
Downtown Tripoli, next to the old town medina surrounded by a massive fortress wall, is obviously an attempt to copy Dubai. Flashy new towers are being built, new gardens are being planted and a few luxury hotels are opening for business. It’s soulless, empty and somewhat out of place. The weird thing is that existing buildings, many not too old, are being pulled down just to be replaced, regardless of the several empty wastelands along the coast, where development could migrate but isn't. But I was told this is a local "habit." An expatriate was telling me about the street he lives on. Apparently, perfectly good sidewalks are destroyed and rebuilt, identically, every two years. Somebody must be making the best of that public contract …
[Picture credit: Courtesy Libyan government copy of visa from image obtained online at temehu.com.]
What the center of Tripoli doesn’t reveal is the extreme isolationism Libya has been under -- until recently. There was no such thing as a 'Libyan state' before 1951, when Western powers found it convenient to prop up a king. National institutions are half a century old. The 1969 “Revolution” -- really a bloodless coup supposedly postponed by a day so as to not ruin a concert planned by Egyptian superstar Umm Kulthum (also see Om Kalthoum spelling) at the time -- did not exactly open up Libya to the world (or roll out the 'welcome mat' to foreigners). All outside influences were rejected as “non-socialist.” Years of embargoes and sanctions by the U.S. and the UN, enacted out of protest against Libya’s support to various terrorist groups, finished the job on branding the country a pariah state. The sanctions were lifted in recent years, but the damage still lingers.
The education system in the country is a joke. I was loosely and anecdotally informed of Libyan engineers with locally-accredited graduate degrees who couldn't master basic math and couldn’t give you the weight of a cubed meter of water, if asked on the spot. But more and more Libyans are going abroad for training and university studies. Surprisingly, most come back to Libya. The borders are not closed to them.
And yet, I have never heard so many comparisons with the old East Germany back in the communist days. Mostly by people who have never set foot in the 'DDR.' But it seems the Libyan secret police has eyes and ears everywhere. Even Skype conversations are said to be tapped. Everyone is supposedly assigned somebody to watch, and report on. All companies have quiet yet official “security representatives,” who speak openly of their affiliation with the authorities. Apparently, the worst offense is -- criticizing the Brother Leader.
That gets you a one-way ticket home if you’re a foreigner. But I'm sure it's probably much worse if you’re a local. I was told of two expats who raised a fuss after being told by a local coastal lifeguard they couldn’t go for a swim on that particular day. They moaned and pleaded with the guard, which accomplished nothing. Then getting really worked up, they started ranting in German against the autorities in general. They were sent back home in less than 24 hours!
Unsurprisingly, many Italians seem to have a different, easier-going approach. The Italians and Libyans weren’t always on such friendly terms, since facist Italy brutally colonized the place in the early 20th Century ... then the Italians reportedly allowed some of Reagan’s bombers to refuel in Italy before dropping their load on Gaddafi’s palace in 1986. (It’s also said that Bettino Craxi, a legendary crook even by Italian political-corruption standards, was the one who gave the Guide a quick heads up minutes before U.S. Air Force F-111s flattened a few buildings and killed Gaddaffi’s adopted daughter.
[Picture credit: Drifter Media© archives -- 'Brother Guide' Col. Muammar Gaddafi and an unusually small entourage walk the red carpet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in early 2007 after disembarking his personal plane.]
But if everyone here remembers the past, including the public hangings of dissidents in the 1980s, no one knows what the future holds, for sure. The Guide officially has stated that his son Saif al-Islam (which apparently translates into “Sword of Islam”) was going to succeed him. He is perceived as a moderate, compared to old hardliners of the regime. Still, don’t hold your breath. Sitting on mountains of oil usually doesn’t do wonders for your reformist momentum … nor do hour-and-a-half-long tirades at the UN General Assembly in New York.
[Pictures credit: François S. Truffaut© -- the ruins of Leptis Magna, a good hour's drive east of Tripoli, on the coast ... November 2009.]
Mr. Truffaut submitted this piece to Drifter Media without hyperlinks ... DM took the liberty to add them.