Libya a Mixed Bag: Juan Cole on Libya / The Telegraph on Libya

Juan Cole reports from Libya, which he says is not perfect, but far from the dire situation often portrayed in the Western press (the latest portrayal written by Kissinger himself):

Henry Kissinger, in his recent op-ed against intervention in Syria, listed the erasure of the Libyan state as an argument against such interventions. I read the allegation with disbelief. Libya is not like Somalia! It isn’t even like Yemen. (The Libyans I talked to about Yemen sympathized with the country’s problems but were astonished to hear that some Western observers looked a their situations as similar!)

So imagine my surprise on visits to Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli, to find that there were no militiamen to be seen, that most things were functioning normally, that there were police at traffic intersections, that there were children’s carnivals open till late, families out, that jewelry shops were open till 8 pm, that Arabs and Africans were working side by side, and that people were proud in Benghazi of having demonstrated against calls for decentralizing the country.

As someone who has lived in conflict situations, I take as a very serious gauge of security whether shops are open and how late they stay open. Jewelry shops in particular are easily looted, and the loot is light and easy to fence. But in Tripoli there was loads of gold in rows of jewelry shops, along with clothing stores newly stocked with Italian fashions. Shopkeepers I interviewed were fully stocked, confident and glad to finally be rid of Qaddafi’s erratic governance, under which they were never sure if they would make a profit because policies changed frequently.

It is definitely good to hear that the areas he visited are in good shape. I’d be interested to see where more rural areas stand, because if I’ve learned anything from Ibn Khaldun, it’s that the rural areas are the catalysts for social change.

He’s also experienced warzone political climates before:

I went to Libya expecting to find people nervous about going out, expecting to find a lot of shops shuttered, and expecting to be stopped at militia checkpoints (which was common in Beirut in the late 1970s when I lived there in the first years of the Civil War). Maybe such things exist in smaller provincial cities that I didn’t visit, like Gadames in the South. I don’t know. In the urban north, I found a society actively reconstructing itself where people clearly were going about their ordinary lives, where stores were open and people were sitting in sidewalk cafes, where there were no militiamen on the streets, no checkpoints, and where there were actually traffic cops directing traffic.

Reporters from the Telegraph have a completely different experience:

Six months after the death of Col Muammar Gaddafi, we were on the edge of a Libyan battlefield. Around us were armed men, tanks, bombed-out vehicles. The sound of gunfire was constant as artillery rounds and bullets whistled over our heads. This skirmish was not significant enough to be reported in the British press. But the dead were piling up: the militia we were with had lost 12 men with more than 100 wounded.

The battle was between two northern towns, Zuwara and Rigdalen. The population of neither can be more than 20,000. Yet, with both places teeming with arms, no functioning court system and a pathetically weak central government, even the smallest dispute can escalate into warfare

As I suspected, the rural situation is quite different. The perennial problem of paying soldiers is creeping up:

But for the time being the politicians are still figureheads, and the power is exercised by armed gangs. The government is desperate for these militias to return to civilian life before the elections, and has embarked on a hugely expensive programme to buy off fighters with cash payments worth approximately £1,000 each. But this programme is open to corruption.

We asked what they were doing. ‘We are revolutionaries. We have saved Libya, we want to be paid,’ they said, claiming that they had been excluded from the cash payments. At that moment a police convoy, lights blaring, came hurtling down the road. The militiamen let loose a volley of warning shots. The police swiftly turned round and drove away.

They remain optimistic, though:

That point is still a long way off. And yet at the end of our stay in Libya we felt fairly hopeful. Six months after the fall of Saddam Hussein there were already signs that Iraq was falling into civil war. Western visitors could travel only with heavy security; the Americans and British who had brought about the transition of power were hated. Ethnic cleansing was under way on a massive scale, and al-Qaeda was taking control of large parts of the country.


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