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Libya: The Losers

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AP Images
Rebels arresting one of Qaddafi’s fighters, Tripoli, Libya, August 26, 2011

Repeatedly, Qaddafi returns in his stories to the theme of the simple Bedouin wrenched from healthy, wide-open spaces and condemned to live in the dark, grim city, “a mill that grinds down its inhabitants, a nightmare to its builders,” a place where “houses are not homes—they are holes and caves.” Decrying “this mass of people, who poisoned Hannibal, burnt Savonarola, and smashed Robespierre,” he concludes, “So what can I—a poor bedouin—hope for in a modern city of insanity?”

Since his people erupted in revolt, Qaddafi’s speeches have seemed increasingly disconnected from reality but similarly telling about the man himself. Consistently he has blasted his enemies as drug addicts and rats. Yet as it turns out it is the Brother Leader who has spent much of the past decade living underground, in the elaborate maze of tunnels extending from Bab al-Azizia. It is Qaddafi’s own bloated face that shows telltale signs of self-loathing and abuse.

In Tripoli at night two weeks after the city’s fall, celebratory gunfire still rolls out in waves, thumping and cracking and chattering around the horizon like a wild electric storm. Spontaneous choruses of young men, or children with piping voices, burst into revolutionary anthems. The revolutionary flag and the V for victory are everywhere. It is all very corny, and the sustained enthusiasm suggests that whenever Qaddafi himself is caught or killed, this city of three million will erupt in a party the likes of which have never been seen.

Of course, many Libyans do share fears that even when Qaddafi is gone for good, their troubles will not be over. He leaves behind a country that is rich in cash and resources, but socially fragmented and intellectually impoverished. His long reign held in suspense the ordinary struggles that forge historical progress, such as between social classes, between competing regions, or between people of secular and religious bent. Libya’s rebirth has created new tensions, too, between those who feel they have earned a right to power by virtue of youth and sacrifice for the cause, and what they see as the gray, suit-clad men, many of them with technocratic pedigrees under the ousted regime, who presume to speak for the interim government.

The real battle is beginning now,” says Fathy Ben Issa, a journalist who resigned from Tripoli’s new, self-appointed town council because he felt the unelected body had fallen under the sway of Islamists aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. But for now, people such as the smuggler Khaled Garabulli, who says he waited for a fatwa from a senior Saudi preacher before casting his lot with the rebels, and his cohort Fathy Sherif, who wants Libyan passports to be respected again so he can travel freely to old haunts in the West, remain happy comrades.

Perhaps Qaddafi has already—as he seems to have wished for himself—“escaped to hell,” as the title of his book puts it. His people have certainly escaped from it.

September 15, 2011

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