Losing Libya’s Revolution

Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images
The aftermath of an explosion in Benghazi that killed Youssef Ali al-Asseifar, the military prosecutor for western Libya, August 29, 2013

In Tripoli, an Islamist businessman invited me to join him for dinner with one of Muammar Qaddafi’s oil men and an investor long exiled in Connecticut. “In the new Libya green tahalub [or seaweed, the rebels’ name for Qaddafi’s cronies] and rats [Qaddafi’s name for the rebels] all dine together,” explained my host, with that peculiarly Libyan talent for self-deprecation. Only through mockery, perhaps, can Libyans fathom how Africa’s richest state—endowed with oil and the Mediterranean’s appealing beaches and untouched antiquities—could appear so broken and bleak.

Were Libyans not such defeatists, they might have cheered some hints of an approaching return to normality. Many Libyans now sleep undisturbed by gunfire. In contrast to the kamikaze-style driving of a year ago, cars in Tripoli stop at traffic lights. Much of the revolutionary litter of martyr iconography has been blown away. “Libya is beautiful, keep it tidy” declares the digital message above a traffic light, before flashing, “Seatbelts save lives.” The courts function, more or less, and Benghazi’s scarred courthouse, the launchpad of the revolution against Qaddafi, has had a facelift. Near Tripoli’s Ottoman citadel, I joined the families watching hang gliders painted the colors of Libya’s flag descend through the brilliant sunshine. From a podium, a speaker hailed a return to civilian rule and called on the militias—called thuwwar, or revolutionaries—who had taken up arms against Qaddafi to disband.

It almost seemed plausible, until the evening news of June 8 reported that just over six hundred miles away, in Benghazi, a similar rally against the militias had ended in carnage. Across the road from a children’s theme park called Boadicea, protesters had gathered outside the base of Libya Shield No. 1—once the foremost of ten predominantly Islamist militias that Libya’s fledgling government had authorized. Many of the protesters were tribesmen, seeking vengeance for the killing of one of their kin by a Libya Shield patrol. Both sides were armed, some with rocket-propelled grenades, and as protesters pushed at the gates of the base, both sides began firing them. As the casualties mounted, al-Saiqa, a special force set up under Qaddafi, intervened on the side of the protesters, and by early evening it had succeeded in forcing the militia to flee. After an afternoon of fighting, doctors counted 35 dead and 120 injured. Politicians dubbed the killings “Black Saturday.”

The Islamist militias who fought against Qaddafi consider Benghazi their citadel. Their revolution began there on February 16, 2011, and from there it spread. For their leading brigade to be chased from its base by aggrieved tribesmen and forces from the Qaddafi era was a telling loss. Militiamen put on a brave face, insisting that they had fled with their weapons and were still a force to be…

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