16 March 2012
An experienced friend is currently in Tripoli and writes:
I’m telling you, you should get your butt over here to Libya - it’s a really interesting place. I know everyone’s mind is on Afghanistan these days, but there’s really no comparison. The two countries could not be more different – at least from what I can see here in Tripoli.
I haven’t had an opportunity to get far out of Tripoli, so my observations are limited to the capital area, but still, I can’t help feeling optimistic about Libya. Everyone may be in the honeymoon phase a bit, post-Ghadaffi, but from what I have observed, most Libyans here in Tripoli have laid down their weapons and cheerfully gone back to work. You do see the militias, but they are no longer running checkpoints around the city and seem to confine themselves mostly to milling around their compounds or hanging out on a street corner. You still see the odd technical – like the DShK I saw mounted in the back of a pickup in the city center yesterday – but very few armed men in the streets.
Tripoli itself does not appear to have taken much damage in the NATO bombing raids. The only major damage I’ve seen is to the military installations just outside the city and of course on Ghadaffi’s compounds, which were basically leveled. I’m kicking myself for not taking a photo of the billboard I saw near one of Ghadaffi’s ruined compounds that said “Thank You, NATO!” The only major destruction I’ve seen inside the city was to one of Saif Gaddafi’s houses, where all the windows were shot out and the walls appeared to have been peppered with RPG and small arms fire. You still hear occasional gunshots, usually at night, but it sounds to me like people just letting off the odd burst for the hell of it. I’ve heard nothing that sounded like an actual gunfight – despite what some of the journalists around here might be reporting. In fact, you might want to check that out, because I’m really starting to feel that some of the journalists over here may be sensationalizing their reports a bit. But then, I haven’t been here that long, so maybe there are things I’ve missed.
As for the city itself, Tripoli has much to offer. It’s right on the water, has access to many historical sites, including many Greek and Roman ruins, and seems to have pretty good infrastructure. Since the end of the revolution, there have been efforts to clean things up in the city, but they do have a ways to go. Although there is still a lot of trash in the streets in some areas, they have done things like re-painting historic buildings in order to spruce up the place. I’ve been consistently impressed with the quality of the buildings and infrastructure here. The roads are quite good, with a modern highway system that looks very similar to what you would see in the States. Other than the trash problem, municipal services are up and running, with power, water, and sewer systems all functioning as they would in any developed country.
I think the thing that strikes me the most is the people’s ability to hold things together, even without much government presence. The locals I’ve met here all say there has not been a huge increase in crime, despite relatively few police on the streets.
I don’t know if this is true, but one of our favorite taxi drivers told us yesterday that when the rebels started closing in on him, Ghadaffi released several thousand prisoners from jail (why? Our interlocutor just shrugged and said, “because Ghadaffi was CRAZY”), but instead of running off, most of the prisoners actually gave themselves up again and went back to prison. This sense of order seems to prevail around here. For example, despite a complete lack of traffic police, I would say that about 80% of the drivers here obey traffic lights and road signs.
As for the people, they are all quite friendly. Of the locals I’ve found who speak English, they all say the same thing: Libyan people love life. I can’t know what things look like in rural areas, but here in the city that does seem to be the case. That’s not to say that they aren’t concerned about the future, because they are. But so far, I’ve seen no evidence that there are any hard-core Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists hanging around the city. Most women do wear headscarves, but you see them driving everywhere and there is free mixing of the sexes, so that’s an encouraging sign that people don’t seem to be outwardly too conservative. Here’s a good example: there’s a statue of a naked woman in the middle of one of the fountains in town.
Apparently, there have been a few people making a stink about it, but most of the locals could care less. You also see naked people on some of the Roman ruins in town and no one seems too bothered by that either. I know these things can change quite rapidly, but for the moment, logical minds seem to be prevailing. I guess that’s what happens when you have a pretty educated and literate population. The ethnic composition of the city is mixed, with about 10-15% of the residents being black Africans. Many of them are 2nd or 3rd generation Libyans though and are not refugees or guest workers from sub-Saharan Africa. There are also a number of Turks, Tunisians, and many Egyptians here. The latter appear to dominate the service industry – for example, at all the hotels I’ve been to, the staff are all Egyptian.
Overall, everyone seems to be holding their breath a bit until the elections in June. Although the East, dominated by Benghazi, is pushing for a semi-autonomous state, which some people fear could lead to a civil war, I can’t help feeling that they’ll work things out somehow. All I know is that it would be a shame for things to devolve into chaos here. I think there’s opportunity in Libya for the development of a modern, somewhat secular state, friendly to both Europe and the U.S., but I think we in the west need to help guide things a bit – mostly through foreign investment. Personally, I think we should stay out of their business when it comes to politics. I have to agree with a local friend I met here a couple of days ago – Libya might not be ready for full-blown democracy just yet, and we might screw things up if we insist they try to go down that road. Just look at Afghanistan and how well “democracy” is working out there!
Anyway, I still think you should come check it out. There’s not much American involvement here at the moment – I’ve only met two others since I’ve been here and they’ve been working and living in Morocco for several years, so they’re not exactly new arrivals. I think the American people might like to know what’s going on over here since we bankrolled most of the revolution. And after being jaded by Afghanistan for so long, this place is something of a palate cleanser.