Will Libya go up in flames?
People congregate near the flames, talking excitedly, pointing and shouting. A tall woman dressed in an abaya and headscarf walks around the smoke-filled street with a silver tray offering around cold drinks in tall wine glasses. Young men with bare chests and cloths covering their faces hurry past the smouldering building.
“It’s been burning since six this evening and the fire engines have only just turned up,” one of the helpers tells us as he pauses between runs to fetch water. His skin is smudged with soot and gleams with sweat. “We’ve just been fighting it by ourselves with buckets and ladders.” No one seems surprised or outraged at the fire brigade’s tardiness. The service is one of many public institutions that had been hollowed out and neglected under former dictator Muammar Gaddafi and has yet to be rebuilt.
We’re in the residential part of the medina, a place where people’s houses are intertwined after decades of building on top of each other and extending their homes into unlikely spaces. It’s hard to tell whether it was a just a single building or a couple of plots that caught fire. All that is left is a smouldering gap where there used to be walls and ceilings.
It’s around midnight and the atmosphere has an almost carnival feel, with smoke, shouting, running and flashing lights. Children scurry around in the narrow alleyways, adults enthusiastically chattering. People ask if anyone has been hurt. Concerned neighbours speculate over whether the fire is likely to spread. Men pass large buckets of water, one to another in a disorganised chain. They walk past the graffiti scrawled on the passageway walls that portray caricatures of Gaddafi and the names of martyrs written side by side with American gangster rappers, 2Pac and NWA.
The atmosphere is unusually positive. There’s a feeling that the community is successfully co-operating to accomplish something with just minimal support from the state. It’s a rare and precious feeling in a country characterised by rivalries and ugly regional armed struggles.
The fire took place in September last year. Since then glimpses of that kind of revolutionary spirit and collective organisation have become rarer than ever. The disintegration of the state and loss of hope for everyday Libyans has worsened at an accelerated pace. On March 11, prime minister Ali Zeidan was sacked by the General National Congress after 125 members voted against him in a no-confidence motion. It was held soon after news broke that the rebels occupying oil terminals in Libya’s east had outwitted the Libyan navy and managed to load and sail an oil tanker with a cargo worth $12 million. It proved to be a final humiliation for Zeidan who, defying a travel ban that came with the vote, quickly left the country to take refuge in Germany.
The episode made headlines around the world and caused jitters in global oil markets, but for everyday Libyans it was just another mundane step further into chaos; another milestone marking the loss of control by the state and increasing power of regional militias and Islamist groups. The rebel oil shipment was eventually intercepted by US Navy SEALs, meaning rebel leader Ibrahim Jathran is unlikely to see any profits from the tanker’s cargo. But he has still seen a boost to his status in the international community, forcing oil industry players to acknowledge his power in Libya’s oil-rich east.
This came just weeks after a disappointing constitutional election. Fewer than 498,000 Libyans voted, just 15 percent of those eligible and a far cry from the summer of 2012 when more than three million Libyans registered for the general election. Television reports showing empty polling stations reflected disillusionment with the revolution and subsequent attempts at constructing a functioning democracy. Criminal gangs have taken advantage of the power vacuum by smuggling drugs, guns and people across porous borders. The country’s regions and ideological armed groups have become increasingly fractious.
In Tripoli, taxi drivers argue in the streets just beyond the medina walls. Gun sellers peddle cheap Turkish pistols on stalls amid the fruit and vegetable market. At night militias battle over territory in the centre of the city. Elsewhere, militias clash over lucrative contracts to provide security to Western oil companies. Freedom of speech, one of the key principles of the 2011 uprising, is increasingly being curbed, as local journalists and TV stations are targeted by armed groups.
Many of those who fought in the revolution still cling to the hope that the country will be able to haul itself back from the brink of anarchy. But with the departure of Zeidan that looks increasingly unlikely. While viewed as ineffectual by many Libyans, he wasn’t obviously power-mad or corrupt — qualities that set him apart from many of his possible replacements. His 18 months as leader gave the country a slight gloss of stability, and his exit presents an opportunity for Islamist groups and autonomist militias to grab more power. This was demonstrated by the appointment of Abdullah al-Thani — who is known to be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood — as interim prime minister. He resigned last month.
The people losing the most from Zeidan’s departure could well be the normal Libyans struggling to get on amid increasing levels of violence. On the day Zeidan was ousted, fighting broke out between pro-government forces and troops loyal to Ibrahim Jathran in the town of Sirte, leaving five people dead. Since then there have been more deaths and repeated clashes between the two sides in a number of strategic regions, including Ibrahim Jathran’s home town of Ajdabiya.
Backed by powerful regional tribes and Libyan air force units in the east of the country, Jathran is proving to be a tough adversary for the government’s disorganised armed forces, and there is likely to be more unrest in the coming months as the government tries to force Jathran’s men to give up their occupation of Libya’s eastern oil ports.
In any other city, this kind of historic old quarter would be a highly sought-after place to live. But in Tripoli the medina is a place of jarring contrasts. The city’s most fashionable cafés and grandest monuments exist inside one of the country’s most deprived communities. Holy sites and monuments sit next to drug dens and brothels
Even on a normal day, the medina has an otherworldly feel. A rabbit warren of alleyways weaves between former colonial buildings and ancient fortifications. This unruly mishmash of architectural fragments is a legacy of the country’s chaotic history and provides concrete reminders of Libya’s many periods of lawlessness.
Rebellious tribes and troubled rulers are nothing new in Libya. The Romans, who occupied Tripoli almost two thousand years ago, built the medina’s enormous walls to forestall attacks from restless Berbers in the South. But the sandstone fortifications weren’t enough to keep out the Vandals who swept across North Africa in the early fifth century, eventually gaining control of Tripoli in AD442 as the Roman Empire crumbled. Almost every ruling empire since this time has struggled to control the country, a task made especially tricky due to its vast expanses of desert and fiercely independent tribes.
The medina offers physical proof of Libya’s chaotic history. Anonymous-looking entrances lead to mosques with grand interiors. Tucked in among the crumbling houses and alleyways, some of them date back to Arab dynasties that ruled the country for nearly a thousand years from around AD642. Others, like the ornate Gurgi mosque, date back to the Ottomans who took control of the city in 1551. Piracy flourished under the Ottomans, becoming a pillar of the Libyan economy to the extent that Tripoli’s rulers demanded tributes from nations in return for protection from its seafaring bandits. The practice led to two brief wars with the United States in the early nineteenth century.
After the Ottomans came Spanish merchants, Maltese crusaders, British soldiers and Italian colonialists. Each empire left its mark, helping to create the bewildering mishmash of mosques, synagogues, consulates, churches and fortifications that now lie crammed between the medina’s ancient walls.
In any other city, this kind of historic old quarter would be a highly sought-after place to live. But in Tripoli the medina is a place of jarring contrasts. The city’s most fashionable cafés and grandest monuments exist inside one of the country’s most deprived communities. Holy sites and monuments sit next to drug dens and brothels. The mighty Roman Arch of Marcus Aurelius lies just a street away from dilapidated houses where whole families share just a couple of rooms.
Even in the daytime, the medina radiates a sense of flux: a sense that it is constantly decaying, falling down, burning and being rebuilt. Standing on the ledge at night and looking down into the smoky, orange embers of the fire it feels like we’re seeing the process in its most elemental form. Walls turn into foundations, roofs into floors, houses and passageways merging and separating.
A sharp cracking sound brings our thoughts crashing back to our current situation. At first I think the unstable-looking walls around us are about to fall. But it’s just the sound of more water being thrown on the hot rubble from the other side, unseen through the thick smoke. Azadine, my guide, laughs at my unease. Even though it was a false alarm I signal that I am ready to go. Back at street level the crowds have dispersed and regrouped in different spots. A hose has been hooked up to the fire engine and trails over a neighbouring wall.
Normally a walk through the medina at night would be off limits to a Westerner. Occasionally people come up and ask what I’m doing with a camera. One suggests that I could be a spy. All are quickly engaged in conversation by Azadine who tells them I’m his guest. As we watch figures disappear and reappear through the smoke, Azadine talks enthusiastically about what it was like to grow up in the area. He tells dramatic tales of knife fights and petty crime. He says the ground beneath the medina is honeycombed with tunnels and subterranean canals. He tells me his grandfather used to live in the heart of the medina and had a rowing boat moored in his cellar, which he could row out to open sea at certain tides.
After a while we strike out away from the fire and begin to meander through the medina, haphazardly making our way home through the smoky streets. Some passages are criss-crossed by hundreds of wooden scaffold poles, the buildings leaning on each other on one another like old men. The area’s complex network of small alleyways has always made it difficult to police, and the medina’s history of piracy and defiance seems to reverberate between the uneven corridors.
Azadine points out a tall wooden flagpole at the Red Castle, which rises out of the medina next to Martyrs’ Square. It is made from the mast of the USS Philadelphia, an American frigate that ran aground in 1803 during the Barbary Wars, when Libya was at war with America. Azadine says one of his ancestors was a Libyan naval officer and took part in a raid on the ship. After the battle it was towed into Tripoli harbour where its mast was made into a flagpole.
A few minutes later we pass another object that points to Tripoli’s fractious relationship with the West down the centuries. A marble plaque on a tall building says in English capital letters:
FROM THE SECOND HALF OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY ONWARD AND UP TO 1940 THIS BUILDING HAS BEEN UTILISED AS AN OFFICE OF THE BRITISH CONSULATE. HOWEVER, THE SO-CALLED EUROPEAN GEOGRAPHICAL AND EXPLORATIVE SCIENTIFIC EXPEDITIONS TO AFRICA WHICH WERE IN ESSENCE AND AS A MATTER OF FACT INTENDED TO BE COLONIAL ONES TO OCCUPY AND COLONISE VITAL AND STRATEGIC PARTS OF AFRICA EMBARKED FROM THIS SAME BUILDING.
Though it was installed before the revolution, its accusatory tone seems to fit with Libya’s growing sense of unease with the West. NATO’s intervention in Libya was euphorically praised. But now many Libyans are questioning Europe’s and America’s motives. Some point to the Western oil companies that operate in Libya and say business interests were more important to NATO than any sense of duty to fight for justice and stamp out tyranny.
We drift away from the heart of the medina and back towards home. Azadine seems invigorated by the fire. Reluctant to go home, he suggests that we walk the ramparts. As we explore he talks non-stop about old times and also speculates as to what the medina could be in the future.
The ramparts surrounding the old quarter are tumbledown with uneven and rubbish-strewn walkways. Azadine tells me that he’d like to fix them up and build a shisha café at the top. Perhaps put up some telescopes and displays that tell people about the area’s past. “I’d employ locals to fix the walls, and local artists to paint pictures about the medina’s history.” He talks as if it’s a viable plan. He says tourists will come with their children and learn about Libya’s history. “Maybe in five years, when things are quiet and the county is on the right track,” he says.
As we descend from the ramparts and walk home it feels like we’ve caught an elusive glimpse of a possible future for Libya; one that seemed to be just around the corner immediately after the revolution when people were pulling together to try and rebuild the country. Over the last 18 months that future has seemed ever more fanciful and unrealistic, replaced by a far gloomier vision among most Libyans where everyone struggles to get the best for their own tribe and family at the expense of the rest of the country. “This country doesn’t have to descend into chaos,” Azadine says thoughtfully as we walk. “The spirit of the revolution still exists in Libya, even if you have to look a bit harder to find it.”