James Anderson writes from Tripoli: Leave this city at your own peril. This is the new unwritten law in the ever changing panorama of Libya that has moved from the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi to something even more gruesome: a lawless country that is ruled by the men of the gun. A sort of a Wild West but in North Africa.
Benghazi is the seat of the Libyan provisional government. But it’s not clear how far its remit extends beyond that city. The British ambassador needed a convoy and armed guards to travel from Benghazi. Rebels attacked the convoy but the ambassador escaped unscathed. What was the armed group trying to prove? Did they have an objective beyond targeting a symbol of Western influence?
An even more interesting incident is the saga surrounding Saif Gaddafi, one of the sons of the former dictator. The International Criminal Court (ICC) would like to transfer him from Libya to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes. So it sent a mission to Zintan to collect him. The local revolutionary council had captured him and wished to try him locally. He is their prize asset. When they arrived they were arrested. An Australian lawyer, Melinda Taylor, was to discuss with Gaddafi the appointment of defence counsel to represent him in The Hague. The first problem was that the revolutionary council in Zintan does not recognise the authority of the ICC nor, for that matter, the provisional government in Benghazi. So Miss Taylor and her companions have been placed in preventive detention for 45 days while investigations are conducted to determine whether they are spies or not. Miss Taylor is accused of carrying a letter to Gaddafi from the former dictator’s right hand man. She also had a suspicious pen and concealed camera. There is no way, of course, of independently verifying these charges. An ICC mission on a spying mission?
The level of distrust between Benghazi and Zintan is so great that the revolutionary council suspects that if Gaddafi were taken under armed guard to the provisional capital, he would be permitted to escape. There is no point in the ICC saying that he would be taken to The Hague for trial. That cuts no ice in Zintan.
So what do these shenanigans tell us about present day Libya? The optimists point out that after decades of dictatorship, new institutions have not yet had time to form and take root. The country is a mishmash of rival militias and tribes fighting for influence. The provisional government has been attempting to gather all the militias into a regular Libyan army. Clearly there is a lot of work to be done. A general election has been promised for some time and the latest news is that it will take place next month. However how are Libyans to decide who to vote for? Parties and candidates are almost unknown to the vast majority of citizens. However, the optimists do have a point. One has to start somewhere in the struggle to build a new Libya. An imperfect parliament is better than none at all.
The pessimists say that Libya’s best hope is a federation of its various regions. A weak central government is inevitable.And that does not bode well.
The only bright note is the oil and gas potential of the country. The distribution of this wealth will require delicate negotiations. Militias may resort to violence if they perceive that their people are being unfairly treated. So folks, don’t choose Libya for your summer holidays for the next 100 years at least. Let the locals first decide who’s in charge. And while the Western media is keeping a modest silence about the chaos in the new democratic Libya I have one question: another no fly zone anyone?