Cappuccino in TripoliInside the Colonel’s hermit republic
Getting into Libya was never easy even before spent bullet casings and dead bodies littered its cities and revolt hung in the air. But until only a few months ago, what is a byword for a northern African Somalia today was an experiment in reforming Arab societies.
Libya may have been partially rehabilitated by the West after it renounced its nuclear program in 2003, but the flamboyant Colonel Qadhafi’s Amazonian bodyguards and bulletproof Bedouin tent were only embarrassing partners ushered into the salons of European and US diplomacy as amusing freak shows.
Yet Qadhafi, the once dashing anti-western revolutionary, refused to take the hint. He obstinately inserted himself wherever he could, most memorably during his maiden appearance at the United Nations General Assembly in 2009 when he delivered a blistering marathon of a speech that upstaged performances by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Barrack Obama. Memorably, one UN interpreter collapsed from exhaustion.
Earlier that year, I had visited Qadhafi’s country. My parents—who are academics—had been there in the eighties and returned with stories of an embargoed hermit tribal kingdom, where pristine Hellenistic cities overlooking the Mediterranean’s glittering blue erupted out of the Sahara. Even then journalists remained undesirables except as vetted cheerleaders of reform. But the gates to this People’s Republic were easing open for an army of consultants applying western knowhow to the country with the world’s eighth largest oil reserves in the world.
With an invite provided by a diplomat friend, I flew into Tripoli’s cramped international airport. Third World and narrow, it had barely recovered from the trade embargo’s lean years and could hardly accommodate the columns of contract workers from southeast Asia shuffling forward at passport control.
That was the first sign of Libya’s meteoric rise. But rather than being a straightforward tale of economic development, new evidence emerging now proves that the riotous construction was just part of a grander project engineered by a technocratic Libyan elite and its western backers that intended to remake Libya into a model Muslim country. With a population of six million, the thinking went, Libya should be far easier to get right than its neighbor, 85 million-strong Egypt.
2009 Tripoli—a hive of African dynamism that possessed the largest oil reserves in Africa—looked like the 1970s Arabian Peninsula. In a country whose anti-colonialist leader erased Latin transliterations from road-signs and abolished western languages from the school curricula, the only traces of the West remained in the monumental, proto-Fascist architecture, antique metal cappuccino machines and trees planted to fight desertification that the Italian colonists had bequeathed.
Soon after Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi made his peace with the West, his reformist-minded son Saif Al-Islam wooed a number of expat Libyans resident abroad back to Tripoli, hoping they might spearhead Libya’s renewal. One of them was Mahmoud Jibril—who took his PhD at Pittsburgh University—whose arc of disillusionment with the process of reforming the regime culminated when he was appointed the current head of the rebel transitional council in March. As recently as February 2010, he led the National Economic Development Council, a think-tank related to the Cambridge-based consultancy Monitor Group founded by Saif Al-Islam.
“US and British advisers are working to make this country a model state for the region,” said Mandolios Kanakis, a Greek expat who lived in the flashpoint city of Benghazi. “At a time when anti-Americanism is a phenomenon throughout the Arab World, they view it as a country that could be controlled politically by the West in return for some simple rewards such as infrastructure.”
One American consultant I met in Tripoli in 2009 was working with the Ministry of Housing on a multi-billion dollar project that represented the next stage in Libya’s transformation from a semi-nomadic to an urbanized society. Her father was an influential US diplomat and she did not want to have her name revealed. While in Libya, she lived in a luxurious compound outside Tripoli and moved around with government minders.
Jibril’s vision was for Libya to adopt full western-style civil rights. “My model is South Africa,” he had said in a 2009 Time magazine interview, referring to his post-apartheid constitution which includes freedom of speech, the right to privacy and gender equality. “There must be a legal framework with division of powers, the right of free expression.”
This Western-inspired mission civilizatrice was already evident in 2009. The CIA worked with former head of Libyan intelligence, Moussa Koussa, to normalize the relationship between their two countries, marking the beginning of a wave of economic, diplomatic and cultural exchanges.
The Libyan government commissioned former Reagan adviser and Harvard management guru Michael Porter to produce a blueprint for development. He produced Libya at the Dawn of a New Era, a 2006 report that recommended that the private sector be allowed to claim more of the pie controlled by the government.
Porter’s patron was Saif Al-Islam Qadhafi, the LSE-educated son of the Libyan leader who was touted as his successor. Saif developed a relationship with key professors at Harvard and worked with a Cambridge-based consultancy called the Monitor Group. Another favored son, Motassem, met with Hilary Clinton in Washington in 2009, a few months after his father addressed the next generation of policymakers in a satellite link-up with Georgetown University.
“If Qaddafi is serious about reform, as I think he is, Libya could end up as the Norway of North Africa,” former director of the London School of Economics Anthony Giddens wrote in The Guardian newspaper after a junket to Libya.
But some Libyan elites looked askance at the reforms, not least of them the Leader himself who reportedly blocked several initiatives, frustrating liberalization-minded advocates and prompting them to abandon their efforts.
“The Americans’ target is not religious ideologies or the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, it’s about fundamentally changing the culture of other civilizations,” said Khalifa Mehdaoui, a tribal chief involved in preserving Libya’s Saharan trade city heritage, who took a dim view of efforts to turn Libya into a business-friendly, pro-western beacon and has remained loyal to Qadhafi during the current turmoil. “They were successful in Asia with China and Japan, which they flipped into their own form of economic system, but when this system comes into direct contact with simple people in Afghanistan or Libya living according to centuries-old principles, it breaks down.”
Mahdaoui reasoned that if all politics hinges upon culture, then the only way to limit western incursions was to buttress and celebrate Libya’s indigenous culture. He looked anxiously towards Saudi Arabia, which he felt had lost touch with its Bedouin roots in the push for development, and feared that Libya would meet the same fate.
A popular rejection of the cultural opening to the West was seen in the violent reaction of a crowd in Benghazi to what was billed as Libya’s “first rock music concert,” a performance by British singer Bob Geldof. Organized by arch-reformist Saif Al-Islam, it was intended to provide Libyans with a cultural opening. But as party officials indulged in self-important speeches, the crowd turned nasty and chased Saif and Geldof off the stage with stones.
“It was a social experiment in bringing western culture to Libya,” a businessman and member of Libya’s elite told me in Tripoli. “And it failed—dramatically.”
In 2007, anger with the West was on show once more as angry crowds rampaged through Benghazi during the height of the Danish cartoons controversy, and burned down the Italian consulate. Even following solid western support for the rebel leadership, the locals were quick to turn against foreign journalists
The western modernizing mission seems ancient history now as revolt and repression tear the country apart. Western-supplied weapons are being used to put down the uprising. YouTube’s epileptic videos and the historically context-less commentary gushing forth from the international news networks fails to do justice to the country I experienced. Two years later, the words of one laborer still resonate in my head.
“Civilization is not in metal buildings and late-model cars—that’s just modernity,” he said, as we passed a fading revolutionary poster with the legend, ‘Democracy is not the freedom of expression but the rule of the people for the people.’ “Civilization is in what you have in your head.”
By Iason Athanasiadis
Published: Tuesday 17 May 2011 Updated: Monday 23 May 2011