Late last year I was sitting in Tripoli’s foreign ministry when a guard drew a gun on a colleague next to me and then kicked him down a stairwell. His mistake? He had complained about a news conference being delayed.
That was the moment I lost my last illusions about the Libyan revolution.
The guard’s bosses quickly moved to punish him and his act was one of individual anger not policy. But the episode shows how Libya had changed since rebels toppled Muammar Gaddafi in August 2011. Back then, young fighters in Tripoli had celebrated into the night after they seized Gaddafi’s Bab Aziziya compound. There was a sense of promise and a longing for change in almost everyone you spoke to.
Four years on, that hope has faded, the former rebels have turned on each other and the overwhelming sense is one of chaos.
Libya is split between two rival governments: an official one, which has decamped to Tobruk in the east, and an unrecognized one in the capital Tripoli. Both make a lot of noise about running the country, but little seems to work. The central bank has frozen the budget.
In Tripoli, I recently interviewed a minister who spoke for almost two hours and had no other visitors in that time. His one phone call was from the tea lady.
In Tobruk, a minister from the competing government received me in pyjamas in his rented villa, insisting that we have dinner. I wasn’t sure whether he was still in office. Officially he had been fired, but he still issued orders.
CHECKING FOR BOMBS
Libyans had hoped for more. The country sits on Africa’s largest oil reserves, is home to incredible tourist sites such as the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna and had more than $100 billion in foreign reserves even after the revolution. Following Gaddafi’s ouster, foreign investors arrived hoping to sink money into the oil industry, new hotels and retail outlets.
Even in 2013 there was hope that Libya might make it as a country. When I returned to post-revolution Tripoli that year, foreign embassies still held receptions with warm speeches for their host nation. Some officials were trying to build functioning ministries and a police force.
But night-time shooting between rival factions was growing frequent. Standing in our living room one evening, a rocket propelled grenade exploded close by our office villa. We routinely began to check our car for planted bombs.
Those in charge were also beginning to worry. Officials would routinely tell me that Libya was “mia fil mia” (100 percent perfect). But if you pushed them, the floodgates often opened and they would offload their anger and frustration with the country’s militia groups, as if in a therapy session.
One morning in July 2014, we awoke to the sound of artillery barrages. An armed faction was attacking a rival outfit that occupied Tripoli airport. We watched on television as planes went up in smoke.
A month of fighting followed. When the attackers finally seized the city, Libya was left with two government, two parliaments and two armed groups that both consider themselves the country’s official army.
Both sides began to test foreigners on where their loyalties lay, an attitude reminiscent of the Gaddafi era. Some Libyan friends, previously enthusiastic about press freedom, suddenly cheered Islamist militants fighting the eastern government. Others became fans of a general who bombed the Islamists in densely populated Benghazi.
A few people turned inwards, tired of the constant stress. “Libya is finished,” a neighbour told me when I met him in Cairo where he had moved his family.
Many blame the West for helping to topple Gaddafi but not then disarming the rebel groups. “NATO left us with these militias,” a bitter lawmaker told me over tea in the eastern city of Tobruk where the official parliament has fled.
In March 2014, I went to interview Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. Eastern rebels had just underlined how little power Zeidan really had by seizing the country’s biggest oil port and loading oil onto a tanker to sell overseas.
Zeidan said that he had stopped the ship leaving, but his body language told a different story. When we stopped filming, he told us the situation was not entirely under control. After the tanker escaped again, parliament fired him. Within hours he was boarding a plane to Malta.
The chaos has deepened further. Recently, officials from the Tobruk parliament stopped me attending the prime minister’s inauguration because they did not want to admit that lawmakers’ attendance has shrunken to less than half of the seats. The Tripoli assembly bans reporters for the same reason.
In the capital, one of the main shopping avenues is now lined by shuttered restaurants that used to be filled with foreign investors, diplomats and even oil workers. Luxury shops lie empty and foreign companies have abandoned their offices. With my assignment over, I’ve now left Libya. Millions of Libyans don’t have that option.