Return to hope - Issue 149 - Magazine | Monocle

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It’s day three of the Libya Build 2021 exhibition and Ghaleb Gheblawi is busy greeting visitors at downtown Tripoli’s elegant fairground. Gheblawi is an architect and one of the organisers of what is advertised as “the biggest construction expo in north Africa”. Almost 200 exhibitors are participating, including companies from Turkey, Italy, Greece, Tunisia and Austria. Displays offer glimpses of what Libya’s future could look like. These include handsomely designed residential projects and a plan for improved public transport in the congested capital.

“We have some hope now,” Gheblawi tells me over espresso, cups of which fuel daily life in Libya. It’s the first time since 2014 – the year that post-Gaddafi Libya slid into civil conflict – that the exhibition has been possible. Organisers say that this year’s event couldn’t be more timely or necessary. The country faces a massive reconstruction bill after years of war; conservative estimates put it at more than $100bn (€87bn).

My arrival into Tripoli was also an immediate reminder of the list of repairs that the country needs to tackle. The city’s international airport was destroyed during militia clashes seven years ago, so flights currently land at a smaller site on a former US airbase. Plans to reopen tip, as Libyans refer to the main airport, have been delayed repeatedly. War damage notwithstanding, Libya’s creaking Gaddafi-era infrastructure, from roads to sanitation systems, also needs a complete overhaul.

Visiting a government office shortly after landing, I spotted a tourism ministry poster that I first saw in a hotel in Benghazi, Libya’s second city, in February 2011. It was just days after the beginning of anti-Gaddafi protests, which later tipped into armed insurrection. “Libya is a daydream,” it declared in bold capital letters set against a now-faded green background. The slogan seemed rather surreal in 2011 and still does today, 10 years after the ruler was overthrown.

Libya under Gaddafi was far from a daydream. It was also not an easy place to visit or get to know. Throughout much of the 42 years between Gaddafi’s rise – he came to power following a military coup in 1969 – and fall, Libya was a pariah state, isolated and choked by sanctions. From the mid-2000s, a tentative opening up saw prospective investors and organised tour groups enter under tightly controlled conditions. But for much of the world, Libya was Gaddafi and Gaddafi was Libya. That was how the increasingly flamboyant man known as the Brother Leader preferred it.


View of Tripoli from the Radisson rooftop


Nader al Faris, on left, and Hamza al Fakeh of Tripoli’s VIP Bikers Club


Fatima Alhomsa, Libya’s most famous wedding singer 


Parkour enthusiasts (from left) Mohamed Abu Qasim, Obaid Otmanmajid and their friend Ali


Architect Ghaleb Gheblawi


Traffic policeman in downtown Tripoli


Wearing an elaborate traditional dress with gold and jewellery at a Libyan wedding

And then he was gone, killed during a popular uprising that drew in a Nato-led intervention mandated by the UN. Libya’s transition from dictatorship to democracy promised to be anything but simple. Gaddafi’s eccentric and often brutal experiment in governance relied on dense patronage networks, along with ad hoc edicts that made Libyans feel, as one friend put it, that the ground was constantly shifting beneath their feet. Despite all this, in the heady aftermath of Gaddafi’s toppling, many Libyans had sky-high expectations. “We will soon be a new Dubai on the Mediterranean,” several told me in late 2011. Others dreamt of seeing the country emerge as the Switzerland of north Africa.

“Without professional national security forces and an end to militia culture, everything else is window-dressing”

And then he was gone, killed during a popular uprising that drew in a Nato-led intervention mandated by the UN. Libya’s transition from dictatorship to democracy promised to be anything but simple. Gaddafi’s eccentric and often brutal experiment in governance relied on dense patronage networks, along with ad hoc edicts that made Libyans feel, as one friend put it, that the ground was constantly shifting beneath their feet. Despite all this, in the heady aftermath of Gaddafi’s toppling, many Libyans had sky-high expectations. “We will soon be a new Dubai on the Mediterranean,” several told me in late 2011. Others dreamt of seeing the country emerge as the Switzerland of north Africa.

For casual observers at the time, Libya could, on paper at least, appear deceptively straightforward. It has a predominantly Sunni Muslim population of less than seven million, with none of the sectarian and ethnic cleavages that have fed conflict in Syria and Iraq or the literacy challenges that hobble neighbouring Egypt. Most Libyans are urbanised and live in cities or towns, which are strung along the 1,770km long Mediterranean coastline. It’s a strikingly youthful nation: about two thirds of Libyans are under 30 years old. Their country is home to Africa’s largest oil reserves. Given all that, more than a few Western diplomats believed in 2011 that Libya had the potential to become a success story of what many then referred to as the Arab Spring. Some still insist that this is the case. “If you look at the fundamentals of Libya, it is an El Dorado,” says Husni Bey, a prominent Libyan business figure who owns a private holding company. “We have everything we need to succeed but the challenge has always been how to manage it.”

In 2012, Libya held parliamentary elections for the first time in more than 40 years, only to plunge into civil conflict two years later. Since 2014 the country has not only been at war with itself but also at the mercy of multiple external meddlers, most recently Turkey and Russia. I lived in Tripoli in 2014 and watched Libya’s fragile transition unravel in large part due to the ambitions of Khalifa Haftar, a septuagenarian general who was an ally of Gaddafi in 1969 but later defected. When I met Haftar that summer, he had just launched unauthorised operations in Benghazi while his militia allies attacked parliament in Tripoli. Haftar, who had been accused of attempting a coup earlier that year, was prickly during our conversation but an aide breezily told me that his ultimate aim was to “rule” Libya.

His most recent attempt to realise that goal started with an offensive in April 2019 to capture Tripoli from the internationally recognised government. It ended in failure more than a year later when his forces – among them Russian mercenaries – withdrew from the capital’s hinterland. When I returned to Tripoli late this autumn, anti-Haftar posters could still be found in the city. Driving around the suburbs where much of the fighting took place, the physical destruction was still visible. Key to Haftar’s routing was a Turkish military intervention in support of the Tripoli government. Ankara is now an influential player, to the chagrin of those that backed the ageing general, including the uae, Egypt and France.

The last time I visited Tripoli was just a couple of months before the pandemic struck. The capital was tense; its outskirts were being besieged by Haftar. Residents complained to me that they felt they were no longer in control of their own destiny, such was the level of foreign interference in Libya. Almost two years on, it feels very different. A ceasefire signed in October 2020 has endured. There are some checkpoints in the outer districts of the city but few in the centre. Rena Effendi, the photographer accompanying me, is surprised on her first visit to Libya not to see more armed men on the streets.

Last March a new government, the fruit of a UN dialogue process, was tasked with steering the country towards elections. It includes a number of women, including Libya’s first female foreign minister, Najla Mangoush, who has a phd in conflict resolution. Several Libyan women told me that they are proud to have her representing the country on the world stage. 

There’s a mood of cautious optimism. Since the installation of what is known as the Government of National Unity (gnu), dozens of foreign dignitaries have made their way to Tripoli, while investors can once again be found in the city’s hotel lobbies. A number of embassies have reopened for the first time since 2014, when they and the UN mission were evacuated during a fierce militia battle for control of the capital. Many residents say that daily life in the city feels more relaxed than it has at any point over the past seven years. New cafés and juice bars (alcohol has been illegal in Libya since Gaddafi banned it soon after coming to power) have opened, along with clothing and home decor shops. International f&b companies remain wary of the Libyan market, with the exception of bakery chain Cinnabon, which caused a stir – and long queues – in 2012 when it became the first American franchise to open here. Copycat versions of well-known chains have been shut down by authorities. Libyans joke that whoever gets the franchise for international fast-food chains will become the country’s wealthiest person. 

Dar el-Fergiani, Libya’s oldest family-run publisher with several bookstores in Tripoli, was a regular haunt when I lived here. It’s the place to find Libya-related titles that are out of print elsewhere, or more contemporary works such as The Return, the Pulitzer prize-winning memoir by Hisham Matar, a Libyan writer whose dissident father disappeared in Gaddafi’s prisons. I pick up a novel by another prominent Libyan author, Tuareg novelist Ibrahim al-Koni, and catch up with Usama Fergiani, one of the brothers behind the company. “I’m more optimistic than at any time since 2011,” he tells me. “Every war, like every game, has its end.”

We call in for lunch at al-Safir, an Indian restaurant and one of the most popular spots in town. The owner tells me that he has no shortage of customers, despite a pandemic that has hit Libya harder than most other countries in north Africa. The chairman of its National Oil Corporation popped by some days before, as did a European foreign minister. At a nearby table, Chinese businessmen tuck into platters of the house specials.

The gnu’s prime minister, Abdulhamid Dabaiba, a wealthy tycoon with family links to Gaddafi-era development projects, is keen to present Libya as open for business. Others are more circumspect. “My advice to foreign investors is to watch and wait,” one Libyan who works in the construction sector tells me over another round of espressos; he doesn’t want to give his name due to the sensitivities of the situation. “We’re not ready just yet. Build your networks here but wait to spend your money. Challenges remain.”

The biggest obstacle is security. To first-time visitors, Tripoli’s traffic police, in their pristine white uniforms, might provide some semblance of normality but militia skirmishes remain an all-too-regular occurrence here and elsewhere in the country. Since 2011 no government has had a monopoly on force. Efforts to disband the militias and build national security forces acceptable to all have been piecemeal. Many argue that until that happens, no progress that Libya makes will be sustainable.

“It all comes down to proper security,” says one Libyan official, who did not want to give their name because they were not authorised to speak on the record.


Scouts at a camp in Tripoli


Along for the ride in Martyrs’ Square


Deserted building sites are dotted around Tripoli


Tripoli cityscape, October 2021


The influence of the past can still be seen in the capital


Ahmed Aldeeb of Libya’s Man-Made River Authority

“Without professional national security forces and an end to militia culture, everything else is window-dressing.”

Those who have exploited Libya’s chaos and porous borders over the past decade include Islamic State and smugglers of many varieties, particularly those involved in human trafficking. The highly lucrative business of spiriting people through Libya to Europe has become multinational, connecting Libyan organised crime with counterparts elsewhere in Africa. Some migrants are subjected to forced labour. Others are detained in horrendous conditions. Ordinary Libyans are increasingly resentful of the fact that their country has become such a hub for human traffickers and a transit point for people desperate to get to Europe. In October, just before I arrived, government forces rounded up some 5,000 migrants in Tripoli. I hear some sympathy for migrants but most Libyans I speak to say that they support the government’s actions. Meanwhile, migrant workers who gather for weekend mass at St Francis’ church – built by the Italians in downtown Tripoli in the 1920s – tell me that they fear further crackdowns.

Central Tripoli is a microcosm of Libya’s past, from ancient times to the more recent Ottoman, Italian and British occupations that preceded King Idris. The ascetic monarch declared the country independent in 1951 and was later deposed in the coup that ushered in Gaddafi’s rule. When I lived here, one of my favourite weekend rituals was an early Friday morning stroll through my neighbourhood, the old Italian quarter in the city centre. The streets are quiet on Fridays, making it easier to appreciate the layers of history in a neighbourhood bracketed at one end by the former king’s palace and, at the other, Martyrs’ Square, previously known as Green Square, where Gaddafi liked to give speeches. One evening at sunset, I watch as families gather on the wide plaza. Children beg their parents for a ride on horse-drawn carriages, while others feed squawking seagulls that swoop in from the Mediterranean.

On the other side of Martyrs’ Square lies the heart of old Tripoli. This is the medina, a warren of narrow streets and alleyways where gold merchants ply their trade alongside artisan workshops, galleries, mosques, churches – Anglican and Greek Orthodox – and the crumbling edifice of what was once the city’s main synagogue (for centuries Libya was long home to one of north Africa’s largest Jewish populations).

I am guided around the medina by Hadia Gana, an artist who is involved in efforts to preserve the area and restore its neglected historical treasures. It’s one of many initiatives that would have been impossible under Gaddafi-era laws banning people from meeting in groups. An exception was the hugely popular Scouts movement, first established in Libya during the monarchy period, which was the only real civil-society organisation permitted under Gaddafi. Today there are many more, focused on issues including human rights, women’s empowerment and cultural expression – even if the country’s civil-society space often comes under pressure from those who feel threatened by it, including militias.

 “Gathering people makes things happen,” says Gana. “During the 2011 revolution we saw so much creativity burst forth. We are a post-traumatic society in many ways. My generation has the imprint of the former regime but the younger generation is different.”

Young Libyans helped to drive the uprising that ousted Gaddafi but they have borne the brunt of 10 years of dashed hopes since then. Some have tried to encourage entrepreneurship in the idiosyncratic rentier state that Gaddafi left behind but many struggle with unemployment. Others chafe under what remains a conservative society: most social events, including weddings, are segregated and cafés where young men and women mix are sometimes raided by hardline Salafists (Sunni fundamentalists). Diminished prospects mean that many cannot afford to get married, delaying what is considered a key marker of adulthood in Libya. The government sought to address this by introducing a marriage grant for couples last summer. Critics dismiss the payment as a populist gesture but others, including at a wedding I attend one evening, argue that it could have a stabilising effect. “Better our youth get married than join a militia,” a dentist in Tripoli tells me. 

“If you look at the fundamentals of Libya, it is an El Dorado. We have everything we need to succeed”

As the sun sinks below the Mediterranean, Mohamed Abu Qasim and Obaid Otmanmajid, both students in their early twenties, practise their parkour moves by the seafront. Neither believes that the future is bright in Libya. Both yearn for a better life abroad. “It’s difficult to see opportunity here,” says Otmanmajid. “At least not any time soon.”

In recent years, a growing number of young Libyans have decided to migrate. Some have taken smugglers’ boats to Europe. Among them was MC Swat, a well-known rapper who provided one of the soundtracks to the 2011 uprising. His later work, much of it skewering the post-Gaddafi dispensation, prompted death threats from various armed groups, forcing him to flee. He now lives in Italy.

Greater Tripoli is less appealing than the historical centre. A hodge-podge of architectural styles, its ugliest buildings were built during Gaddafi’s first decades

in power. The colour green, the ruler’s favourite, was a recurring theme, picked out in design features now bleached by the sun. The most forbidding place is Abu Salim prison, where 1,200 dissidents were massacred by regime forces in 1996, an episode that helped to spark the 2011 revolt. Today some Libyans want to see the abandoned jail turned into a reconciliation centre. 

In the final years of Gaddafi’s rule, his regime commissioned leading architects for statement projects as it sought to persuade the world that Libya was changing. Zaha Hadid was to design the grandiosely titled People’s Conference Hall in Tripoli. Norman Foster was to oversee the development of what was pitched as the “world’s first eco-region” in the Green Mountains area of northeast Libya. In 2008, London-based architectural firm Metropolitan Workshop won a competition to design a “museum of conflict” in Tripoli which, they said, would “provide a unique platform to showcase Libya’s national story to domestic and international audiences, and educate future generations on the price of conflict”. None of these projects came to pass. Several others were interrupted by the uprising in 2011 and never completed. Dotted around Tripoli are deserted construction sites – one half-built hotel by the corniche resembles a ruined wedding cake – and cranes that have been at a standstill since 2011.

Gaddafi’s legacy includes not only an economy that is almost completely dependent on hydrocarbons but also one of the world’s largest public payrolls. Economic reform remains a gargantuan task that every post-Gaddafi government has largely shied away from. Some Libyans like to cite a line attributed to King Idris when oil was first discovered in the 1950s. “‘I wish you had found water,” he is said to have told American technicians. “Water makes men work. Oil makes men dream.”

“We are a post-traumatic society in many ways. My generation has the imprint of the former regime but the younger generation is different”

If all goes according to plan – the roadmap that the UN hopes will finally lead Libya out of a lost decade – Libyans will have a new parliament in 2022, replacing the highly dysfunctional legislature elected in 2014. Libya might also get its first president, though many are wary of such a system in a nation still recovering from Gaddafi’s iron fist. 

Libyans are proud of their country, a storied land on which Phoenicians, ancient Greeks and Romans once strode. They left behind some of the world’s finest classical ruins, including Leptis Magna, one of Libya’s five Unesco World Heritage sites. What has often seemed an impossible aspiration – developing tourism as a means of economic diversification in post-Gaddafi Libya – came a small step closer this autumn with the arrival of the first organised tour group to visit since 2011. Today’s Libya might still be a world away from the daydream of old tourism ministry slogans but that hasn’t stopped many of its people from daring to hope.


Relaxing in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square, known as the Green Square during Gaddafi’s rule

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