Donald Macintyre: Freedom in Libya is no longer a wild fantasy

International Studies

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The Independent Online

In Hisham Matar's mesmerising novel In The Country of Men, set in 1979 Tripoli, 10 years after Muammar Gaddafi came to power, the nine-year-old narrator's mother, driven to distraction by fear about the fate of her oppositionist husband, explodes in anger at his closest comrade over what she sees as the futility of protest: "Clouds," she said. "Only clouds. They gather then flit away. What are you people thinking? You saw what happened three years ago when those students dared to speak. They hanged them by the necks. And now we are condemned to witness the whole thing again. The foolish dreamers. And it's foolish and irresponsible to encourage them."

"Until when? How long must we bow our heads?"

"Until God rescues us. Nothing lasts for ever."

There have been low points over the last few months when not a few mothers across Tripoli must have echoed those thoughts about the hopelessness of protest. When the men emerging from the mosques in the neighbourhoods of Tajoura and Soukh El Juma back in early March found their peaceful demonstrations crushed before they had even begun, by Gaddafi's police firing live ammunition, or by his machete-brandishing paramilitary thugs. When the dictators' forces pushed back the rebels from the east and there was talk of a partition which would have left Tripoli untouched by revolution. When the Nato bombing campaign seemed to stall. Those were times when, once again, in a country where no one under the age of 42 has known anything but the rule of Gaddafi, it seemed almost impossible to imagine its capital without him.

Nor, of course, is it yet over. The tyrant, still defiant, remained at large yesterday. The freeing of the journalists from the Rixos Hotel is a huge relief. But even Gaddafi's former stronghold of Bab al Aziziya did not yet seem to be in the full control of the rebels who joyfully overran it on Tuesday. Nor is it as easy for Nato warplanes to exercise their mandate to protect the population in conditions of urban warfare where bombing risks costing more lives than it saves.

Nevertheless, a free Tripoli is no longer the wild fantasy of "foolish dreamers". And assuming that in the coming days and weeks, the revolution is completed, it faces unprecedented challenges ahead, starting with building, in the words of a wise International Crisis Group report this week, "a state from the ground up".

The eastern Libya-dominated Transitional National Council will have to extend its representativeness to the whole country, overcoming in the process the differences between tribes, between secular and Islamist, east and west, those in the diaspora and those who remained in Libya throughout the Gaddafi years. Among its many recommendations, the ICG urges the new transitional government to ensure, as the post-Saddam Iraq order failed to do, that former regime figures are dealt with according to international law, and to foreswear extra-legal reprisals against even members of the Gaddafi family. It isn't immediately clear that – however understandable it may be – the $1.3m price put on Gaddafi's head yesterday exactly fulfils that requirement

But the US, Britain and France, savouring a success for interventionism, also face the sternest of tests. Though it doesn't put it this way, the ICG urges the Nato coalition to avoid the catastrophic mistakes the US and its British partners made after the fall of Saddam, not least by allotting a central role to the UN – which it didn't have in Iraq – in the allocation of the aid and assistance Libyans require. The deeply daunting circumstances, compounded by the temptations afforded by Libya's huge oil resources, will make this doubly difficult. But only by handling the aftermath right can the Nato coalition exorcise the failures in post-Saddam Iraq.

Meanwhile it was hard not to be reminded yesterday of how things were in Tripoli five long months ago. On a sunny April afternoon, Walid, a young dissident with a good IT job in an insurance company, sat in a palm-lined open air café in the city centre – bravely, given the ubiquitous presence of the secret police – and allowed himself to imagine post-Gaddafi Tripoli. It would be good, he thought, if Bab al Aziziya could be turned into a public park for all Tripolitans to enjoy, perhaps, he said, with a pizza restaurant in its midst. Yesterday that didn't seem so impausible. Nothing lasts forever.

The Palestinian bid for statehood

Events in Libya – and Syria – have overshadowed Israel's vigorous diplomatic effort to prevent President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority seeking UN recognition of the independent state based on 1967 borders that it has been preparing for in the last two years. Such recognition would not end the 44-year-old occupation of the West Bank. But it would be a major political fillip to the PA.

Washington, committed to veto recognition, and under pressure not to cross Israel in a pre-election year, is working overtime instead to get the parties back into negotiations – even though few diplomats believe that such negotiations have any chance of success at present.

But even if the US does find such a formula, President Abbas may adopt an alternative course – asking the UN General Assembly for the same "observer state" status enjoyed by the Vatican, no less. Israel and the US will still be deeply opposed. But with no veto applicable in the General Assembly – as opposed to the Security Council – the request would almost certainly be approved.