less is more: libya

Tripoli has fallen since the last issue of the Herald. And an ‘intervention’, which was never quite an intervention, is ending. It was never popular outside Libya: many felt it was a distraction and a waste of money. Few predicted that Tripoli would fall so easily. And the aftermath seemed doomed to chaos. But instead, it has worked.  Britain and its allies played a decisive role: their air-strikes made it possible to topple Gaddafi. But Britain was not sucked into putting troops on the ground, and no British lives were lost. Most Libyans seem, at the moment, delighted with the result. The supporters of the intervention feel justifiably vindicated.

Revolutions, however, are powerful and bewildering moments that call, violently, into question all that a people assume about their state, their culture and their national identity. Could anyone have predicted the course of the Libyan revolution? Would there not be anarchy after Gaddafi? Would commanders, who had fought alongside terrorist groups in Afghanistan, refuse orders from their secular superiors? Would militias appear outside hospitals, offering ‘security’, and then force out doctors, accusing them of being Gaddafi loyalists? Or would armed teenagers rob cars at road-blocks? Would tribes loyal to Gaddafi kill to save the land he had given them, or gangsters kill to take it from them? Could the newborn government of professors and exiles, lacking experience, ruthlessness or a popular mandate, cope? Would forty-two years of eccentric stability collapse into looting, enmity or civil war?  All this and worse happened in Iraq.

Instead, there are smiling faces among charred buildings. Families gather in the central square at one in the morning, to sing songs and eat popcorn. The shops and banks are opening. The teenagers at the road-blocks are scrupulously polite and are not robbing cars. There is very little looting. The Islamist commanders talk about tolerance and rejecting terrorism. There is surprisingly little bitterness so far about those who profited under Gaddafi, and little talk about revenge. People feel pleased at the moment to be Libyan and optimistic about their future.

Why? Many reasons are given for the difference from Iraq: that Libyans are simply more peaceful and laid-back; that it is a wealthier, more settled country; that Gaddafi’s regime was less bad than Saddam’s and did not inspire the same bitterness. Some credit the new government, or the mid-level bureaucracy. But if there had been looting and fighting, we would have heard the opposite. People would say that the Libyans were long considered the wildest tribe in the Roman Empire; that Gaddafi had not invested in education or most of the areas outside Tripoli; that he was a tyrant who had traumatised a nation; that the new government was completely out of touch; and that Gaddafi had deliberately destroyed the Libyan ‘state’.  In Britain too, we can easily find explanations in our national character, or our policies, or our living conditions, or our history – when people behave well (as after the July 7th bombings) or when (as more recently) people behave badly. Almost any human behavior can be explained away, but rarely in a satisfying way. I suspect even Libyans don’t fully understand why they reacted in the way that they did.

What matters now is that, for whatever reason, Libyans feel proud and elated: far more so than people seemed at a similar moment in the Balkans, or Iraq, or Afghanistan. They see the revolution as their achievement – not that of foreigners. They are conscious of the NATO support but they are not asking for teams of foreign advisers or assistance. The support they are most grateful for at the moment – particularly financial support – comes from other Middle Eastern countries, not from the West. Britain and its allies would now do well to keep their distance. This may be difficult.

Libya is still very fragile. If there is peace, it is not because of the new government, it is because the criminals and spoilers are staying at home. Policing is largely coming from ‘local committees': groups of armed men from neighbourhoods, from very young to very old, some connected to mosques, many not. Committees may not disarm, there may be fights between tribes. Islamists may become more powerful. There will be incompetence and corruption and human rights abuses. And a powerful international lobby will urge the West to ‘solve these problems’: to send thousands of consultants under the slogans of ‘state-building’ and ‘capacity-building’, or even to send our troops for ‘stabilisation’.  That we must resist. There is a real limit to how much the West knows about Libya, still less to how much we can do to fix fundamental structural problems if they emerge. Meanwhile, Libya is not a threat to its people or its neighbours. Too many Western ‘advisers’ risk making things worse: making the government appear like a foreign puppet; stirring Islamist resentment; raising expectations we cannot meet. We would soon be trapped by our guilt at lost lives, and deter Libyans from taking responsibility for their own future – to their detriment and ours. In Libya, as in much of the world, when it comes to foreign involvement: less is more.

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