Bab al-Azizia was Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s huge, fortified compound in southern Tripoli. Ten months after his fall, it has been reduced to rubble by fleets of bulldozers. When I ventured in to take photographs, half-a-dozen armed militiamen accused me of spying, forced me into a car, and drove me away for interrogation. How many times had I visited Libya, I was asked? Where had I gone? Who had I met? Had I supported Gaddafi?
I replied that I had been detained twice by Gaddafi’s thugs during last year’s revolution, and was somewhat surprised to be detained again by those that toppled him. I was finally released, but I had glimpsed the dark side of the new Libya—a country that has deposed its dictator but has yet to shed the culture of fear and repression that he fostered for 42 years.
This is not immediately obvious to the casual visitor. Indeed Tripoli appears almost normal—an adjective seldom applicable to Libya’s capital. All outward traces of Gaddafi have been destroyed, except for his face on one-dinar banknotes, and on those it has often been obliterated. People no longer glance nervously over their shoulders to see who is following them, or speak in code on their mobiles. In Martyrs Square, formerly Green Square and the site of so many bellicose Gaddafi rallies, there is now a children’s funfair, and on Friday afternoons a Libyan Speaker’s Corner, where people complain about the treatment of injured revolutionaries or the failings of Tripoli’s unelected council.
Oil production is back to normal, though the revenues, at least £30bn this year, far exceed the spending capacity of a transitional government with no administrative structure. There is a flourishing new independent media, and an emerging civic society that is determined, amongst other things, to preserve the relative emancipation that Libyan women achieved last year. Some 4000 candidates and 80 per cent of eligible voters registered to participate in the 7th July elections for a 200-member national congress. Having appointed an interim government, the congress will oversee the drafting of Libya’s constitution.
Appearances are deceptive, however. Libya remains anything but normal. The Zintan brigade, which has held Saif al-Islam Gaddafi without trial for seven months and detained a team from the International Criminal Court that went to see him, is just one of countless well-armed militias that have divided Libya into fiefdoms. These self-styled guardians of the revolution frequently ride…