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Losing Libya’s Revolution

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Combatants Affairs Association sign in the Benghazi Airport. Image by Nicolas Pelham. Libya, 2013.

In Tripoli, an Islamist businessman invited me to join him for dinner with one of Muammar Qaddafi's oil men and an investor long exiled in Connecticut. "In the new Libya green tahalub [or seaweed, the rebels' name for Qaddafi's cronies] and rats [Qaddafi's name for the rebels] all dine together," explained my host, with that peculiarly Libyan talent for self-deprecation. Only through mockery, perhaps, can Libyans fathom how Africa's richest state — endowed with oil and the Mediterranean's appealing beaches and untouched antiquities — could appear so broken and bleak.

Were Libyans not such defeatists, they might have cheered some hints of an approaching return to normality. Many Libyans now sleep undisturbed by gunfire. In contrast to the kamikaze-style driving of a year ago, cars in Tripoli stop at traffic lights. Much of the revolutionary litter of martyr iconography has been blown away. "Libya is beautiful, keep it tidy" declares the digital message above a traffic light, before flashing, "Seatbelts save lives." The courts function, more or less, and Benghazi's scarred courthouse, the launchpad of the revolution against Qaddafi, has had a facelift. Near Tripoli's Ottoman citadel, I joined the families watching hang gliders painted the colors of Libya's flag descend through the brilliant sunshine. From a podium, a speaker hailed a return to civilian rule and called on the militias — called thuwwar, or revolutionaries — who had taken up arms against Qaddafi to disband.

It almost seemed plausible, until the evening news of June 8 reported that just over six hundred miles away, in Benghazi, a similar rally against the militias had ended in carnage.

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