Belfast Telegraph

Gaddafi is gone, so Tripoli in chaos is all right for now

Libyans are content to put up with the privations of life just to be rid of the dictator, says Patrick Cockburn

The new rulers of Libya, the Transitional National Council (TNC), have arrived in town. I know this because they have just kicked me out of my painfully acquired hotel room.

My eviction did not elicit much sympathy from other journalists, many packed two or three to a room, when I explain I have been given another room and have it all to myself.

Even so, I wish the previous occupant had not taken the room's only towel, which I am unlikely to get replaced. The luxury Radisson hotel in Tripoli may once have been looked after by 400 staff, but this number is now down to about 20 harassed young men and two or three women.

These employees heroically try to cope with the hordes of journalists pleading for a room which have descended on Tripoli since the city fell and they now have to deal with more peremptory instructions from the TNC, as well.

The lack of a towel is less serious than it sounds because there has been no water in the hotel (or most other places in Tripoli) since last Friday.

Pro-Gaddafi forces have seized the water wells 600km to the south in the Sahara and turned off the pumps. They are also said to have run out of fuel and cannot flee any further.

As a result, there is no water for toilets or showers in the hotel and bottled drinking water is scarce and expensive. Journalists carry water from the swimming pool in waste paper bins to flush the toilets.

This is the first big test of the TNC. It seems to have learned from the experience of Baghdad in 2003 that security has to be maintained and looting prevented.

Those members of the ruling council not staying in five-star hotels are living at former regime bases in Souq al-Jumaa, a large district of crumbling old buildings famous for its revolutionary fervour.

There are checkpoints every couple of hundred yards in Souq al-Jumaa. The militiamen manning them are relaxed and, so far, surprisingly stoic about the humanitarian crisis engulfing the city.

A militiaman who was nestling his Kalashnikov on his knee said that, in the district, "there is no water, electricity for five hours a day, little cooking gas and the price of food has gone up two or three times".

Almost all shops are closed and when I tried to buy water at one of the few to open, they had run out. People are not desperate yet and water is being handed out in blue plastic jerry cans, but it looks pitifully little in a city of two million.

An explanation that I am a foreign journalist is enough to get one waved through the checkpoints. Not surprisingly, the rebels feel that an overwhelmingly sympathetic foreign Press has had a lot to do with their success.

The influence of the internet in the uprising- to which only 7% of Libyans have access - is exaggerated, but satellite television broadcasts from pro-rebel Al Jazeera and other Arabic stations had enormous influence at home and abroad.

This media sympathy might waver if Gaddafi is captured or killed. As long as he was in power many journalists felt that, whatever the failings of the rebels, at least they were better than the regime they were trying to overthrow.

Just why so many Libyans hated Gaddafi and his ghastly family is made chillingly, and at times hilariously, clear as their palaces are exposed to public view.

His daughter Aisha seized a large plot of land in the Al Noflein district in Tripoli in 2005 and three years later moved into a compound with luxury houses furnished with unsurpassable vulgarity and poor taste.

In one sitting room there is a sofa with the cushions resting on a gigantic golden bare-breasted mermaid who appears to be holding a dark-red feather duster, but is probably meant to be a fan.

Tripoli has largely run out of petrol, but there is a traffic jam inside Gaddafi's own Bab al-Aziziya complex.

Militiamen exuberantly fire their weapons into the air from the tops of buildings, but generally families, seeing how their ruler for 42 years lived, are quiet and intensely curious.

Gaddafi may be gone, but it will be some time before people in Tripoli begin to blame their new rulers for their troubles.


From Belfast Telegraph