The Murky Situation in Libya
Whenever I tell someone I have spent a lot of time in Libya in the last year or so, they confess that they have only a vague idea as to what is happening there. I tell them I know exactly what they mean. I explain that part of the reason is that the English-language media—especially in the US—are not covering the situation very closely. Part of the reason is distance, part of the reason is that Libya is not vital to American national security, and part is that with cutbacks in the media, few papers or magazines can afford to station a correspondent, much less more than one, in Libya permanently. So, when I went back to the west coast town of Sabratha this spring, I was told that no other foreign journalist had stayed overnight since I’d left in November. (It’s fairly easy to tell, since there is only one open hotel in town.)
But that is not the end of the explanation for the perception of murkiness. Some of the lack of clarity comes from the Libyans themselves.
For example, Libyan expat friends recently alerted me that the conflict between the Berber capital of Zwara and its neighboring cities had started up again and that the Tunisian border post at Ras aj Jir had been closed. Usually the Zwara thuwar, or revolutionaries, control the border, much to the chagrin of neighboring Arab towns. Controlling the border is a plum not just for political influence but for the smuggling opportunities it presents. (Black market Libyan gasoline goes to Tunisia, liquor and consumer goods move the other direction.) E-mailing and calling Zwara friends, I was told that the national army had moved in to control the border and that everything was alright.
Then another Zwara friend explained that a commander from Sabratha, Omar Mukhtar, had taken control of the border. I had met Omar—a nom de guerre after Omar Al Mukhtar, the great hero of the Libyan resistance to the Italians in the 1920s—briefly last summer. A middle-aged man who had fought in Afghanistan, he had supposedly foresworn his jihadi past by the time the Libyan revolution broke out. Reports on his tactical abilities varied but he was said to be honest, brave, and devoted. When I met him, he was crouched in the dirt on a sweltering day, helping to defend Zwara from Qaddafi loyalists holed up in neighboring Arab towns. Most of the men around him were half his age.