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Don’t slip on the oil

The whole world is debating a post-Gaddafi nation even as Libyans have made up their minds about booting out a despot. Barkha Dutt writes.

columns Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:40 IST

At the courthouse in Benghazi, the seat of the opposition in Libya, you can be forgiven for believing that a new country has already been born. Little children wrap themselves around the old Russian tank in the city square as if it were a fluffy teddy bear. Their parents jostle with each other to pose for the cameras and the new flag of ‘liberated’ Libya now flies from every home in the city.

When we admire the unvarnished natural beauty of the coastline and the sparkling blue sea, one man asks us if we have ever come here before. “You are lucky,” he says, “your first trip is to Free Libya.” It’s the sort of romantic rhetoric that marks the statements of almost everyone in the east of the country. The people are warm, voluble, excitable and almost desperate to talk to foreign journalists. Flash the victory sign at the security check-posts and even armed rebels with guns and ammunition strapped to them, wave back goofily.

The lusty appetite for the international media is very understandable for a society that has remained both controlled and closed for decades. There has never been a free press in Libya and when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi finally gave his go-ahead for a private radio station in 2006, it was to a venture owned by his son.

Inside the courthouse — as officials of the self-appointed ‘interim government’ stamp their authority on our local press cards — they are keen to show us the beginnings of an information revolution in the country. In a crumbling old room, two cameras and a single microphone overlook Benghazi’s version of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. This, they tell us, is where the country’s first independent television channel will soon broadcast from. In the adjoining room the walls are papered with cartoons and banners of Gaddafi. “Go, Gaddafi, your game is over,” says one.

This is the ‘newsroom’ for Libya, an independent newspaper being written and printed on a handful of laptops manned by young volunteers. While I write this column, internet services have been blocked across the city.

But a young computer geek shows off the two-way system that some students created to keep proxy servers and Skype alive as their window to the world. It is their answer to the eccentric three-hour pronouncements by Gaddafi who continues to control the national broadcaster.

What do you dislike most about Gaddafi, I ask them. “He made us feel we are nothing,” says one man, “this is our time now.”

And yet, heady as these images are, Libya is not Egypt.

Years of regimental control by the Gaddafi regime have impaired the proper evolution of a civil society movement. People-power will not be enough to motivate a lasting change in a country where the east and the west have effectively become two separate nations today. Tribes in the east of Libya have historically always been opposed to Colonel Gaddafi. They are now hoping that international pressure will deliver them the same outcome as Tunisia and Egypt.

They are also cynically aware that they have one thing that the rest of the world is very interested in. And that’s oil. In a country that produces 2% of the world’s oil and sits on Africa’s largest known reserves, the opposition’s natural advantage is that 75% of Libya’s oil is in the east. This is why oil installations have become the frontline for the battle over Libya’s future. Through the past week, men still loyal to the Gaddafi regime have unleashed their air-power on oil-rich towns like Brega. The government in Tripoli justifies these attacks by claiming that they are targeted only at ammunition depots being held by the rebels. But eyewitnesses claim a mounting number of civilian casualties in these air strikes. There are also reports that with Libyans in Gaddafi’s air force reluctant to target their own people, the colonel has now drafted mercenaries and foreigners to bomb the protestors. He understands only too well that to control oil in Libya is to control the country.

Realising perhaps that a rag-tag army of soldiers and volunteers will not be able to compete with military choppers that attack them from the skies, at the media centre being run by the ‘revolutionaries’ they are working furiously on new posters to underline the inequity of the battle. ‘Bare chests vs Air attacks’ says one provocatively, graphic in its images of corpses and gore. On the streets, some protestors are even demanding precision strikes against Gaddafi. But the absence of a consensus on imposing a no-fly zone over Libya means that the air-bombings are likely to continue. And behind the façade of the celebrations and the victory signs there is growing apprehension that Gaddafi’s counter-offensive could yet reclaim the east from the rebels.

The opposition is also working furiously on reviving the export of oil from the harbours in the east. But disappointed with what they claim is a tepid response from the international community the people are also cynical about the politics of oil. “Europe may be planning some action,” says one man, talking to us in a now-deserted oil refinery, “but this not because they care about the Libyan people. It’s because they care about our oil.” The West’s investment in Libya, they tell us here is about “petro-dollars,” not principles.

Libya has thrown an open challenge to the world to look beyond its oil. There may be genuine questions and concerns over what sort of country a post-Gaddafi situation could bring. But the people here argue that the possible perils of democracy are no basis for a despot to continue in power. Gaddafi, meanwhile, looks increasingly like a caricature of himself. His marathon, long-winded speeches may even have been funny if they weren’t so tragically real.

(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV)

*The views expressed by the author are personal