By Francesca Mannocchi
As foreign arms fuel the conflict for control of Libya’s western capital, the mood in Tripoli is one of defiance – and resignation.
“A lie makes you drink once, but it doesn’t make you drink the second time.” So says Abdullah as he walks in Martyrs’ Square, looking at banners and flags.
“We have already overthrown a dictator, we celebrated his end; we will not let another enter the capital,” he adds, pointing to an image of General Khalifa Haftar on a banner hanging on the wall.
Haftar’s face is covered with an X and an inscription at the bottom says: Leave us alone.
Abdullah is twenty-nine years old, and for most of his life this was Green Square, named after the philosophy of the guardian of a different revolution: Gaddafi, the Bedouin born in a tent.
It is Friday, the usual day of demonstration and celebration and the day on which, since the beginning of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s offensive, the citizens of Tripoli take to the streets to demand an end to hostilities.
Abdullah recalls the large demonstrations in support of the Gaddafi regime: on 2 March to celebrate Jamahiriya, the declaration of Gaddafi’s Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (people’s republic); and on 1 September, for al Fateh, the day of the revolution.
From this square, at the beginning of the protests on February 25, 2011, Gaddafi shouted to his supporters: “Life without dignity has no value, life without green flags has no value, so sing and dance! Those who do not support me will die.”
A few months later there were revolutionaries dancing in the square. The posters celebrating the leader, were torn to the ground in defiance of the regime, to claim victory and take possession of the place that for decades had been the symbol of the Colonel’s power.
To rename it Martyrs’ Square (its original name).
In this new time of crisis, as Haftar’s shells rain down on the city, the square is full again, men and children on one side, women on the other.
A huge flag is dragged around the entire perimeter by boys shouting, “No to another dictator! No to Haftar, the war criminal!” A billboard stands out in front of the sea: “No to the militarisation of Libya.” But Libya is already militarised. There are five million people and twenty million weapons.
An elderly man sits on a stool reciting a poem, an ode to the desert and to the courage and heroes of Libya, first of all Omar al Mukhtar, who led the anti-colonial resistance against the Italians in the 1920s. He cites his words: “I will not leave this place until I have achieved one of the two highest levels: martyrdom or victory.
Al Mukhtar did not win; he was captured and tried in the Littorio Palace in Benghazi. He was sentenced to death and hanged in the square in front of twenty thousand people.
These days, other dead are commemorated in the square. They will be called the martyrs of the Haftar offensive. All around, people shout: “Allahu Akbar!” And: “We will win!”
The walls are covered with images of Haftar and his allies. There is Saudi crown prince Bin Salman, Egyptian president Al Sisi, Russian President Putin and crown prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed. There are also many images of French president Macron. Each face has been erased by a red mark.
The posters in Martyrs’ Square are the mirror of how this latest war in Libya has already become a proxy war rather than a civil war. Both sides rely on arms from foreign powers to conduct their offenses or defensive campaigns.
Tripoli residents are asking foreign allies to supply weapons, just as Haftar’s powerful allies are supplying him with the latest T72 tanks, drones, Grad rockets, planes and helicopters.
One of the missiles used by Haftar on Tripoli is the Chinese LJ-7, fired from Chinese Wing Loong unarmed aerial vehicles, which have been sold to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt.
An LJ-7 was used by the Saudi-led coalition to assassinate the president of Houthi Supreme Political Council Saleh Ali al-Sammad in Yemen.
Among these countries, the UAE stands out. According to the United Nations, it has supplied Haftar with aircraft and around 100 armoured vehicles, and has allocated $200m to support his military campaign.
In Martyrs’ Square, the people repeat: “Tripoli will not become a new Benghazi, a new Derna, razed to the ground by Haftar bombs.”
But looking at the walls of the square, Tripoli feels like it is already becoming a new Syria. A girl is holding a banner: “The UN is destroying the country.”
She explains: “Nobody trusts Gassan Salamé anymore here, the UN has lost credibility, they have been talking about negotiations for years, but they are accomplices too. They know that you can’t deal with criminals and yet they insist on talking to Haftar. Our patience is over, the time for negotiation is over.”
Another woman, Salma, approaches with a rose. She is twenty-five years old, her face covered by the niqab. “No to the military government, yes to the civil government” says the manifesto she holds in her hand. “Libyans are brothers, they are not enemies.”
Part of her family lives in Benghazi, in the area of the country controlled by Haftar. Benghazi, where the revolution began. Salma says the only army she recognises is the one of February 17.
“The revolution is not over,” she says. “There are so many people with whom we can still sit and talk, negotiate, make agreements. Libyans of the east are no enemies, they are brothers, Libyans like us. They are welcome, but in peace. Haftar has destroyed the efforts made so far with his military advance. Therefore I still believe that there is a diplomatic solution, but only if he is excluded from the negotiations.”
As Abdullah walks away from the square – it is almost evening – someone donates sweets and baryoush, croissant-shaped brioches popular in Tripoli. Someone intones more protest songs – “Haftar, Tripoli will not let you in.”
Others, speaking low, describe the tiredness of the city. “It is not about being optimistic or pessimistic about the end of the war, but being lucid and admitting that the choice is between militias and dictatorship,” says an old man wearing the white jalabiya.
“Part of those filling the square until a month ago complained about the abuses of the militias, they evoked the times of security, they regretted the past, when the regime guaranteed everyone at least housing, work and electricity.
We are tired, and many of those who fill this square would have been ready only a few weeks ago to welcome Haftar.”
The tiredness of Tripoli is in its queues for petrol, the banks controlled by militias, the electricity blackouts during the heat of summer.
The tiredness of Tripoli can be read in its contradictions: the largest oil reserves on the African continent, ninth largest in the world. With 48 billion barrels of crude oil and 1.5 trillion cubic metres of natural gas reserves, Libya could be a market force for a century.
This is an economy based on oil – 95% of government revenues, 96% of export value, average turnover of $24bn – where citizens can pay $4 for a full tank of gas. But people queue for hours at petrol stations, cars full of cans to fill. Because everything, including refineries, is the hostage of the militias.
A very rich country, in which there is no cash. Because even the banks are in the hands of armed groups.
Haftar wanted to use this tiredness to build consensus, but he overestimated his support in the city and dared too much, too fast. He wanted to enter as a hero, repeating the rhetoric with which he led the Benghazi war: clean the capital of militias and Islamists.
But he cannot be accepted as an invader. “Haftar said it in 2014: Libya is not ready for democracy. And [he] has now presented his strategy to conquer it: a dictatorship disguised as a release from terrorists,” says Abdullah.
continues in part 2
Francesca Mannocchi is an Italian journalist who has worked for Italian television for many years and has written for a range of international and Italian magazines including Focus, L’Espresso, Al Jazeera English, El periodico de cataluna, Gente and Sette (courier della sera).