Freedom from fear has not yet reached the people of Tripoli. Streets are empty and shops shuttered. For miles there is nobody to be seen in the city, aside from militiamen dressed in T-shirts, shorts and an occasional item of uniform, manning barricades made out of old chairs, assorted rubbish and shrubs in pots taken from outside shops.
Nobody quite knows who is in charge in the Libyan capital, unlike in the Nafusa mountains to the south. It was from here that the best organized rebels advanced to take the city last weekend. Every town has a military officer in charge and there appears to be a functioning administration.
But on the coast road north of Zawiyah the militiamen look less confident as they wave through the few passing cars and trucks. The drivers expect the road to be empty, and one driving the wrong way round a roundabout crashed into the pick-up in front of us, crumpling the front of the vehicle. Visible signs of damage from Nato bombing are limited, with only a single burned out tank and one shattered building looking like a mangled concrete sandwich.
In Green Square, renamed Martyrs’ Square by the rebels, scene of so many demonstrations lauding Gaddafi’s personality cult and the Green Book, there was nobody apart from a Korean TV correspondent and a cameraman. Suddenly there was a burst of gunfire – but this turned out to be two pick-ups full of jubilant militiamen who felt they should put on a display for the cameras.
“We have about six months to return things to normal,” said a Libyan who works in the oil industry as he watched the militiamen firing into the sky. He pointed out that one reason the city was so empty was that many of those who had the money had fled to Tunisia, and others had moved elsewhere in Libya. With petrol, water and food in short supply, it will be weeks or months before they return.
Will the Transitional National Council be able to impose its authority? A delegation from the TNC landed on Wednesday evening at an improvised airstrip in the Nafusa mountains hurriedly cleared by militiamen. But the TNC has always had uncertain authority in the west of the country. A further problem is that Gaddafi created a Libya free of all the normal institutions; it became notorious for hand-to-mouth organization and with all decisions stemming from the top.
“Everything will be OK if Gaddafi is captured,” said the Libyan oil worker, watching militiamen brandish their weapons for the cameras. He could be right, although the capture of Saddam Hussein did nothing to quell the violence in Iraq – and in some ways it exacerbated it.
One of the reasons so many Libyans so disliked Gaddafi’s rule was his exaggerated personality cult. But at least hostility to him united the opposition, which now lacks a focus.
At the entrance to my hotel rebels have placed a portrait of Gaddafi on the ground so guests are obliged to step on his face. A problem is that his one-man rule was so all embracing that it will be difficult at first to run the country without him.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of Muqtada.