The new rulers of Libya, the Transitional National Council (TNC), have arrived in town. I know this because they just kicked me out of my painfully acquired hotel room when they took over the whole of the eighth floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel where I am staying.
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. The previous occupant, who had not done much clearing up before he departed, left behind an Omani military yearbook and some torn-up notebooks. He may have been one of the elusive group of Arab military officers who gave technical advice to the rebels, assuring their victory.
Even so, I wish the unknown officer had not taken the room’s only towel which I am unlikely to get replaced. Luxury hotel the Radisson in Tripoli may once have been with its 350 rooms and 40 or so suites, which were once looked after by 400 staff, but this number is now down to about 20 harassed young men and two or three women. These heroically try to cope with the hordes of journalists pleading for a room that have descended on Tripoli since the city fell last week 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 at the Radisson are living at former regime bases in Souq al-Jumaa, a large district of crumbling old buildings famous for its revolutionary fervour. Locals say spies could never penetrate their networks of extended families and they were first to rise up in August.
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 an overwhelmingly sympathetic foreign press had a lot to do with their success. The influence of the internet, to which only 7 per cent of Libyans have access, in the uprising 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. Even the mysterious murder of their own commander Abdel Fatah Younes, apparently with the connivance of other TNC leaders, did not dent the popularity of the rebels with the international media which continued to brush over their faults.
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 Noflein district in Tripoli in 2005 and three years later moved into a compound with several 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.
Mufat, a local man who had been put in charge of the complex, explained that when Aisha moved in “all her neighbours with windows facing her palace were told to close them and never open them again. If they did so they would be in big trouble.” When her father visited her twice a year the whole district was closed down.
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.
Some poorly dressed visitors to the palace were engaged in a little gentle looting of chairs, mattresses and blankets. Gaddafi may be gone but it will be some time before people in Tripoli begin to blame their new rulers for their troubles.
That said, there are some who would blame the troops of the new rulers, though they are now beyond the capacity to exercise that critical function.
The rotting bodies of 30 men, almost all black and many handcuffed, slaughtered as they lay on stretchers and even in an ambulance in central Tripoli, are an ominous foretaste of what might be Libya’s future. The incoming regime makes pious statements about taking no revenge on pro-Gaddafi forces, but this stops short of protecting those who can be labelled mercenaries. Any Libyan with a black skin accused of fighting for the old regime may have a poor chance of survival.
The atmosphere in the Libyan capital is frighteningly uncertain a week after the sudden collapse of Gaddafi’s forces. Nobody knows who is in charge. Before my room was commandeered, some dozen members of the Transitional National Council based in Benghazi gave a late-night press conference at the Radisson Blu Hotel to announce they were taking over, but appeared strained and nervous after landing by plane on a makeshift airstrip in the mountains. Their neat business suits and ties looked out of place amid the khaki uniforms and battered weapons of the militiamen standing nearby. But what the council does is important, because a new regime will only stabilise when Tripoli, where a third of the six million Libyans live, develops its own leadership.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of Muqtada.