Johnny West
Interview Words : Peter Moore | 30 August

Travel in Post-Gaddafi Libya

Arabist and author Johnny West on what the rebel victory in Libya means for travellers.

Johnny West is an award-winning former Reuters Middle East foreign correspondent who is fluent in Arabic. During the months of the Arab Spring he spent time in the cafés, homes and meeting places at the heart of the popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, getting a street-level, intimate perspective of this unique moment in modern history.

He speaks to Wanderlust about the rebel victory in Libya and what it means for travellers.

How do you see post-Gaddafi Libya panning out? Is there going to be a smooth transition? Or do you think various factions will now fight for control?

I don't know but I'm also pretty sure nobody knows. Beware of false expertise on this. A lot of analysis of “tribalism” and bloodshed has been very loose. For at least the last 30 years Libya has been an urbanised oil state with people living in concrete prefabs, not tents, driving cars not riding camels. Yes those affiliations count for something but I defy anybody to confidently say what. There's been a lot of lazy-think.

Of course the transition won't be smooth! But that doesn't necessarily mean that it will be disastrous. Real transformation to open societies takes four or five elections and the best part of 20 years, we know that from Eastern Europe and Latin America. Why would the Middle East be different? But what we're seeing is the start...

Do you think travellers will be able to go back any time soon?

Absolutely. Eastern Libya is already perfectly safe, with the most amazing fertile belt behind Benghazi. It's like 150 miles of Italy over there, a little Calabria with nobody in it – olive groves and meadows and pine forest. On the road to Benghazi I counted on the car trip meter about 25 miles of white, sandy Med beaches beyond tufted dunes with not a single soul on them.

Syria has always been a very popular destination for Wanderlust readers. How do you see the situation unfolding there?

Grimly, until the Assads go. And they are even more ensconced than Gaddafi was. It's too early to tell what could happen after. The Syrians, though, as anyone who has been there will know, are very proud of their role in history and aware of their place in the world. And this revolution is very much about the young seeking to make that a reality in their daily lives. So I would expect people to continue to be massively friendly to visitors when they go again. If I were looking for safe adventure, I'd watch for the first time when it was safe to go to Syria again – I expect even the normal hospitality to go through the roof. But that won't be until the Assads go.

The Arab Spring seems to have gone off the boil in Egypt. Is the revolution there and in Tunisia complete? Do you think this is a danger that Presidents may go but things stay fundamentally the same?

Yes, it's got messy in Egypt. And yes, in both Egypt and Tunisia the semi-constitutional nature of the “revolutions” – in the end, the armies of both countries held the ring – means they could indeed lose impetus. The biggest issue I see is continued mass unemployment. That's the real difference between life being crap and boring for most young Arabs, or not. And there's depressingly little movement on that.

The leaders deposed by popular uprisings have been supported by western governments. Do you think the future will see a new transparency in political relationships between the West and North Africa?

Yes. And what a good thing that will be. Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently wrote that the Arab Spring was a political Black Swan. Policy makers were seduced for decades by some concept of “stability” that in the end turned out to be little more than a mirage in the sand. There, an Oriental cliché!

How is the uprising different in Libya? Would it have happened without NATO involvement?

Well it did happen without NATO. The no-fly came when Gaddafi's forces were on the edge of Benghazi and the East had risen up against the regime for a full month. I don't believe the rebels would ever have given up.

There's a common sentiment I've been hearing from protesters across the region, including in Syria. I asked one man how he reconciled risking his life in the protests with being a father of four. What about his responsibilities? He replied that yes, that was a normal calculation and how he had lived all his life. But there just comes a moment, maybe by chance or something entirely spontaneous, when you realise that there is no going back. You just have to do the right thing and have faith in destiny. I think the last time we felt that kind of thing was the Second World War.

That said, the outcome would have been drastically different without NATO of course. The rebels would have had to retreat to mountain areas, there would have been massive repression, and Gaddafi might have lasted another decade or more.

 

KaramaJohnny West was a Reuters correspondent in the Middle East and has run a digital news agency in the area for the past decade. His book, Karama: Journeys through the Arab Spring, is available on Amazon now.

 

More like this

"Neither swept along by naive optimism nor spouting the tired cynicism of a burnt-out hack, West's book, Karama! ... offers some sober – and sobering – analysis of the Arab Spring." – Wanderlust Magazine Issue 122

Johnny West spoke to Wanderlust at length about the Arab Spring, about meeting Islamist rappers and 'Facebook lads' and about what the changes in the region mean to the world at large. You'll find our in-depth interview here...

Libya travel guide | Destinations... More

Libya Travel Blueprint: 4 breathtaking itineraries | Destinations ... More

Libya: advice for travellers | News...More