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Libya — Battle of the Arab Spring

If Gaddafi is defeated, it will be through the kind of fighting now raging on the streets of Misurat

It is 2 May, my twelfth full day in Misurata, and I'll start with a man I met at a private clinic that had been turned into the city's main trauma hos­pital. The uprising against Muammar Gaddafi was two months old. Loyalist forces surrounded Misurata and controlled parts of the city centre, but the thowar - or revolutionaries - were putting up fierce resistance despite being outgunned. The battle crackled and boomed day and night.

Dr Tahar Alkesa, a surgeon, was sitting on the curb outside one of the white tents erected in front of the clinic to serve as a makeshift emergency ward. He is 31 years old and undoubtedly handsome, but the hours and stress had marked and changed him. He was sallow and unshaven, with dark rings under his puffy eyes. The evening light was soft and fading fast as we chatted. He rubbed his arms for warmth.

I had seen Alkesa at work earlier in the day, when fresh casualties were arriving at the hospital every few minutes. An ambulance or pick-up truck would screech to a halt outside the tent, amid cries of "Allahu akbar". If the victim was a thowar, he usually had a bullet wound, having been picked off by a sniper. Civilian casualties generally had shrapnel injuries caused by shells or missiles, the most vicious of which was a Grad, a long, tubular projectile fired out of a 40-barrelled launcher known as "Stalin's organ". When they were fired into Misurata, you heard a whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, and then bang, bang, bang.

One Grad victim arrived in the back of a blue sedan. Both his legs had been blown off at the knee. A crimson stream of blood trailed on to the tarmac as he was carried into the tent. Within a few minutes he was wheeled out, covered by a blanket. People gathered outside and launched into an anguished but beautiful refrain: La ilaha illa Allah,/La ilaha illa Allah,/ al-shaheed habib Allah. ("There is no God but Allah, there is no God but Allah, the martyr is dear to Allah.")

Alkesa worked without interruption, stitching, cleaning, talking softly to the patients, offering words of reassurance. His expression changed little, even when a grimacing man in his mid-twenties was rushed in. The man's face was blackened by smoke and his eyes were white and wide with pain and terror. His filthy khaki pants were bloodstained and torn. His forearms were shredded. He was a tank driver. The thowar did not have tanks.

His first request was for a lethal injection, because he was convinced that he would be tortured or beaten for fighting for Gaddafi. Alkesa politely said no, assuring him that he would be looked after. He cleaned the man's leg and groin wounds and sewed up the strips of flesh on his arms. The tank driver said he was from Tripoli, and that his commanders had told him that Misurata was under the control of foreign-ers and terrorists who had been destroying mosques. He said he felt he had been cheated, and was sorry.

Now, sitting on the curb, Alkesa told me: "Inside me, I really did not want to look after that man. I did not enjoy treating him. But it was my duty to look after a human being."

It pained him even more that the tank driver was a Libyan, unlike those of Gaddafi's forces, a minority, who are mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa, usually Mauritania, Chad or Sudan. "I just ask myself, what has Gaddafi done with their brains to make them fight us like this? He is not a human being. He is evil. Satan."

Until a few days earlier, he had not seen his wife, his four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son for a month. So intense was the workload at the hospital that he had been sleeping there; his family had become trapped after government troops overran his neighbourhood. Because the mobile-phone networks in the city had been cut, he had no way of reaching his family. "For two or three days I was completely dissociated from this world," the doctor said. "Even though I was working, I was asking myself: 'Is this real? Am I even real?' Then I came round and started feeling myself again."

Still, he said, every night when his shift ended, he would walk to his car, open the door and sit in the driver's seat. He had nowhere to go. He just needed a private place to weep.

Misurata is Libya's third-largest city, about 200 kilometres east of the capital, Tripoli, where the Mediterranean coastline dips south in the Gulf of Sirte. In better times, if Gaddafi's rule in peacetime could be described that way, you would drive there from the capital with a government-approved guide by your side. But since the beginning of the revolution, the only way in to Misurata has been by boat. First, you fly to Cairo and drive west for 14 hours, crossing the Libyan border roughly halfway. That gets you to Benghazi, the eastern city where Libya's revolution began in mid-February.

From there, you travel on a local fishing boat, carrying emergency supplies and most likely weapons for the rebels. The voyage takes over 40 hours.
Another way in is on the Ionian Spirit, a Greek ferry chartered by the International Organisation for Migration to pick up foreign workers stranded in Misurata. That journey takes just under a day, assuming loyalist forces are not bombing the port - as they often were.

Misurata has a proud history. An important trading post since ancient times, it provided determined resistance to Italian occupation a century ago, prompting one commander to declare that Libya was a snake and Misurata its head - something local people love to tell you. In modern times it became Libya's industrial hub, with its port and one of Africa's largest steel factories. Low-slung and sprinkled with palm trees, the city is well laid out and mildly prosperous. Most of the 300,000-plus residents had enough food to eat and many had cars and decent houses, too. Yet, given the country's vast oil reserves and small population, Libya should be much wealthier, more akin to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, in the view of many people you meet.

Since seizing power in a coup d'état in 1969, Gaddafi has squandered tens of billions of dollars on vanity projects and misadventures, such as sponsoring international terrorism. Meanwhile, countless public works projects, such as the renovation of Misurata's main hospital, were allowed to drag on for years. Yet that was not the main reason Gaddafi was so despised here, Alkesa told me. He explained that by the time he was born, in 1979, Gaddafi had come up with his "Third Universal Theory" of government, which he claimed was superior to democracy and communism and would lead to "a state of the masses". Its principles were laid out in his Green Book, which became required reading in schools and universities.

Most Libyans thought it was quackery, but very few dared question it openly. Those who did so were hanged. As a public service, Gaddafi ensured that the executions were shown on state television. "I remember watching them as a child," Alkesa said. "Some loyalists would run up to the bodies as they hung and jerk them downwards, to make it more violent. My father would have tears in his eyes when he saw that. That is why we have always hated Gaddafi. Not because we lacked money or food, but because we had no freedom . . . We also believed that nobody could destroy him. We were resigned to waiting for God to take his life."

Then, in January this year, there was a revolution in Tunisia, which borders Libya to the west. And then the turmoil in Egypt, to the east. The despotic leaders of both countries were toppled by people power. Libyans were inspired, especially the youth, but still they had no idea how they could emulate their Arab neighbours, Alkesa said. Compared to Libya, Egypt and Tunisia had seemed like liberal democracies even before their revolutions. “Despite our dreams, nobody could imagine that this could happen in Libya," he said. "No one. Really, no one."

On 15 February, there was a small protest in Benghazi over the arrest of a lawyer representing victims of a prison massacre. Two days later, a protest had become a city-wide uprising. The ripples reached Misurata. Nothing had happened yet, but people sensed it might. Alkesa's two brothers, who sell gold jewellery, removed all the stock from their shops and brought it home. Something was about to happen.

On my arrival at the port in Misurata on 20 April, I was taken to a girls' school that had been turned into a media centre for local journalists, some of whom accompany the thowar to the front line each day. They post video footage on YouTube, or send it to al-Jazeera, to which every television set in the city appears to be tuned.

At the media centre, I met a 23-year-old man whom I'll call Ahmed Ali. He worked in the graphic arts and he spoke good English. He was one of Misurata's first revolutionaries. He told me that, on 17 February, he and a few dozen other young men, most of them in their early twenties, held a demonstration in support of the people of Benghazi.

They were arrested by the security forces, who beat them before hauling them away. "During interrogation they showed us our Facebook pages, where we had been talking about plans for a protest. They had been watching us even before," Ali told me.

Some of those arrested, including Ali, were held overnight, others for two days. It was the spark that Misurata needed. The editor of a newspaper where Ali sometimes worked announced he would not publish again until all the men were released. On 19 February, some of their families and friends went on to the streets to demand the same. “We were 30 people, and then in a few minutes we were 100. Soon we were 5,000," Ali said. "It was incredible."

The security forces opened fire. The first martyr of the revolution, Khalid Boshahma, was shot dead. For his funeral the next day, tens of thousands of people turned out in the city centre. Tear gas was used. Snipers who had been positioned in nearby buildings began firing in the air. People in the crowd started hugging each other, believing the army had taken their side by refusing to shoot at them. But then the snipers started picking people off. Dozens were shot in the head or chest. None of the protesters had guns - keeping a weapon was prohibited in Libya under Gaddafi - but their rage was enough to shake the army. As demonstrators began setting fire to buildings associated with the regime, state security hastily left Misurata, perhaps having been ordered to, or maybe out of fear. Tension was mounting in Tripoli, and so the government was unable to spare troops to mount a counterattack for two weeks. For many people in Misurata, it was the best fortnight of their lives, Ali told me. But they knew Gaddafi would be back.

Under the guidance of a hastily assembled judicial council, the people of Misurata prepared to defend their city. By looting the local armoury, they had acquired some AK-47s and grenade launchers but most of their weapons were home-made. Young men were instructed to prepare thousands of Molotov cocktails as well as fist-sized bombs known as gelatina, made from TNT.

When Gaddafi's forces finally attacked on 6 March, they met no resistance and were allowed to drive into Tripoli Street, the main boulevard, a few miles long, with its smart shops, coffee houses, banks and office blocks. Then, when the order came, hundreds of young men positioned on the rooftops along the street started hurling their bombs. The thowar joined in with their light weapons. Taken by surprise, the loyalist forces battled
for four hours to fight their way forward, but could not. Many of Gaddafi's soldiers were killed, and the survivors were driven back to the edge of the city.

The next attack, on 19 March, was on a different scale. Troops entered the city from several sides, Russian-made tanks leading the way. This time they forced their way into Tripoli Street. Out of armoured personnel carriers poured many hundreds of snipers, who raced up into Misurata's office buildings and residential apartment blocks.

Other units took over the city's vegetable market, the college of medical technology and the unfinished hospital. The urban conflict had begun: terrifying, old-fashioned war where men fired at each other at close quarters. The daily casualty count rose remorselessly. Ali's maternal uncle was shot in the leg by a sniper. One paternal uncle was killed. Another was kidnapped from his home and has not been seen since.

Like thousands of other men, many of them students or workers in their early twenties, Ali volunteered to join the fight. His father gave him an old hunting rifle that he had kept hidden in the house for years. Others in Ali's unit joked that while Gaddafi's forces were pounding the city with anti-aircraft guns, Ali was fighting back with an anti-duck gun. "We were at the front line, but I never wanted to be right at the front. It was really scary, as we did not have a leader yet and the situation was very confused," Ali told me as we drove around the city one day. "I don't have a strong heart like some of the guys."

Nor was he sustained by faith. "You probably think that I am a Muslim, because of this," he said, pointing to a Quran on his dashboard.

“I did shout Allahu akbar when we fought, but I don't believe in God and that virgins for the martyrs stuff, and neither do many of my friends. We like to listen to music, get drunk on the beach on home-made alcohol. I just can't tell my family how I feel, because my uncle is the head of a mosque."
After a few days at the front, Ali's colleagues suggested he might be more useful working in the media centre. He agreed, and gave his hunting rifle to another member of his unit. Two days later, that man was shot in the stomach. “I never found out where my father's gun went," Ali said.

By the time I arrived in Misurata, the street battle had been raging for weeks. Most of Tripoli Street was controlled by snipers, but Ali agreed to drive me and two other journalists to the side roads that intersected it, where units of thowar were in combat with the snipers.

The car belonged to his brother and was a mess, cigarette boxes, shoes, biscuit wrappers and a few tins of sardines littering the floor. The boot was filled with tins of canned food. Ali slipped a CD titled Alternative Ballads into the car stereo: soft rock for a hard war.

We passed bakeries where men and boys were queuing for rations of bread. Despite the scarcity of goods, supermarkets had kept most of their prices stable. A shop manager told me: "This is a war, not a time to make money."

Cigarettes were the one exception. Rothmans, Ali's brand of choice, had quadrupled in price to ten dinars (about £4). There were thowar checkpoints every few hundred metres, reinforced with huge berms of sand brought from the beach, or large pieces of concrete pipe. At one roadblock, twisted remnants of missiles and shells fired by Gaddafi's soldiers into Misurata had been placed on top of one pipe. Next to it, with an arrow pointing towards the display, was a sign that read, "These are his weapons." Poking out of the pipe was a rake and spade: "These are our weapons."

Closer to the city centre, the tactics used by the thowar in the guerrilla war became evident. Giant shipping containers filled with wet sand and metal filings had been used to block off streets to prevent armoured columns getting through. Petrol-soaked blankets lay on the road, thrown there in the hope they would get caught in the tanks' tracks, allowing a Molotov cocktail or rocket-propelled grenade to set one of them on fire.

Leaving the car, we walked carefully down a side road to the main street, where several destroyed tanks hinted that the strategy had been successful. There had been an almighty battle; all the buildings were pockmarked by bullets. In places whole walls had been blown away. Splinters of glass and chunks of metal littered the street. A mosque had sustained heavy damage. There were burnt-out cars everywhere.

Closer to Tripoli Street, the damage had extended to residential homes, long abandoned by their occupants. Some of the side streets were within sight of the snipers, so Ali drove along new roads that been created by the thowar by punching holes in garden walls.

We were now very close to the vegetable market, where Gaddafi's troops had a base, protected by seven tanks. A group of about 20 fighters was having a breakfast of tuna and bread. They had been slowly clearing Gaddafi soldiers out of the neighbourhood, fighting house-to-house battles.
The leader of the unit was the only one wearing a uniform, which he'd taken from a captured Gaddafi soldier. He was a cartoonist's image of a rebel fighter - muscular, with a trim beard, a knife tucked into his belt at the back. Most thowar commanders had nicknames, but he was a replacement and new to the job; the previous leader had been killed by a sniper the day before. Ali suggested that we call him Mr Smile. He liked it.

He had been working in construction in Malta before the revolution, but had quit his job and taken a boat to Benghazi, where he received three weeks' basic training in light weapons. Now, as the leader of his group in Misurata, Mr Smile had control of a battle wagon that looked like something out of the Mad Max movies. A heavy machine-gun had been fixed on the back of a pick-up. Two giant rectangles of 12-millimetre-thick steel had been welded on to the front and rear of the vehicle. Mr Smile walked quickly towards Tripoli Street, waving his arm for us to join him. Coming to a crossing, he lowered his head and charged across.

“Snipers," he said. With gunfire zipping nearby, we bid Mr Smile goodbye. "Please come back and visit tomorrow," he said.

In this city, the abnormal quickly became normal. After a few nights sleeping on the AstroTurf floor of a basement gymnasium where journalists were put up, I no longer jumped at the rat-a-tat of gunfire, or the explosions or the ambulance sirens that pierced the night. Ordinary people in Misurata, who in January could barely tell the difference between a gunshot and a car backfiring, were - in their own minds at least - aural experts on heavy weapons.

Boom. "That's a Grad." Bang. "That's a mortar." Boom. "A tank shell."

Bang. "Katyusha rocket." Boom. "Nato must be bombing again."

War became normal for children, too. The schools were all closed, and for a while parents kept their children inside, but after a few weeks they were let out again to play. Ali's ten-year-old cousin started a game with his friends where they tried to find a full set of bullet shells, from a 7.62mm AK-47 round to a 50-calibre heavy-machine-gun round. Inevitably, there were accidents. One afternoon, on a visit to a clinic on the western outskirts of Misurata, I saw a 14-year-old boy, Abdishakur. He was sitting in a wheelchair because of his osteoporosis. It looked like he had measles, but in fact his face had been blasted with tiny fragments of shrapnel. His 11-year-old brother, Ibrahim, had even more severe injuries, sustaining damage to both eyes. His father, a local imam, explained what had happened.

“The boys were looking after my sheep when Ibrahim found a bullet still in its shell," he said. "They did not realise it was dangerous. They took it home. Ibrahim was hitting it when it exploded."

Family life had acquired a strange new reality. Neighbourhoods close to Tripoli Street or in other areas controlled by Gaddafi forces quickly emptied out. Families moved in with relatives or friends. If they had nowhere to go,

a stranger might offer up his house, and move his own family in with somebody else. One evening, I visited the home of Mohamed Tag­ouri, a 50-year-old who owned two water tankers. It was a large, well-maintained house with four bedrooms, ideal for Tagouri, his wife and their five children. Now, there were 11 families living in the house, 62 people in all. Tagouri's sister and her three children, all under five, were among them. Her house, near Tripoli Street, was now "junk", Tagouri said. Her husband was dead, killed on the front line a few days earlier. "Every family in Misurata has lost a relative," Tagouri told me as he sat on the floor, drinking coffee. "But we cannot stop resisting. We have to finish the situation. We have no regrets."

Most days, the shelling was not too heavy and he would drive one of his tankers to the desalination plant near the port, which had become the city's main supply after Gaddafi had cut the water mains. He would then sell the water in town, or give it away if someone was low on cash. Many were, as no salaries were being paid and no banks were open, although neighbourhood committees were handing out small sums of money to all families. They were handing out food parcels, too, but Tagouri said they lacked a crucial item. “There is no macaroni in Misurata."

Despite the best efforts of Mr Smile's team and other bands of thowar, the snipers of Tripoli Street were still causing havoc. No target was off limits: not the mosques, which broadcast "Allahu akbar" over and over to give the thowar strength, and not ambulances. Children, too, were seen as fair game.

At the hospital, I saw a ten-year-old boy who had been shot in the head while stepping outside to play with his friends. Such was the fear of snipers that some people had been too terrified to risk fleeing the city centre when the snipers came in. These included 101 orphans housed close to Tripoli Street. After huddling together in the basement of their orphanage for weeks, they had nearly run out of food. The power and water had been cut.

Selima al-Teer was one of two social workers trapped with the children. "My colleague and I were so afraid of snipers, but we decided we had to run to try and find food," she told me. "We took a hammer, ran about 500 metres to a supply store, and broke the door down. We put food in a wheelbarrow and ran back to the orphanage."

They made the journey three times. “Each time we just said to each other: 'May God help us,' and then ran," she said. Eventually, with the help of the thowar, all the children escaped and found refuge in a Quranic school in a safer suburb of the city.

As the days passed, it was clear that the thowar were gaining the upper hand on the snipers. By blocking the streets, they had managed to cut Gaddafi's resupply lines and began clearing buildings along Tripoli Street one by one. To identify the snipers' hideouts, the revolutionaries crept along side roads and then held out small pieces of mirror to look up the street, examining the reflection for the tell-tale puff of smoke whenever a shot was fired. Then they attacked the buildings with their Kalashni­kovs, heavy machine-guns and RPGs. Finally, they sent fighters into the buildings. They worked through the floors, sometimes tossing burning tyres into rooms to smoke out the last of the snipers.

One night, at the media centre, Ali told me that the eight-storey insurance building, the tallest in Misurata, which stood at the very centre of the city at the top of Tripoli Street, had been declared clear. We drove there early the next morning. For the first time the extent of the war here became obvious. Many of the buildings near the insurance tower resembled those of Mogadishu, in Somalia, where bullets have flown freely for 20 years. There were four destroyed tanks. A handful of local people wandered around in a near daze, struggling to grasp what had happened.
With Ali leading the way, we entered the darkened reception area of the insurance building, picking our way up the rubble-strewn stairs. We soon came upon some mattresses where a few snipers had been sleeping, and empty tuna and tomato paste tins. Spent shells lay in heaps on the floor. There was graffiti on the wall, which Ali translated. “If we survive, we are warning you gays and dogs. We will not forgive anybody from Misurata. We will fuck your daughters and your wives."

On the roof of the building, snipers had been sleeping in the elevator maintenance room, mattresses packed tightly together. Outside, there were thousands of spent shells on the terrace, along with several cases that had held anti-tank missile launchers. The roof had a panoramic view of the city and of the epic destruction below. To be up here with a gun was to be a master of downtown Misurata. However, after weeks of starving the snipers of food and ammunition, and hitting the buildings with gunfire, the thowar had cleared all the snipers from Tripoli Street.

And yet the death toll mounted. One day, I saw Mr Smile at the hospital, looking harried. He had lost a few men, he told me. The war had entered a new phase as the revolutionaries tried to push Gaddafi's soldiers out of their bases in the vegetable market and other locations. On the back foot - Gaddafi's minions called it a strategic retreat - the loyalist forces had increased their long-distance shelling of the city.

“Do you think this is over?" asked Hassan Mohamed, a 51-year-old man who was showing me around a destroyed house where 16 of Gaddafi's troops had been killed. He had already lost several family members in the conflict. He expected to lose more. Then he answered his own question: "This is not over. Gaddafi will send more soldiers. He is much bigger than the devil himself."

As the thowar pushed forward, there were terrible battles on the southern and western outskirts of the city. The scale of the missile and mortar attacks by the pro-Gaddafi troops increased, loyalist shells often falling on civilian neighbourhoods, whether intentionally or not. On one night of particularly heavy bombardment, Ali frantically searched the internet for information on the best place to take shelter in a house when bombs were falling. He then took the microphone at Radio Free Libya, which had become the voice of Misurata's revolution, and told people what he had learned.

As the first uncensored medium in the city in 42 years, the station offered an insight into some of the challenges that Libya might face once Gaddafi was gone. People of Ali's father's generation had pushed for Radio Free Libya to adhere to conservative values, with a strong focus on religion. But Ali and his friends, of the generation that had started the revolution and was dying on the front lines, wanted something more progressive. "Look, us young guys don't just know about camels or how to fix a car," he told me. "We have the internet. We know about the world."

I saw Tahar Alkesa in the emergency tent two nights before I left Misurata on 3 May. His stubble had turned into a beard, with patches of grey. He looked even more fatigued than when we had first met. The casualties had not slowed - ten to 20 killed most days and dozens of others injured. We could hear the boom, boom, boom of Grad missiles being launched by Gaddafi's troops in the distance. As they were slowly being pushed back outside the city, government forces had trained much of their attention on the port, determined to cut off Misurata's lifeline. A few days earlier, a small naval team sent by Gaddafi had been intercepted as it laid floating sea-mines outside the harbour.

Inside the hospital, while trying to ascertain the day's casualty figures, I bumped into Suleiman Ibrahim, a prominent businessman in Misurata who had been helping out around the hospital for weeks with Haythem, his younger brother. Haythem had left for Malta that morning on a boat - one of the very few able to enter the harbour in days - to sort out business in China. The men's two younger brothers, twins in their early twenties, were both working for the hospital, one as an ambulance paramedic, the other as a doctor. "This war is disastrous. Misurata has paid a big, big price," Suleiman said.

He was desperate to get his parents out of the country, but his mother had refused to leave unless all her sons did, too. They would not.

I had heard the reason many times from different people: we win, or we die.

Xan Rice is a contributing writer of the New Statesman.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Welcome to the zoo: what it feels like to report a presidential campaign

Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault?

Here’s how you cover an American political convention: you get up inhumanly early to fire off your first emails, chugging down hotel coffee that tastes like burnt leather. Then you put on your least-squashed outfit and you drag yourself through crowds of sweating delegates to an event or a talk (or, if you’re unlucky, the treadless circus of the convention floor), and you watch and listen with your phone in your hand and one eye on social media until you run across something that you think might be worth writing about.

You email your editor from the phone to see if your sense is correct, and the idea is saleable. Meanwhile, you’ve started looking for somewhere to open your laptop and bang out your copy. You write it. You buy a coffee so they don’t kick you out of the café. You scramble for healthy wifi. You talk your way into the giant car park repurposed as a crèche for journalists outside the arena, where your organisation has a tiny table, and Google and Facebook have giant booths distributing free snacks, just to remind you who’s really in charge of the media.

Then you file your copy. You send the link out all over social media, because that’s part of your job, and you go in search of food with your eyes all glassy from screen glare, until you have to do it again. Whenever your editor goes to bed, you think about wrapping up and relocating to a bar where you can flirt with half of your attention while drinking beer and scrolling, constantly, through social media.

At some point around 4am, you clock off and spend an hour searching for a cab that you hope you’re going to be able to put against expenses, and you chat to the driver on your way to your overpriced, out-of-town hotel, too tired to register the shock of a conversation with an actual human being. Later on, in a hotel room that you can’t afford, you ask yourself: how does it feel to have made something that hates you?

In the two heat-drunk, deadline-crazed weeks that I spent at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, that line kept echoing in my mind. It’s spoken by an android to its creator in the Alex Garland film Ex Machina, but the 15,000 journalists, reporters, columnists, television crew members and media flunkies gathered to watch the biggest American political showdown of this half-decade could have asked ourselves the same question. Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault? And what can we do to stop it?

This is a story about stories, the people who tell them and the price we pay. In all the thousands of essays, reports, video diaries, interviews and listicles produced at and around the lumbering pageant of the US presidential race, one class of person is supposed to be almost invisible, and that is the people who do the work of production: the journalists. But what is happening in politics today, particularly in the United States, and particularly in this election, has everything to do with the media – the industry, yes, but also the people in it. If the media are the message, the message is anxious, incoherent and mired in a money crisis that it has no idea how to handle. Not unlike America, as it happens.

***

Just in case you’ve had the good fortune to have spent the past two years under a rock, let’s recap. These US conventions are the official nominating ceremonies for the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as four-day pageants at which lobbyists and media flunkies come to flirt and network and make whatever passes (in professional political terms) for friends. The candidate selection is merely the excuse for this shindig, and this time the fix was in before it had even begun.

The Democrats had chosen the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, representing the centre-liberal status quo with a corporate feminist twist and a side order of hawkish sabre-rattling. Her main challenger was the veteran socialist Bernie Sanders, who believes in wealth redistribution, free university education and social justice and gained an enormous following among young voters who have not yet accepted that they owe their votes to any candidate with a blue ribbon.

On the Republican side, a field of whey-faced religious extremists had been cleared for Donald Trump, the real-estate tycoon and reality-television star, who stands on a platform of imposing a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, building a border wall with Mexico and replacing the entire US electoral system with a giant statue of his gelatinous face, sculpted from misdirected class rage. This, more than anyone, was the man we had all come to see.

One of the liturgies of doctrinal Trumpism is that there is a thing called “the mainstream media”, which tries to control what “ordinary” people think, despite knowing next to nothing about their lives. The mainstream media are assumed to be homogeneous, cosmopolitan, well paid, based almost exclusively in New York and the Beltway of Washington, and liberal to its core. This is a more accurate description of Trump than it is of most US journalists I know.

Trump did not invent performative hostility towards the “mainstream media”. Every insurgent politician in recent years has taunted the press in public, while giving hacks hungry for copy exactly what they want: a story that draws in readers. And a great many journalists, at least those who have not yet given up on the notion of speaking truth to power, feel less comfortable when power tries to court us than we do when it pretends to hate us.

The ways in which we create and consume media today are not the same as they were even four years ago, during what was dubbed in the US as “the social media election”. Rapid changes in communications technology have reshaped the terrain more thoroughly than those employed to scry in the entrails of the internet for the future of human thought can anticipate. What is clear is that power flows to those who can understand and exploit the hysterical reality engine called the media – and that has always been the case.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swayed the nation with his deft use of radio – and so did Adolf Hitler. In the 1960s, John F Kennedy became the first “television president”, beating his opponent, Richard Nixon, in televised debates that radio listeners felt that Nixon had won. Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, perfected that position. Barack Obama is the first US president to understand and exploit the full potential of the internet, recognising that social media can be used to reshape the calcified structures of money and messaging that are still, across the West, called democracy.

This year, Donald Trump – a reality TV mogul before he is anything else – has taken control of the narrative, understanding, like Europe’s right-wing populist pundits, that it is possible to bypass facts altogether and hit the electorate in the incoherent space of pure emotion. What, at a time like this, does journalism mean? What does it mean to be a member of the press in an age when there is no longer a clear distinction between media and meatspace, between reality and television?

***

 American political conventions are not the staid, rainwashed yearly affairs that we are used to in Britain. Every four years, the Republican and Democratic Parties throw a festival for thousands of lawmakers, lawyers, reporters, lobbyists and the occasional actual voter on their break from handing around snacks at press parties. It lasts four days, because that’s how long it took originally to count up delegates from every state, and now the rest of the time is filled up with boozing, hobnobbing and wearing clothes that make everyone look like they’re live-action role-playing the most depressing parts of the mid-1980s. There are speeches, and more speeches, musical interludes by tame celebrities, blind children singing the national anthem, and quite a lot of God-bothering – and much of the main action doesn’t start until 4pm every day, in order to give people time to recover from the night before.

This would not work in Britain. America still takes itself too seriously to consider how crass this looks to an outside world that also has reason to fear a vicious, swollen toddler with alarming hair being given access to the US nuclear codes. This year, the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, came first, as befits the case for the prosecution of the political status quo. On the Saturday before it began, the airport was already lousy with journalists looking for Trump people to interview.

Armed police circled the terminal as a choir of children from local schools sang patriotic lullabies to soothe us into what would be a two-week fever dream of nativist fear-mongering and empty political pageantry. The candidates, remember, had already been decided by a grudging, deeply divided electorate. All that was left was ritual, and the dim, thrilling possibility that someone might do something off-message.

I bought the first coffee of the week and got in a cab to call my editor while my synapses soaked in diluted stimulants. The roads were jammed with thousands of hacks doing the same, some of whom already had deadlines to meet. Nothing had happened yet. That didn’t matter. We were here to create news, not report it.

“The threshold for news now is very low,” said Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times and an old friend from (where else?) the internet. “There are more of us running around and there’s less to do. A lot of us were bracing for something potentially as bad as the protests at the DNC [Democratic National Convention] in Chicago in 1968 . . . That’s always the conflicted part of the business. Chaos and mayhem make for selling newspapers, but if you live here in Cleveland, you want nothing to go wrong.”

Why did we come here? To see the show. We had heard that there would be protests, which always make good copy, and dissent on the convention floor. And we knew without doubt that there would be frothing cryptofascism, which makes better copy. The more Trump claims to hate the press, the more we fall over ourselves to give him the attention he craves. He is an insider trader in the attention economy.

I heard the word “zoo” repeatedly. The reporters had “come to see the zoo”. A zoo: where you pay to see dumb and dangerous beasts in cages, and then eat ice cream. Is that where we thought we were? There were wire fences around the convention zone and the people there knew that they were on show, putting on a spectacle for the liberal media that they claimed roundly to despise. Trump’s people made it clear that this convention was about showbiz, although the celebrity roll-call was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a man from a TV show called Duck Dynasty and a handful of C-list actors. The DNC had Snoop Dogg.

As delegates, lobbyists and reporters continued to flood into Cleveland, nothing – at least nothing resembling substantive news of any kind – continued to happen relentlessly. But we were all hoping for a moment of transcendence, a big breakthrough. A great observation or piece of writing that would make our editors proud and our landlords happy, back in the places we were from – sorry, the places we were based. None of the reporters, it seemed, was from anywhere. Instead, we were based in New York, or based in Washington, or based in a small village in Finland. We were transient half-people, scrapping for meaning and a living.

It quickly became apparent that the promised protests would not be occurring. We had prepared ourselves for open-carry gun marches and riots in the streets, and so had the police of every local district, who had been shipped in to bristle on every corner, but anyone with a sensible point to make had decided to stay at home. The gun protest turned out mainly to consist of a man with two guns, with dozens of reporters circling him like hungry vultures that had heard the dying screams of political discourse.

Mark Twain is apocryphally said to have observed that there were only three real American cities – New York, New Orleans and San Francisco – and everywhere else was Cleveland. The place did look like it had been hastily constructed out of plywood and the overwhelming impression was of being backstage on a giant movie set, which helped with the sense of unreality not one jot. Nor did the way that everyone in town seemed to spend between a third and half of their waking hours staring at a phone or a laptop screen. The screen-time/real-time distinction had disintegrated completely and we had all come a long way to be in the same place, looking at our phones.

Still hazy from jet lag, I dunked myself in a basement swimming pool; its acid-blue water was the temperature of fresh urine. I dried off in the bar, chlorine tightening my skin. Next to me on an unforgiving leather sofa, Adele M Stan, a reporter from the American Prospect, was wrapped in a shawl, checking her phone. This, she told me, was the strangest political convention of the seven that she had attended. Many of the major Republican political players, unwilling to yoke themselves to Trump’s toxic popularity, had decided to skip it, and so had most activists with any sense. Instead, the space around the stadium was a clear field for ranters, ravers and swivel-eyed performance artists masquerading as political actors – just like the stage.

For two weeks, in two cities, I met almost nobody who was local. The town centres had been cleared and scrubbed for the event, the local tramps and beggars ungently encouraged to move on. Often, even the waiting staff and Uber drivers had come from out of town. Many of the real citizens had left to rent out their homes on Airbnb. 

Everyone in the action zones seemed to be from somewhere else.

I know nobody from Cleveland and yet, within an hour of arriving, I had run into five people I know. They had come to get the story. It quickly became apparent that they had also come to get laid. I have never been so consistently hit on as I was in those first three days in Cleveland. Tinder was lit with people “in town for the week, trying this out for the first time”.

I ended up having some of my most honest conversations of the trip with other reporters on the instant dating app, where we seemed to feel more free to voice our political opinions. We would start off straight-up flirting, then ease into confidences about how bizarre the experience was and intimate existential panic about the nature of sanity, bracketed in plaintive requests for the sort of sex you have with strangers as the world is ending. I matched with two people from The Daily Show. The week was a stew of pre-fascist panic: mate or die.

***

On the walk down to the convention centre in Cleveland, the streets seemed empty except for stray reporters, security guards and a giant billboard howling: “Don’t believe the liberal media!” Overhead, a chartered plane flew the slogan “Hillary for Prison”. This line was available over the next few days on buttons, badges, T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, announcing to the world that the trolls had taken the wheel of political discourse. Hillary for Prison. Like much of what passes for political conversation in this election, it makes sense only if you say it in an American accent, and it’s not as funny as it seems.
Outside on the corner, two enterprising young men with button-down shirts and ice-white smiles that did not flicker were selling Clinton- and Trump-themed boxes of cereal for $40 each, because they had college debts that they couldn’t rely on the Democrats to cancel. I switched on the recorder, a decision I almost immediately regretted. The spiel they gave me was so polished that I was unsurprised, a quick Google search later, to find five articles about them already published.

There was still little to do but drink coffee, so a square mile of cleared city was full of reporters running around, wired and jumpy, wondering what we were missing. We were desperate for something, anything to kick off, not because we liked the idea of civil unrest but – hey, it had to be better than cluttering up the hotel lobby.

Speaking of hotel lobbies, one thing bears repeating: most of the reporters in Cleveland weren’t as fancy as we were making out. For every well-known news anchor and overpaid op-ed writer, there were dozens of production crew, staff bloggers and freelance reporters living from pay cheque to pay cheque. On Monday afternoon in the aptly named Public Square, I met up with five reporters whom I had known since we all got our start together covering Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They had driven down from New York and found a floor to crash on in the hope of making enough money covering the convention to pay for the trip. Back in 2011, it seemed that new media had the power to reframe democracy. Five years later, that turned out to be entirely true – but not in the way we expected.

We gathered to reminisce about that time, about the protests, the excitement, the arrests, the brief, gorgeous sense that a different world was possible. We’d also heard that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine would perform an impromptu concert in the square for the protesters, so we sat at a café table, waiting for that to begin. Rage had been all over Occupy like a rash and could be relied on to drum up some modest mayhem.

In the opposite corner, a few dozen young people were gathered around a speaker stage. We spent an hour checking social ­media with one eye, while catching up on what had happened in each other’s lives – who had got married, who had broken up, who’d been made redundant, who had got custody of the dog. We met covering Occupy Wall Street; now we are, apparently, the liberal media establishment. It took us an hour to realise that the people crowded around the small stage were not the warm-up for the protest. They were the protest. By that time, it was over.

***

I turned up to the Washington Post’s convention-viewing party with a gaggle of other young hacks, all of our well-honed powers of observation focused on predicting when the snack table would be restocked and how long we could stay before somebody noticed that we were freeloading freelancers who came here to pinch the wifi. The Washington Post, underwritten by Amazon money, took over a bar near the convention centre and offered on-site massages and craft beers. There were also speaking events throughout the day. Nick Pinto of the Village Voice was not the only one to notice that those who had sponsored the shindig, including representatives of Big Oil, got to put their point of view across unchallenged at these events. So much for liberal bias.

On the big screens behind the free bar, the convention speeches were playing, but almost nobody was watching. Nobody was watching as Willie Robertson, one of the stars of the Duck Dynasty TV show, took to the stage to curse out the “mainstream media”, which lived in a different world from “regular folks like us, who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living”. “It’s been a rough year for media experts,” he said. “It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long.”

At the Republican convention, I saw 15,000 reporters trying to find a new, original angle on the only story that mattered – that a dark mood of nationalist populism had taken hold in the world’s only superpower and whatever the outcome of this election, there will be suffering. There will be pain, distributed among millions. I saw the flags in the arena, the pomp and excess, the hundreds of fists raised. Country-rock music played throughout. It was like a nightmare marriage of Nuremberg in 1933 and the Eurovision Song Contest, and I knew that this story was not new.

***

Journalists have a way of acting as if we were not political animals with political appetites, as if we were spectators. There may have been a time, in a previous generation, when this was true, when commentators and editors got to play politics like it was a game. But times are changing and so is the industry, and we’ve got skin in this game. Nobody who expects to be personally unaffected by a Donald Trump presidency would, for instance, steal an entire jar of BuzzFeed-branded pens (including the jar), which is what I saw a young freelancer doing at the Washington Post party. By the end of the first week, we were all ready for a little bit of hope. But that wasn’t the story the Democrats were selling, given their reluctance to lie with such lucrative momentum as their rivals.

Philadelphia in late July was hotter than the underbelly of the sun and the air was soupy with moisture. This is not a place where Europeans should ever have settled, for a number of good reasons of which the weather is not the least. The heat sent everyone a bit loopy, as if we were walking through treacle in a dream. And, like in a dream, the narrative kept slipping out of focus. From the start, the messaging was all about the grand story of America, a nation that does not need to be made “great again” because it is already great, a nation that survives by hallucinating its own legend – but the gathered press could not help but share the sense of having been cheated. The awkward truth that Trump and his followers have tapped into is that there are millions of people for whom America is not, and never has been, all that great.

A few days before the speeches started, the crypto-justice trolls WikiLeaks dropped an enormous cache of emails from the Democratic National Committee’s server that had probably been hacked by Russian agents. These appeared to show, to the surprise of nobody, that the Democratic Party had been manoeuvring against Bernie Sanders from the start.

The convention opened with accusations of corruption and the announcement that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic chair, was resigning. That afternoon, hundreds of Sanders supporters braved the heat to stand outside City Hall to make their feelings known. The one thing I heard from everyone I interviewed – and the one point of agreement between the Bernie supporters and Trump’s people – was that the mainstream media were not to be trusted.

The overwhelming impression of being a reporter at the DNC was of being held hostage – literally, as well as figuratively. Everyone was too tired to move and certainly too tired to flirt. Where the Republican convention was a slosh of sexual energy, of directionless desire, the Democrats’ was all about desire deferred. I deleted Tinder from my phone to make more space for interviews.

The convention centre was miles out of town and getting in involved a system of passes and checkpoints so complicated that you would have been loath to go outside the media zone, even if it weren’t more than 30°C in the shade. The press was stashed in a system of speciously air-conditioned marquees outside the convention hall, with three stinking porta-potties to service thousands of reporters and no water available. Jerry Springer was there, and I had no idea why. Is he a Democrat? Or does he simply materialise wherever reality television meets Freudian psychodrama, wherever people try to pretend that working-class people screaming at each other is entertainment?

It was, more than anything, a physical slog. The tone was set by the way in which the perimeter had been given over to Uber, so that it was hard to get close without taking the on-demand car service. Entry to the security zone was through an oasis-like Uber tent, where you could pick up free water in exchange for your lingering discomfort with Silicon Valley economics. It’s like being in a rewrite of Children of Men for the gig economy. A new adventure in bleak.

Many of the reporters in attendance had just come from Cleveland and were already worn out from a week of frantic deadline-wrangling and late-night networking – not optional in an industry in which job security is based largely on personal connections. Here, the reporters were taken for granted and so was our good coverage. The understanding was that we would encourage our readers, implicitly or explicitly, to support the nominee because we had no other option. By the end of the second day, it wasn’t clear if we would even be allowed to leave without at least a tweet declaring ourselves #WithHer.

On day two, after the roll-call of states was read out and Clinton was officially nominated, some Sanders delegates – who had hoped for something more than the status quo with a feminist varnish – staged a walkout. The first I saw of this was movement in the media tent, that unmistakable herd motion of reporters who realise potential copy is happening near them, like chickens moving as one at the rattle of the seed trough.

Finally, something off-message was happening. After days of manoeuvring to ensure that no left-wing protesters got near the press, they came right to us. T-shirted delegates from Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee stood in the press tent with hand-drawn signs and sticky tape half hanging off their mouths. They had taped their mouths shut to symbolise their silencing by the Democratic committee but were having to untape themselves every few minutes to give interviews and, after the third or fourth time of doing this, the tape started to lose its stickiness. Those trapped outside chanted: “The whole world is watching!” For once, at least for those with a broadband connection, this was true.

They played us like Slick Willie plays the saxophone. It was masterful. We heat-exhausted copy-monkeys, strung out on hours of refreshing TweetDeck, found ourselves standing on tables, holding our phones aloft like protective amulets, trying to capture whatever it was that was happening, because something, for the first time in days, was definitely happening. Something unplanned. Something off-script.

The decision to occupy the media tent was borderline genius. It was one of the best-played protest moves I had ever seen, placing the dissenters instantly in front of the world’s cameras. Like the convention, it was staged not for those who were present but for readers and viewers elsewhere. The internet was the invisible current in the room. The rest of America and the rest of the world were not here, but we were haunted by them – by the sense that real life was going on just outside the room.

Yet, like in a horror movie from the scrag-end of the 1990s, it turned out that we were the ghosts all along. It turned out that we, the delegates, the lobbyists, the spectators and the precarious, anxious press corps, were the ones haunting the real world through the internet, trying to make sense of a story that had run far ahead of us, trying to form the narratives of which material life is made. We sneer at reality TV without understanding that we are active producers in the greatest reality show of all: US politics.

It was enough. I didn’t care enough about what Hillary Clinton had to say to drag myself through the sweltering nightmare of the convention centre for another minute, so my colleague and I fought our way to a cab and watched it on TV, at home. It turned out that Clinton had little to add to the story that America has been trying to tell about itself for decades, apart from a fantastic array of pantsuits and a series of promises that she will be under no obligation to keep.

With the world facing the alternative of Donald Trump, it is now on us – those who create and sustain the narratives of identity and change in the US and beyond – to make that sell, in order to avert disaster. We may not be the establishment but we find ourselves in a position of having to advocate for it, and to do so convincingly to those for whom the prospect of a woman president is not sufficient to inspire faith in a better future. That’s what the media are good for right now, in this fever dream of an election – and it might not be enough.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser