A mosaic of Gaddafi on the wall of a building in Tripoli, riddled with bullet holes, photographed on 29 August 2011. Photo: Getty
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Libya’s revolution will fail if the west does not act now

It is not yet too late. It is five minutes to midnight, but it is not too late.

In the spring of 2011, for the few foreigners present on the terra incognita that was Libya at the time, there was no doubt. Tanks were closing in on Benghazi. The inhabitants of Misrata, besieged and starving, expected to perish. The entire country hung under the threat of the rivers of blood promised by Gaddafi’s son.

The international community had two options.

It could pretend that it saw nothing. It could refuse to hear the SOS that the Libyan people, in near unanimity, were sending. In so doing, it could reinforce the Libyans’ feeling that the West was the natural ally of tyrants. And, as in Darfur and Rwanda, as it soon would do in Syria, it could allow the war to reach the end of its terrible logic, exacting, week after week, tens of thousands of deaths.

Or it could hear that SOS. It could reject the scheduled massacre and, in so doing, send for the first time a message of hope to a rebellious Arab people: “You may or may not succeed. You are going to make what you will and what you can of this revolution, to which we are giving you a few keys. But it is not for us in the west to decide that some people are made for democracy whereas others are not.” And, in so saying, the west could intervene to help topple one of the most enduring and blood-thirsty dictatorships on the planet.

Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron, and Barack Obama made the second choice.

And, just as the French Terror did not negate 1789, just as Vladimir Putin does not cast a retroactive pall over the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet system, similarly no subsequent violence, no retrospective prophesising, will ever invalidate that choice or lessen its nobility.

***

The mistake – and there was a mistake – came later. Broadly speaking, that mistake was to have declared victory too early. You cannot, in a day, escape a dictatorship. You cannot, in a day, build a state worthy of the name.

And the truth is that the state whose gradual demise we have been reading about in recent days never truly existed, having never been properly organised in the first place.

One member of the coalition should have helped train a police force. Another should have supported the program of disarmament and reintegration of the former combatants, a program begun without means by young, democratically inclined rebel commanders. France should have supported the idea of a Libyan national school of public administration that was proposed by my compatriot Hugues Dewavrin, an idea that I presented to Sarkozy and François Hollande, the two major candidates in the French presidential elections of 2012. The Arab countries that joined the west in the anti-Gaddafi coalition should have taken further steps to secure the oil wells over which the militias are presently fighting.

Instead of which, we got nothing. At best, another version of the naïve “democratic messianism” that had already proven so costly to American neoconservatives; at worst, the cynical short-termism of leaders who, once the cameras are turned off, leave the stage, throwing away the keys as they go.

Look at what is happening today. Watch as the embassies close, one after the other. This disappearing act – done while writing off all of Libya as a doomed nation – is it not a fairly accurate depiction of what has been happening for the past three years?


***

At the same time, it is not yet too late. It is five minutes to midnight, but it is not too late.

There is still one thing I want to say on behalf of long-suffering Libya, a country for which I have very strong feelings. The militias, of course, are a fact of life. Daily killings, alas, are a reality. But no less real is that when the religious zealots killed human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis, thousands of citizens defied the murderers by giving her a magnificent funeral.

No less real is that, the day after the execution of the brilliant American ambassador, Christopher Stevens, the entire city of Benghazi took to the streets to demand nothing less than “justice for our brother Stevens”. 

The reality is that an international force mandated by the United Nations would be welcomed with open arms and would have little trouble taming the death squads that presently sow so much terror while being so wholly unrepresentative of today’s Libya.

The country has held two free elections since the fall of Gaddafi. Both elections were clear-cut defeats for the Islamists. The first brought to power for sixteen months the most democratic and pro-western leader that the Arab world has produced in a long while: Ali Zeidan. The second, held 25 June, saw only 30 Islamists elected to the 188-seat legislature that has just convened in Tobruk despite calls for a boycott by the jihadist minority.

Libya, in other words, is not a country of Islamic fanatics.

If one defines civil war as a situation in which all of civil society is overcome with fratricidal hate and in which everyone chooses their side and their army, Libya, though it may be prey to militias that are holding civilians hostage, is not in a state of civil war. And that is why I say that it is not too late for the west to help the Libyan people to enter the third year of their revolution. 

Translated from the French by Steven B Kennedy.

Bernard-Henri Levy is the author of La Guerre Sans L’Aimer and Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

 

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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