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National Geographic: New Old Libya

Author: Robert Draper
January 31, 2013


"Last September's terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi left the unmistakable impression of a country teetering on a knife-edge. Yet despite its struggles, Libya is hardly on the brink of anarchy."

Beneath the roiling uncertainties is a nation possessed by an almost adolescent eagerness to rejoin the free world. Salaheddin Sury, a professor at the Centre for National Archives and Historical Studies in his 80s, told me, "When we got our independence in 1951, it was something we got almost for free. This time the young people paid for it in blood. I didn't bother with the national anthem back then. Now for the first time," he declared with a proud grin, "I've memorized it by heart."

Yet on the desert slog to rediscovery, flag-waving offers only the mirage of a shortcut. As Sury acknowledged, Libya's rebuilding "starts at zero." The terrorist attack last September casts a dark shadow over Libya's attempts to increase stability and rebuild its government. Whether the 30,000 Libyans who protested against militias ten days later constitute a better predictor of Libya's future, it is too early to say. In ways both obvious and insidious, Libya remains half-blinded by its former dictator's heavy hand. Now, like the statue in the wooden box, it awaits its future in an unforgiving light.

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