Earlier this week, rebel forces in Libya fought their way to the outskirts of Sirte, a coastal city about the size of Tallahassee. The day before, pushing westward along the coast from Ajdabiya, they'd recaptured the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf; Sirte, we were told, was the last major obstacle standing between them and Tripoli.
Sirte. Before Sunday, few of us outside Libya had heard of it. Now experts were saying that it was the key to Libya's hopes for democracythe fulcrum on which Libya's fate would turn. Partly its importance could be explained by location, its proximity to the capital. But there were other reasons for its importance, too, reasons that reveal a lot about a conflict with complexity we're only beginning to grasp.
In 1942, as every Libyan schoolchild knows, a future authoritarian ruler was born in a tent outside the city. He went to school in the city itself; not that it was much of a city at the time. Even after he came to power, in 1969, Sirte was a quiet rural outpost in a country that was pretty provincial.
Then, in the late 1980s, he decided to make his hometown the new capital. So what if it was in the middle of nowhere? He was Muammar al-Gaddafi. Who would stop him?
He began moving government offices there, and ordered the construction of Soviet-style administrative buildings. He built a conference center whose unusual design brings to mind (given his origins the comparison is inevitable) a very large tent. Sirte would be his Brasiliaa fabricated city in the wilderness. It was a monument to an idea, that idea being the greatness of Gaddafi.
The plan never panned out. Even with its new hotels and wide, well-paved roads, Sirte was a dull backwater, and no one wanted to move there, not even the government officials employed to do Gaddafi's bidding. In a rare instance of Gaddafi not getting what he wanted, the officials stayed in Tripoli. But all those hotels, the conference centers, the infrastructureall that remained intact. Charles O. Cecil, a retired diplomat who served in Libya in 2006, said that during his stay in the country many of these buildings stood half-empty, concrete-and-glass metaphors for the unfulfilled promises of Gaddafi's so-called revolution. A city built as a symbol of Gaddafi's power had turned out to be, quite literally, an empty symbol.
Well, almost empty. Sirte still carries symbolic weight. Even though it never became the bustling capital that Gaddafi may have imagined, Gaddafi did succeed in turning it into a sort of city-sized showcase for his image. In the two decades or so since he built it up, Gaddafi has entertained a cavalcade of foreign leaders there, and it was in Sirte that the African Union was founded in 1999. About ten years ago, when Gaddafi began talking about creating a United States of Africa, he named Sirte as the capital. (The unspoken implication was that the first President of Africa would bewho else?Colonel Gaddafi.)