Return Trip

09.21.11

Paris, Tripoli, Benghazi

Bernard-Henri Lévy returns to Libya in the wake of victory and wonders: will this be the city upon a hill for the rest of the Arab world?

So many times, we’ve waited for helicopters in Libya! Well, this time the last choppers of this war are on time. As they land, they stir up storms of dust and dirty sand. But this is the last storm, a symbolic and joyous storm, the lovely storm of the victory of liberty.

Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron step down first, gathering around President Abdel Jalil. They raise his arms in a sign of victory, the way trainers do in the ring when their champion has won the fight. One can read the elation on all their faces. A second of apprehension, perhaps, when they step down on Libyan soil. A final whirlwind when the last helicopter arrives, the gusts so strong that all of them must lower their heads. But I look at Jalil. I watch Jibril, his prime minister, at his side. And in their eyes, I can plainly see that this is the last time they will bow their heads.

At the foot of the elevator at the large hospital, first stop of the visit, where the women of Tripoli are waiting, shoved by the crowd that demolishes the proper protocol, I run into Sarkozy’s adviser Henri Guaino. My opinion of him hasn’t changed, nor his of me. But I offer my hand, and he takes it. This moment surpasses personal considerations. The event itself carries the day; it appeals to us with all its power.

The same thing occurs with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé. Later, after Benghazi, we’ll even have a kind of tête-à-tête. And then, like players who turn over their last cards when the hand is finished, we’ll bring up the subjects that led to disagreement. Once again, the event itself dictates the tone and inspires us to set aside our quarrels for the moment.

But the man I am watching with the most curiosity is, of course, Nicolas Sarkozy.

I saw him in Tripoli, in a room at the Hotel Corinthia, confronting the entire National Transitional Council. The city’s military governor, the embodiment of the possible threat of radical Islam, is in the room. He knows it, he sees him, but that does not prevent him from saying, with firmness and solemnity, that Libya and France did not do all they have done together only to find themselves, one fine morning, with a fundamentalist dictatorship on their hands.

Will they definitively become Girondins, or will they be Arab Montagnards, gravediggers for their own freedom, conquered at such cost and so much suffering?

I study him at Liberty Square, before the sea, in Benghazi, the crowd greeting him—to his own immense surprise—with a prolonged cry of joy, long enough to make one run out of breath, a cry they have held back ever since the day French planes ran strikes against the tanks that were preparing to pound their city into ruins.

I watch them both, Cameron and him, facing circumstances so untypical of what they have both been used to, and yet which they have produced. They are young. They are the youngest protagonists, the first leaders in their respective countries to play a role in a History with which neither has had any direct, personal contact in his lifetime. And I wonder if perhaps that isn’t the key. The weight of History paralyzed their elders. And the absence of History is such that they, themselves, were freer and could thus fulfill the commitment of this adventure, with all the risks entailed, the likes of which had never before been seen.

And then there are the Libyans.

Ghoga, shooting me a look of complicity in the indescribable scramble at the entrance to the museum of Gaddafist horrors, where the two youngsters of History are invited to stop and reflect—wasn’t he the very first to welcome me to Benghazi six months ago?

Jibril. I saw Jibril smile. I saw Jibril happy. At the moment of this smile, the moment of this sigh that is this day that belongs to Libya, I saw Jibril the Terrible, the very same man I saw hold his own, inflexible, against Hillary Clinton, transformed into a joyous companion, adjusting the glasses that nearly fell off his nose, shuffling and shoving together with the crowd.

And Jalil. There is at least one image of Jalil that I shall never forget. It’s the last glimpse of his face as the helicopter bears him away. He is sitting on the middle seat, before the open door, strapped in and facing the void. And, as his own people watch him take off, he gestures with his hand, just a little sign, but one that expresses better than any long speech the reconquered sovereignty of Libya, his authority and his pride as a liberator of Libya.

What will they do, all of them, with their revolution?

Will they be able to protect it from the appetite of those of its children who already dream of devouring it?

Will they definitively become Girondins, or will they be Arab Montagnards, gravediggers for their own freedom, conquered at such cost and so much suffering?

Actually, it is a question that applies to all of them.

And all who are present are no doubt secretly asking it themselves.

When one has accomplished this, when one has been an actor in these insane times that have seen a revolt in an obscure country of the Arab world succeed, what does one do? Forget it? Set it aside like a task well done? Take it off, like a matador’s suit of light? Or try to remain true to what one has accomplished, contemporary with this moment in and of itself, faithful to its brilliance.

The event demands it.

History seeks a future, hopefully.

May this promise be kept.

May those who carried it remain compelled by its grandeur.

And may it also provide an example, wherever those who combat tyranny search for hope.