Sitting at a cafe overlooking the second-century Roman arch of Marcus Aurelius, I am basking in the sun. In the nearby bazaar, pedlars shout their wares and customers bargain with the shopkeepers. Young Libyans sip their mint tea and the call to midday prayer beams out from several minarets.
First impressions of Tripoli can be deceiving and things aren't quite as serene as they seem. People talk of corruption, lack of opportunities, frustration and a chokehold on expression but they are wary of who may be sat on the adjacent table.
Opinions about the government or its projects are whispered in hushed voices. Officials are not mentioned by name if possible, for fear of being overheard by eavesdroppers, especially where Gaddafi and his family are concerned. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named from the Harry Potter series springs to mind. Libyans, young and old, long for freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of thought.
Many Libyans like myself have been fortunate enough to observe these freedoms in practice in the west and to some extent in certain other Arab countries. But many Libyans are not so fortunate.
On my countless visits to Libya I have experienced firsthand the social, civil, political, education and health "systems": they basically do not exist. During his reign in power, Gaddafi has intentionally dismantled all civil institutions. Libyans have suffered as a result, while Gaddafi and his followers have reaped the financial benefits of the country's rich natural resources in what can only be described as the most successful mafia operation of the past four decades.
I once spent two months working in the largest hospital in Libya – Tripoli Medical Centre. I can only describe my experience there as chaos. This was the so-called beacon of the revolution, the flagship hospital, the largest, most progressive hospital with all of the latest facilities that set the standards in healthcare for Libyans; the reality is of nurses unavailable to tend to patients, nonexistent daily ward rounds, multimillion dollar scanners lying unused in locked rooms.
On one occasion, as I observed operations in the operating room, a man would casually walk through in jeans, a scruffy shirt and slicked back hair with a cappuccino in his hands and start a conversation as if he was in Starbucks. No wonder those that can afford it opt for medical treatment in countries like Tunisia, Jordan or even Europe.
Driving along the main coastal highway in Tripoli, I would often visualise the untapped potential along this stretch of the Mediterranean. My friends and I would often reflect on the lack of development of the sprawling beaches. I would reminisce about places I have been fortunate enough to visit – the haute couture of Beirut, the chic of the Côte d'Azur and the buzz of Jumeirah Beach Road in Dubai.
The images of Tripoli in the 1950s, with its Italian colonnades and clean streets, could not be further from the mayhem and disorganisation that are the streets of the city today. It pains me to see that not only is there a lack of progress in Libya, but that the country is actively being decayed by the pathogen that is the regime.
Libyans are idealists. Any hopes, ambitions or aspirations that they have had for the past four decades have been systematically crushed. Dreams have been shattered. The 17 February revolution has blown a breath of fresh air into all Libyans – whether they are in Libya itself or the Libyan diaspora dotted around the world. It is the dawn of a new era. We are now realising that the Libya that our parents could not provide for us is rapidly becoming a reality.
There is a rich culture, heritage, music, history and arts that has been locked away for decades – the regime did not allow the people to freely express themselves using these valuable tools but there is a gripping realisation that these important parts of Libyan identity are even more valuable than the much-debated black gold that lies beneath its soil.
Issues of tribal allegiances, "east versus west Libya", ethnic groups and civil war have all been grossly overstated. Libya is not homogenous; Libya consists of many ethnic groups, religions, languages and tribes. Arabs, Bedouins, Tuareg, Amazigh, Muslims, Christians, Jews – we do not necessarily share the same customs and traditions but in a sick twist of fate, if there is one thing Gaddafi and his family have achieved, it is the unification of the Libyan people and the rest of the world in their desire to rid the earth of them.