Cameron, Sarkozy Make Surprise Tripoli Visit
David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy flew into Libya on Thursday in an attempt to bestow legitimacy on a Western-backed interim rebel government trying to fill the vacuum left by Muammar Qaddafi.
The British prime minister and the French president touched down for a visit in the capital less than a month after Muammar Qaddafi was driven out amid heavy fighting before moving on to Benghazi for a second round of meetings with rebel officials there as well.
Apache helicopters flew over the Mediterranean and parts of Tripoli were in security lockdown for the surprise visit – the first by western leaders since the capital fell to rebel forces.
The pair were given an enthusiastic welcome at a hospital in Tripoli – the kind of reception the two could only dream about in their own countries – as heads of two of the NATO countries that helped the rebels. The pair also received a calmer, but no less warm, greeting in Tripoli by Libya's interim rulers and de facto prime minister Mustafa Jalil.
Although anxious to avoid perceptions of a victory lap given the ongoing fighting and the failure to capture Qaddafi, Cameron and Sarkozy cited the Libyan experience as a beacon for the region.
"This does go beyond Libya," Cameron told reporters. "This is a moment when the Arab spring could become an Arab summer and we see democracy advance in other countries too.
"I believe you have the opportunity to give an example to others about what taking back your country can mean."
Sarkozy used the moment to turn the spotlight on Syria, where an uprising has so far been brutally repressed and foreign support has been less forthcoming.
"As I flew over Tripoli today, I thought about the hope that one day young Syrians will be given the opportunity that young Libyans have now been given," he said.
"Perhaps the best thing I can do is dedicate our visit to Tripoli to those who hope that Syria can one day also be a free country."
But Syria is not Libya and the regime of Bashar Assad is widely seen as being stronger and more stable than the erratic personality cult of fugitive strongman Muammar Qaddafi.
Analysts say, without foreign intervention, as was the case in Libya, Assad may well ride out the storm of protest in his country rendering such rose-colored predictions jingoistic.
Amid the metaphorical back-slapping, there have been questions over whether France and Britain will expect payback from Libya's new leaders when they award lucrative contracts.
Sarkozy insisted no promises had been given or sought. "This is a very important issue and I want things to be very clear to all the Arab world," he said. "What we did was for humanitarian reasons. There was no hidden agenda."
Cameron praised the National Transitional Council (NTC), saying it had been "consistently underrated and underestimated" as he expressed optimism for Libya's future.
However, some see Cameron's words as hopeful political rhetoric rather than a grounded assessment of Tripoli's realpolitik forecast.
Libya' nascent government has a tenuous grip on power with numerous material challenges to overcome.
In addition to a liquidity crisis and constant shortages, the country has not been fully liberated, Qaddafi remains at large, Islamists are challenging the interim council's legitimacy, a referendum on the nation's future remains ambiguous and distant, and a fractious array of militia commanders have refused to be brought under civilian control.
Cameron and Sarkozy's "Arab Summer" has already arrived – in Tripoli.