Rebuilding Libya from scratch


Euphoria and anxiety, hope and guns coexist on the streets of the Libyan capital after the rout of most of Col Gadafy’s forces this week. What kind of country is likely to emerge from 40 years of dictatorship?

IT’S A FEW HOURS before dawn on Friday, and several dozen men have gathered in a dusty backyard just behind Tripoli’s horseracing track in the rundown neighbourhood of Souk al-Jumaa. An Arabic-language news channel is projected on to the gable wall of the house, its glare bathing the scene in a bluish light.

Among those sitting on faded plastic chairs are men who were released this week from Abu Salim, the notorious Tripoli prison into which thousands of Libya’s political dissidents vanished over the four decades of Muammar Gadafy’s rule. Many of those freed when rebel fighters stormed the complex were arrested earlier this year when they dared take to the streets as protests against the regime erupted across Libya.

One man describes the windowless cell where he was held. It measured one metre by one metre, he says, too small to lie down in or sit in comfortably, so he had to stand in darkness. He says he was blindfolded and electrocuted.

Sitting nearby, dressed in T-shirt, hiking boots and fatigues, Ali al-Hatwash, an Irish citizen, leans his Kalashnikov on his chair. Hatwash, a burly, heavily bearded stonemason who lived in Ireland for 13 years before moving back to Libya last year with his Irish-born wife and children, has spent much of the past six months with the rebel forces. He fought in the key eastern towns of Ajdabiya and Brega before joining the rebel fighters massing in Libya’s western mountains as they prepared their advance on Tripoli.

“I had never been a fighter, I don’t have any military training, but I couldn’t stand by when Gadafy was killing our people,” he says. “I took part in the first demonstrations in February because we felt it was time to say no to Gadafy – but look how he reacted.”

Hatwash’s unit, which goes under the name shuhada Trablous, or Tripoli’s martyrs, streamed down from the western mountains last weekend, along with the other brigades.

One of the first rebel units into the capital, the Tripoli revolutionary brigade, is led by another Irish-Libyan named Mahdi al-Harati. His brother-in-law Hossam fights with him. The rebels’ ranks contain several other members of Ireland’s Libyan community: some are fighters, others are involved in relief efforts and medical aid.

“It was very emotional as we approached our hometown of Tripoli last weekend,” says Hatwash. “People welcomed us along the way, saying: ‘What took you so long?’ I had tears in my eyes. We knew once we had reached the edge of the city that there was no going back. But Allah gave us the victory very quickly, and now we know Gadafy is never going to return.”

The man next to him, who was incarcerated in Abu Salim, leans over. “Gadafy treated us as if he owned us for so long, but this time we showed him who we are: we are the people of this country, and it belongs to us, the Libyan people, not him.”

Every Libyan has an opinion on the state of the country they stand to inherit from the man who drew on an idiosyncratic personal ideology to remake Libya in his own image. Gadafy’s experiment in tyranny resulted in a society all but atomised, one devoid of any political culture or civil-society infrastructure. Apart from its oil ministry Libya has only rudimentary state institutions. There is no constitution. All power lay in the hands of the mercurial Gadafy and his family.

“The new Libya will have to be built almost from scratch,” says Mansour, an engineer in Tripoli. “The challenges are huge, but we hope it will be a democratic Libya. After 42 years of dictatorship, democracy is what the people want.”

The rebels’ National Transitional Council has drafted a relatively liberal and democratic constitutional charter. But the council was only ever envisaged as an interim body, and it will need to remake itself to be more representative of the parts of the country that have only recently fallen from Gadafy’s clutches, including Tripoli. Many questions remain about whether the council will be able to impose its authority. Fissures within its ranks have become apparent and may manifest themselves even more clearly in the coming weeks and months.

The council has indicated that it would like to prepare a constitution within six months and hold elections within a year, to lay the foundations of democracy. But many are wary of such a plan, arguing that a democratic environment and culture cannot be created in such a short time. These people believe that moving so quickly would favour those with an existing organisational capability, such as Islamists, who can utilise the mosques to disseminate their message.

“We have not known democracy for a long, long time,” says Salem Langhi, a doctor who spent more than a decade working in Ireland and who has has devoted much time since February to treating the injured on Libya’s see-sawing front line. “The transition needs to be done with a lot of care, and awareness of the realities of Libyan society.”

SIX MONTHS OF WAR, during which normal life was suspended, has made many people weary and others fearful of the possibility of future violence, given the fact that almost everyone is now armed. Few are under any illusions about the challenges that lie ahead. Amid the elation following the rebels’ swift rout of most of Gadafy’s forces in Tripoli this week, there is a discernible note of anxiety.

“The road ahead will be long and hard, but, God willing, we will have the country we deserve,” wrote one man in an e-mail from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

That sentiment was echoed by several Libyans I met while driving from the Tunisian border to Tripoli this week. Along the road was the detritus of fighting that seemed to have sunk into stalemate until the coastal town of Zawiyah fell to the rebels a week ago. The blackened remains of tanks and military buildings cleaved in two testified to the Nato air strikes that helped to accelerate the rebels’ advance.

Daubed on walls was the famed battle cry of Omar al-Mukhtar, the colonial-era resistance hero hanged by the Italians, now adapted by the rebels as their own: “We will not surrender; we win or we die.”

The route was punctuated by makeshift rebel checkpoints, consisting of chairs, barrels and sometimes even sofas, manned by often jumpy young men dressed in the red, black and green of Libya’s pre-Gadafy national flag.

“It’s the guns that worry me,” says Ali, a young dentist from the western town of Jadu. “I had no idea how to use a gun before all this, but I had to learn because we had to defend ourselves from Gadafy. There are so many weapons around now. Will people give them back when this is all finished or will they cause more problems?”

In recent months the rebels organised local councils in liberated areas to try to ensure security and the provision of food, medicine and other needs. The hope is that these bodies will underpin public order and prevent the kind of situation that developed in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled. Libyans bristle at any attempt to draw comparisons with Iraq, pointing out that the country does not have the sectarian divisions that contributed to Iraq’s post-Saddam instability.

Several civil-society organisations have sprung up in Benghazi and throughout the country’s eastern and western flanks, urging people to pull together for the sake of the new Libya. At a rebel checkpoint in Tripoli my driver is handed a pamphlet signed by “the ladies of the February 17 revolution”. It addresses “free Libyans”, urging them to return to work, to reopen shops and businesses, and not to raise food prices, in order to prevent shortages. “Now we have the victory we were waiting so long for,” it reads. “We must help one another in order to progress to the next stage. Please work to prevent us losing our freedom again.”

ALI AL-HATWASH says he is optimistic for the future, but admits rebuilding will take time. “We need a year at least. I sent my family back to Ireland when the revolution began, and I don’t think I will bring them back for another year. But we definitely want to move back to Libya permanently at some stage. I think if you asked Libyans in Ireland, 99 per cent of them feel the same way. They want to return. We have a beautiful country rich in resources; there is so much potential here.”

Gadafy is still at large, but is reduced now to a voice making short statements broadcast on loyalist radio. In the most recent, on Thursday, he called on his supporters to march on Tripoli and “purify” the capital of rebels, whom he denounced as “rats, crusaders and unbelievers”, the stock phrases he employs to describe the rebels.

“Street by street, alleyway by alleyway, house by house,” he thundered. “The tribes that are outside of Tripoli must march on Tripoli. Each tribe must control its area and stop the enemy setting its foot on this pure land.”

In Tripoli, murals portraying Gadafy have been shot to pieces and, apart from the remaining pockets of loyalist resistance, the rebel flag flutters across the city.

The title Gadafy gave the Libyan state – the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab State of the Masses – still adorns public buildings, but it now exists in name only. Those who will mourn its passing are either fighting for its survival against all the odds in the last bastions of Gadafy support or staying quietly indoors, resigned to the changing order.

Some have already fled to Tunisia. Others are furtive. As I walk around the sprawling Bab al-Azizia compound, which was home to the Gadafy family until the rebels descended on Tripoli, a man giving his name as Wisam sidles up to me, offering photographs of a younger Gadafy riding a white horse in the desert. As I examine them, he begins to whisper that Gadafy has been good for Libya.

“We had law and order before. Now listen to this,” he says, as celebrating rebels fire another volley of shots nearby. He claims, rather fancifully given how much of the country is now under the control of the opposition, that a majority of Libyans support Gadafy but are afraid of the armed rebels.

“I fear for the future,” he says. “I am worried that we will have anarchy.”

Another Tripoli resident, Ali Ghersalah, has no such worries as he accompanies his family through the ruined residential building from which Gadafy used to address rallies. The structure was bombed by the US in 1986, and the Libyan leader has preserved it in that crumbling state ever since.

Ghersalah marvels as he walks up the red-carpeted staircase Gadafy would have climbed in order to make his speeches from the balcony.

“I grew up thinking Bab al-Azizia was indestructible and off-limits, just like Gadafy,” he says. “But we have seen this week that the reality was very different. Now we don’t fear him at all. We are not afraid of the future as long as Gadafy is not part of it.”