Spear’s staff writer Sophie McBain spent nearly three years in Tripoli and here she writes about what she thinks Libya’s future holds
IT HAS BEEN six months since I left Tripoli, the city I made my home for over two and a half years. I left without saying goodbye to my friends, carrying just one bag of belongings, and feeling certain that I would be able to return to the sleepy, quietly chaotic Mediterranean town within a few weeks. This was the first of many false predictions I’ve made about the Libyan uprising.
Perhaps it was for this reason that, as I watched the footage of the storming of Gaddafi’s Bab Al Aziziya compound, I found myself incapable of mustering up the same euphoria as my Libyan friends. I have shared their disappointment too many times. They were, in the manner of 21st century revolutionaries, already uploading triumphant videos on facebook. I was temporarily immobilized by astonishment, happiness and then a third, entirely unwelcome emotion: fear. The defacing of Gaddafi’s statue eerily echoed the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in 2003, but it is too early to speak of Libyan ‘liberation’. The hardest battle is yet to be fought.
That is not to say that the Bab al Aziziya takeover was not a momentous turning point in a gruelling campaign. The images of a ragged group of amateur fighters stamping their boots on the severed head of a gold-plated statue of the deposed leader were all the more symbolic because Gaddafi especially understood the concept of politics as theatre. In addition to his two-pronged strategy of brutal repression and populist concessions, the Libyan dictator reinforced his position as ‘brother leader’ through his use of suggestive symbols, props and staging.
By emblazoning his image throughout the city, he heightened the fear that there was no escaping the state: Gaddafi and his secret police seemed omnipresent and omniscient. He placed his image next to that of Libya’s independence fighter and national hero Omar al Mukhtar to present himself as Mukhtar’s natural successor, and posed in Bedouin tents to increase his appeal in Libya’s desert hinterland.
Even his oft-derided fashion choices had their own internal and symbolic logic: he wrapped himself in the thick wool cloth of the traditional Libyan jurd, he festooned himself in military memorabilia until few could remember that Gaddafi never made it past officer rank, wore wacky shirts decorated with African maps when pan-Africanism was his thing and psychedelic tribal robes when he declared himself ‘King of Kings’, or supreme leader of Africa’s tribal chieftains.
Now this imagery has been inverted, and young people who throughout their schooling were forced to pump their fists in the air each morning and proclaim their loyalty to Gaddafi and his Al Fatah revolution are creating their own slogans for al shafshufa, the frizz head.
Even Gaddafi’s most chilling promise to hunt down revolutionaries ‘bayt, bayt, zenga, zenga’ (house by house, street by street) has been adopted by the opposition and has become something of a national joke. This morning I heard an interview on Radio 4 with a Libyan rebel fighter. ‘When you hunt down Gaddafi, where will you be looking for him?’ the interviewer asked him. ‘I don’t know,’ he replied, pausing for dramatic effect. ‘Probably bayt, bayt, zenga, zenga.’ Never again will they experience the same reverence for Gaddafi, or the same fear. Gaddafi has been transformed from terrifying tyrant to an object of ridicule.
BUT VICTORY CELEBRATIONS are premature, as my friend Anwar learned the same evening that Gaddafi’s compound was overrun. He spotted a group of young men at the end of his street holding an impromptu liberation celebration and ran out to join them. They had barely had a chance to congratulate each other before some gunmen opened fire on the party. Anwar crawled home to avoid the bullets, and said he arrived safely but surprised that he was unharmed. He was lucky. Others weren’t.
Another friend, Wail, uploaded a harrowing message on facebook just as the world’s attention was directed on celebrations in Martyrs Square. His hometown, the coastal Berber town of Zwara was coming under heavy attack by pro-Gaddafi forces. The Berber, or Imazighen, consider themselves as culturally and ethnically distinct from Arabs, and speak their own language, Tamazight, for a long time outlawed under Gaddafi.
‘As a final desperate act, and due to the huge grudge Gaddafi and his followers hold towards the Imazighen, Gaddafi has vowed to level the city of Zwara,’ Wail writes. ‘Zwara is right now coming under very heavy shelling coming from three different directions from neighbouring towns, who still support Gaddafi.’ One of his cousins was killed in the shelling. The immediate challenge is still military. As well as the fighting in Zwara, towns such as Sebha and Sirte remain loyal to Gaddafi, and the battle for Tripoli is not yet over.
Even when the military battle has been won (and it is a matter of when not if), there will be the harder process of reconciliation. While the top political leaders in the Gaddafi regime ought to stand trial, it will not be possible to purge the country of the many ordinary citizens who supported Gaddafi whether through conviction, fear or pragmatism. The Libyan people, traumatised by six months of conflict and 42 years of totalitarianism, will have to learn to live with one another once more.
This will not be easy: the last few months have been brutal. Even from my safe vantage point here in London I am constantly struck anew by the horror of seeing Tripoli in flames. My old office, the sedate UN building in downtown Tripoli, was burned to the ground a few months ago. Girgaresh, the buzzing shopping street near my house, where shabaab (young men) in flash cars spent their evening ‘cruising’ the city, drinking endless cappuccinos, is now filled with the same shabaab in souped-up pick up trucks brandishing guns.
The outside terraces where I sat with friends until late into the night smoking shisha and slurping green tea with almonds, have become battlegrounds. A point that is hard for outside observers to appreciate is the speed at which life in Tripoli was turned upside down. The city as I knew it offered few hints of the violence that was to come.
I CANNOT IMAGINE what it is like to live through such change, partly because I struggle to grasp the full reality of my friends’ stories: when Ahmed, the quiet photographer, described watching his friend being shot dead in front him, when Mahmoud, a student, was kidnapped and imprisoned for several weeks by Gaddafi forces, or when Hend, my glamorous former colleague told me that because her toddler niece was afraid of NATO bombs she said each bomb was part of a birthday celebration. Soon Hend and her niece were singing happy birthday together for most of the night.
Without a doubt, the reconstruction and reconciliation effort will have to be quick and efficient if it is to succeed. The sooner Libyans can return to their jobs, and regain their livelihoods the better: the release of $1.5bn of seized assets for use by the NTC is hugely important. Robust policing will be necessary, to restore security. Eventually the guns owned by ordinary Libyans will have to be handed back into the authorities in exchange for cash, but this can only happen when they trust the state to guarantee their safety.
Open, pluralistic debate will be needed as a precursor to constitutional change and above all, the National Transitional Council will have to win the trust of the Libyan people and prepare the country for democratic elections that can produce a government reflective of the country’s tribal, regional and ethnic make-up.
Despite the magnitude of these challenge, I am optimistic for Libya’s future. A future without Gaddafi will always be a better one. It is heartening to hear that in the liberated East civil society is thriving, and young Libyan women are active participants in fledgling NGOs and media outlets. I believe that the fear that Libya will descend into inter-tribal warfare is over-hyped, as is the concern that the country will fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.
Tribes still play a political role in Libya, and ensuring that the country’s diverse regions are equally represented will be crucial, but for young people especially, tribes are not the most important source of political loyalty. Most Libyans are devout and conservative Muslims, but this doesn’t mean they are Salafists, or that they would put up with authoritarian Islamist government.
NEVERTHELESS, A RECENT dispute among some of my Libyan and expatriate friends offered an interesting insight into some of the difficulties that could be faced as Libya sets about democratising. A Portuguese expat was accused of harbouring pro-Gaddafi views and of calling Libyans hypocrites for first supporting Gaddafi and then embracing the rebels.
‘This is not about democracy, it is about morals,’ one girl said when the discussion moved on to whether or not he should be allowed to air these opinions, even if they are deeply hurtful — even if you support freedom of speech, the Portuguese expat’s comments were too offensive to be allowed a platform, went her argument.
Most Libyans do ostensibly aspire to democratic reforms, but in practice democracy doesn’t always have immediate appeal. In a country recovering from a painful civil war, freedom of speech isn’t necessarily very easy to support: will the victorious coalition allow everyone to add their opinions to national debate, even those that still support Gaddafi?
I remember that whenever I tentatively brought up the subject of democracy in Libya before, I noticed that often Libyan friends and acquaintances supported the idea of democracy, but were cynical about whether any country in the world had achieved it. ‘Hah, you say England is democratic, but how many British people supported the war in Iraq?’ one would say.
‘Tell me this, Sophia,’ my Arabic teacher Tarek told me in his booming voice, ‘everyone says the US is a democracy, but if you have such a big country, why can people only choose from two parties?’ The argument wasn’t that Gaddafi’s regime was any better, just that the West ought to be less self-righteous.
It’s hard to determine what the political implications of this kind of cynicism will be: will it mean that Libyans will be extra-determined to make government accountable and responsive, or are many quietly disillusioned by the democratic project?
But the point that the West ought to be less self-righteous when it comes to talking about democracy is a relevant one, because the kind of government that the Libyan people choose won’t necessarily be the kind of government NATO and friends would have liked them to choose, and there is only a limited amount outside countries can do about that.
Islamist groups are present in the East, partly because historically Eastern Libya has been the site of the country’s strongest Islamist opposition movements, and secularists in Libya and elsewhere may simply have to accept that a large number of Libyans reject the idea of a separation of religion and the state. I hope that Libyan Islamic parties, as well as al nahda in Tunisia and al ikhwan in Egypt, will show a willingness to abide by democratic rules and will be moderated by their experience of everyday politics.
FOR TOO LONG Arab dictators have held their citizens hostage to the fear that the only alternative to their rule is rabid Islamism of the Al Qaeda variety. How Islamic groups in North Africa work within new (and hopefully) democratic frameworks will have an impact on the whole of the Arab world.
It is very unlikely that democratic elections will usher in the kind of reforms implemented by the Taliban, but democratic reform won’t suddenly produce a liberal-minded populace, who will immediately reverse national laws that discriminate against minorities, including those that outlaw homosexuality, or that make Islam a condition of citizenship.
That will take time, and the continued efforts of newly formed NGOs and lobbying groups. The transition from collapsed state, to democratic state to liberal democratic state will be a difficult one — but I am confident that, with the right kind of support, Libya can get there.
The transition will have to be nationally led, but will require considerable and sustained international efforts, possibly in the form of peacekeeping, definitely in the form of aid and training. The events of the last few days are cause for celebration, but both in Libya and abroad, it’s important to remember that this is the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end: with a bit of luck there will be far greater victories to come.