Libya, the Colonel's Yoke Lifted

by Nicolas Pelham | published September 7, 2011

Half an hour’s drive east of Tripoli, a solitary interim government soldier peers through binoculars, scouring Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s hunting ranch -- known as the farms -- for signs of life. Detritus of war litters the savannah, the remains of recent fighting as Qaddafi’s forces fled east from the Libyan capital to their strongholds in the center of the country. Flies swarm around parts of bodies dismembered when a NATO bomb flattened the colonel’s Moorish villa, replete with its nests for hawks. Wooden cases are strewn amidst the olive trees; all the boxes are empty, save two that house unused heat-seeking missiles six feet long. The cages of the predatory animals raised for hunting lie open, and the anti-Qaddafi fighter seems as concerned by their escape as their owner’s.

While the foreign media focus on catching the colonel, Libyans seem to consider him to have already passed into history. Finding the deposed despot in a country of 679,358 square miles is a task that has been made all the arduous by the insouciance Libyans display toward the question of his whereabouts. For someone whose persona dominated Libya for four decades, it is striking how fast he has slipped from the public consciousness. His images have long been torn down, and his Green Book aphorisms torched. No one made an effort to stage rallies marking “Fatah September” -- the forty-second anniversary of his military takeover on September 1, 1969 -- or to respond to his plea for a million-man march on the capital. Threats to unleash stockpiles of mustard gas and al-tarbur al-khamis, or the fifth column, have passed without incident. Having cried wolf once too often, the colonel now sees his warnings of imminent car bombings and a guerrilla “war of bees that sting” dismissed with a complacent shrug. The ubiquitous graffiti drawings of Abu Shafshoufa, or “Fuzzy-Wuzzy,” have reduced a dictator who kept power by terrorizing his population to a joke. Of all the problems facing Libya’s new order, the specter of Qaddafi’s comeback falls far down the list.

Local Ownership

In the wake of the colonel’s flight from the capital on August 21, cautious Tripolitanians dithered for a bit more than a week, and then decided that the wind is blowing firmly his successors’ way. Ten days later, they partied in the streets with popcorn, paper lanterns and some 30,000 new Libyan tricolors. The extent of popular participation is inspiring. Where hitherto the Great Leader was so obsessed with omnipresence that he banned soccer players from sporting their own names on their jerseys, a surfeit of new actors has stepped into the vacuum. And in a country where hitherto decision-making was routed through one man, new local coping mechanisms have emerged to address the hardships caused by an absent government, a plugged-up water supply, intermittent electricity and unpaid salaries.

The sense of local ownership of the revolution is important: No one has stripped the electricity cables from pylons for their copper, as Iraqis did after the US invaded their country and toppled Saddam Hussein. Libyans, who before the uprising depended on an army of foreign labor, farm their own allotments, run their own shops, sweep the streets and volunteer as hospital nurses. Homeowners with private wells open their doors to those with none. On their own initiative, policemen in Fashloum, a working-class district in the center of town, met in the mosque on the first Friday after the colonel’s flight and agreed to reestablish a local force. By midday the following day, a score of its hundred policemen had reported for duty.

Residents of housing estates who rarely spoke to each other under Qaddafi have created neighborhood councils, merging elders from the traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, the lijan al-sulh (reconciliation committees), with the underground leadership that planned the revolt, as well as respected men from the mosque. Within a week, their subcommittees were supplying better services than the city’s five-star hotels. The mosque in Hadaba’s Haddad quarter, a poor district of rural migrants, offered air conditioning and so much water it spilled into the streets. Ironically, in the colonel’s absence, Tripolitanians created the very social system he had taught but never realized -- a jamahiriyya, a decentralized network of grassroots, non-partisan people’s committees.

820/820

Yet now that the mission of ousting the colonel is accomplished, the composite forces that combined to unseat him are starting to judder. The official narrative of a synchronized three-pronged campaign, called Operation Mermaid, in which locals launched their own intifada while NATO bombed a path for rebel brigades sweeping down from the mountains no longer sounds as smooth in the retelling. Tensions are manifest in the competing accounts of how the capital shook off its shackles. Both rebel fighters and local mutineers agree that NATO took a back seat -- in the face of evidence of an upswing in NATO bombardments -- but that is about all.

Exiles returning from US and British cities after more than a generation abroad sit in hotel corridors with the town’s other visitors, journalists, and describe a carefully calibrated battle plan concocted in the command-and-control centers they established in Benghazi and the Tunisian tourist resort of Jarba. They say they had coordinated operations rooms replete with NATO staffers on the ground, including in Misrata, the coastal city besieged by Qaddafi loyalists from mid-February through mid-May. The National Transitional Council (NTC) that has been recognized internationally as Libya’s new government tells a different tale. Officials of the NTC’s Defense Ministry newly arrived from Benghazi depict a relentless push from the eastern front, which though thwarted by 12,000 Qaddafi loyalists dug in 500 miles from the capital around Brega, diverted the colonel’s firepower from the west.

Berbers from the western Nafusa Mountains and Arabs from Misrata recall how they bore the brunt of four months of fighting against the colonel’s militias in the west, while the capital’s residents waited. Through corridors established over land through the Tunisian border crossing at Dahiba, by air at a makeshift runway painted onto a straight road at Rahaybat on the Nafusa plateau and at sea to Misrata, they supplied and reinforced rebel positions in the west. In and around Nalout, a mountain redoubt that played much the same role in western Libya as Bayda played in the eastern Green Mountains, 2,000 rebel irregulars stood up six brigades.

Special Forces personnel from NATO member states, Jordan and Qatar honed the irregulars’ skills, while NATO fighter jets doubled as the rebel air force, bombing loyalist bases and clearing a path to the capital. Only in built-up areas, on the outskirts of Tripoli, did snipers slow their assault. “They used hapless residents as human shields,” said a rebel platoon commander, ‘Ali al-‘Allal, who fought his way through the western suburb of Hayy al-Andalus. “We had 18 mm caliber guns, but had to hold fire to avoid killing civilians.” In house-to-house small arms fighting, rebels captured 60 black Africans they identified as “mercenaries” by the ritual scars on their cheeks. “Zanga, zanga, alley by alley,” the colonel had egged on his forces in the early days of the revolt. In the end, it was the rebels, not the colonel, who mustered the manpower and reach to effect this strategy.

But while the incoming fighters rake the night sky with triumphal volleys from anti-aircraft guns, locals decry them as impostors, intent on stealing their credit. By their telling, the capital’s conquest was an act of self-liberation, an intifada launched by residents on 820/820 -- 8:20 pm on August 20 -- or the twentieth of Ramadan, the day the Prophet is said to have liberated Mecca from unbelief. A fighter recalls how four sentries shared one Kalashnikov, rotating guard duty every six hours, maintaining eight shifts before the rebels arrived. An NTC member from Tripoli claims Operation Mermaid never happened. “NATO didn’t bomb its 40 pre-designated targets, and the fighters from the mountains turned up 48 hours late,” says ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Radi. “By the time they arrived in the early morning of August 22, Tripoli was a liberated city, and they could march all the way to Green Square without a fight.”

Neighborhoods that claim to have freed themselves continue to man their own checkpoints and barricades long after the fighting has moved on. Their purpose, they say, is to guard against pockets of loyalists, but few doubt that they also intend to keep out incoming anti-Qaddafi fighters. Inside these enclaves, the neighborhood councils hold sway, reestablishing civilian life in the name of the NTC, but with little if any actual contact with it. They run their own local police and aspire to a monopoly on the use of force, by requiring that all residents license their weapons. Mercifully free of gunfire, the celebrations in these districts have encouraged families -- not only men -- to come back into the streets. Anti-Qaddafi flags at first only found at checkpoints have spread to public buildings, then to private homes and cars, and finally shops nervously opening their shutters. Ahead of ‘Id al-Fitr, the three-day feast that marks the close of Ramadan, children on Fashloum’s main street painted a camel in the hues of the rebel tricolor, before a butcher sent its blood spilling into the road. Others strung up scarecrow effigies of Abu Shafshoufa. Halfway down the road, teenagers erected a small stage for performers. From the minarets pealed the takbir, the opening line of the call to prayer, “God is great.”

Decorum and Disorder

Having secured control of their neighborhoods, Tripolitanians are beginning to reclaim public spaces, such as city squares, where the rebels pitched camp. Within a week, they had transformed the mansion of ‘Aisha al-Qaddafi, the colonel’s dyed-blonde 35-year old daughter, would-be UN good will ambassador and erstwhile defense lawyer for Saddam Hussein, into a museum, tempting families to venture out a half-mile or so beyond Fashloum’s perimeter for a glimpse. Prurient women rifled through her capacious walk-in wardrobe, children turned her indoor swimming pool into a welcome public bath and civil servants mused at her library with three shelves dedicated to international criminal law. A correspondent for The Economist rescued a copy of the magazine angrily flung in the corner. Beneath her spiral staircase, two veiled physiotherapists sat on a couch shaped as a gold-leaf mermaid and sang anti-Qaddafi rap -- “Muammar, You Cockroach” -- mocking the Qaddafi family’s pretensions to live in tents and collect monthly salaries of 465 dinars (about $380).

The decorum was striking. Where Iraqis stripped the villas of Saddam’s family bare of their last teaspoons, Libyans respectfully filed past the dining room table laid with crockery for twelve, as if visiting a preserved historic manor on a Sunday afternoon. A packet of corn flakes stood open and untouched on the kitchen counter. Twenty minutes before the Ramadan breakfast, local volunteers declared it was closing time, and ushered the public out one room at a time. A grandmother furtively scooped a pair of pink baby booties from the nursery into the folds of her dress when she spied the wardens turning their backs.

The victorious militiamen lording over ‘Aisha’s father’s lair in Bab al-‘Aziziyya, by contrast, presided over mayhem and rampant looting. Its walls have been gutted, torched and covered with jubilant graffiti. Cars drove home laden with medical equipment pillaged from the compound’s hospital. Gunners pumped their anti-aircraft and machine guns, the latter held with one hand over their heads. A militia’s ambulance wailed rebel paeans.

By nightfall the fighters raced through the city center in their vehicles bearing the names of their various militias for their men-only celebrations. Gunmen from Misrata turned the Old City’s Green or Martyrs Square into a racetrack, spinning and careening around the Italian colonnades. Beneath white billboards pleading with rebels “in the name of the revolution” to hold their fire and banners advising that “bullets scare women and children,” fighters discharged a dreadful cacophony into the night. Locals, who had tiptoed out, hurried home. Bullets fired up in the air smashed their garden coffee tables when they came down. Daybreak revealed a carpet of spent shell casings covering Martyrs Square. Having repulsed a 70-day siege on Misrata, Libya’s third largest city, its militiamen now stand accused of imposing their own, pinning Tripoli’s residents in their suburbs while they strut proudly in the city center. “People from Tripoli were happy when the revolutionaries first arrived in the city. But then they saw them stealing government cars and shooting RPGs, and would now prefer they secure it from outside,” says the NTC’s al-Radi.

More than bravado and a cry for acknowledgement, the gunfire carries an implicit challenge: Make room for us in the new order, or we might use the power we have to spoil. While the Misrata gunmen risked their lives for Tripoli, they resent the rebel bigwigs belatedly trickling from Benghazi into the post-conquest capital to assume control of its spoils. “We will not forget the martyrs,” reads graffiti daubed across the walls, as if to protest attempts to bypass them. Simmering umbrage at Benghazi’s interim government, first aroused by its failure to send more than a few tugboats to relieve Misrata under Qaddafi’s siege, has found further grist in the tardiness of the two NTC leaders, Mustafa ‘Abd al-Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril, in relocating to the capital.

Scrapping for Dominance

For now, the tide seems to be with Tripoli’s people. In an effort to dislodge the militiamen, they have backed efforts to stand up the interim government slowly transferring its seat of power to Tripoli. They have welcomed its message of national reconciliation and preservation of all but the thin upper crust of the Qaddafi regime as the fastest route to resume normality and civilian rule, and forestall the militarization and protection rackets that filled Benghazi’s vacuum when the Qaddafi regime vanished there. The continued leadership of ‘Abd al-Jalil, who until the February uprising was Qaddafi’s justice minister, and Jibril, who headed Qaddafi’s state-run economic think tank in Tripoli, has calmed fears among the city’s bureaucrats and merchants of a root-and-branch upheaval that would sweep them aside. At the NTC’s invitation, they thronged to celebrations and morning prayers on the first day of ‘Id al-Fitr to replace the militiamen in Martyrs Square. Souq al-Jum‘a’s elders, who had allowed 4,000 Misrata militiamen to pitch camp in such sites as the new branch of LTT, the internet company owned by the eldest of Qaddafi’s sons, Muhammad, signaled that their hospitality had its limits and asked them to leave.

A government stabilization plan lays out the extent to which the Jibril government intends to keep the old order. Crafted by a cousin, ‘Arif Nayid, whose company website lists the IT services it provided to Qaddafi’s governing apparatus, with input from British, Jordanian and Gulf consultants, the 70-page plan offers an antidote to L. Paul Bremer’s debaathification, which gutted post-Saddam Iraq of its state machinery and is widely derided for turning Iraq’s middle classes against the US-led occupation. In its mission statement, the plan says it seeks to “incorporate lessons and best practices from Iraq.” It counsels against “a harsh victors’ justice if potential communal groups, in Libya’s case the tribes that occupy senior positions in the government and security apparatus, are not to become implacable and violent opponents of the new order.” It opposes the expulsion of “everyone associated with the previous regime...and the type of sweeping vetting done in Iraq.” “Disbanded elements,” it adds, “should be integrated into society and provided economic opportunities so as to discourage them from taking up arms, as happened in Iraq.” And it advocates “includ[ing] former regime elements in political planning.” “The main threat to stability,” it concludes, “is from those who stand to lose the most.”

A blueprint crafted by the opposition is one thing; implementation after having won power is another. While all pay lip service to righting the wrongs of Iraq’s post-Saddam reconstruction, some fear Libya’s interim government will veer too far the other way. With Qaddafi gone, the restoration of the old order directly threatens rebel hopes of upward mobility and a partial share of the spoils. Militiamen still hold plenty of real estate, including Qaddafi’s farms, and Tripoli’s port and central bank. Others are entrenching their presence as protection squads, not least for the satellite network, Al Jazeera. And they are rapidly acquiring allies with groups with similar vested interests -- long-exiled Libyans anxious that the new order make room for them and Islamists seeking to shift from what they regard as Qaddafi’s jahiliyya, the pre-Islamic age of ignorance, to “a Sunni Qur’anic Libya,” in the words of the preacher at the first Martyrs Square prayers. All three -- the militiamen, the exiles and the Islamists -- argue that the old state’s institutions were as mad as the colonel and that the state should be rebuilt from scratch.

To this end, rebel commanders, prominent Islamists and exiles on the NTC speak of a growing unease with Jibril’s government. Highlighting the rift, the government has set up its offices in the bureau of the colonel’s prime minister, while the NTC is renovating the capital’s former royal palace as its future home. An alliance of NTC exiles, Islamists and Misratan fighters mobilized against Jibril’s appointment of a Tripoli police chief, who stood accused of participating in the siege and shelling of Misrata. And some openly call for the NTC to dismiss Jibril for being too compromised by association with the old order. Isma‘il al-Salabi, an Islamist militia leader in Benghazi, told Reuters: “The role of the executive committee is no longer required because they are remnants of the old regime. They should all resign, starting from the head of the pyramid all the way down.” Former Justice Minister ‘Abd al-Jalil, for his part, has said that transitional justice in Libya should spare no one scrutiny, including him. Anti-Qaddafi fighters and Islamists are skeptical. “The interim government should not be from the regime, period,” says al-Amin Belhadj, an Islamist on the NTC. “Jibril was a senior official in Qaddafi’s office, but we do need a bureaucracy.”

The scrapping for dominance has already claimed its first blood. In August, the rebel commander, ‘Abd al-Fattah Younis, was summoned for questioning by the NTC on suspicion of being too close to his former boss, Col. Qaddafi. “We had reports he was deliberately frustrating the advance,” says an Islamist NTC member. “He had thousands of weapons and uniforms that he was failing to distribute to rebels.” No sooner had the summons been issued than Gen. Younis was killed, allegedly by Salabi’s militia. Further acrimony would likely follow Jibril’s dismissal: While Islamists would like one of their own, possibly al-Amin Belhadj, to succeed Jibril, exiles prefer a more Westernized technocrat, such as ‘Ali al-‘Isawi, Jibril’s deputy. Few doubt that the Islamists -- with their expansive patronage from Qatar -- have the upper hand. The numbers attending their Friday prayers in Martyrs Square swamped those of the revelers the night before.

Will the militarization and zeal for a new order torpedo the effort to restore civilian rule, and crush Tripoli’s remarkable display of civic duty following Qaddafi’s fall? Not necessarily. After four decades in which only one family received public recognition (“God, Muammar and Libya Alone,” was an official slogan), the proliferation of actors could yet prove a safeguard against monopolization by one faction, and act as a catalyst for participatory politics, rather than a hindrance to it. With no single force able to quash the multiple actors, Libyans could yet turn to a democratic framework to balance the country’s multiple regional and ideological allegiances. Many Western liberal democracies, not least the United States, after all, have emerged out of internal wars.

Hopes and Risks

There is much to be hopeful about. Tripolitania lacks an entrenched martial tradition. The cult of ‘Umar al-Mukhtar, the warrior-priest who led the rebellion against Italian imperialism, flourishes across eastern Libya, but never really seeped west. Nor did the colonel’s caprice entirely smother the capital’s cosmopolitan spirit. For all his brutality, his propagandists celebrated his “civilian” accomplishments -- the Green Book and the Great Manmade River -- not his few military intrigues, which largely failed. His disastrous 1980s invasion of Chad was erased from the official narrative, and the army sidelined as a potential, and sometimes actual, fifth column.

Moreover, as the social space least contaminated by the colonel, the capital’s mosques have played a key role in rapid restoration of order. From the first nights of victory, preachers broadcast calls for militiamen to stop firing in the air and register looted weapons with the local NTC office. In many districts, the local mosque has become the local seat of government, as well as the source of water and, thanks to plentiful alms collection, welfare. Armed Islamist militias have also lent their forces to propping up central control. ‘Abd al-Hakim Belhadj, a veteran of the Afghan jihad and its Libyan offshoot the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who tried to assassinate Qaddafi a dozen times, is Tripoli’s military commander. His deputy, Mahdi Herati, was a fellow brigade commander in the western mountains who prior to the uprising joined Turkish Islamists on the flotilla seeking to puncture Israel’s siege on Gaza and its rulers, Hamas. Both claim to have forged a relationship with Western advisers and allayed their fears of the emergence of a new al-Qaeda base on the southern Mediterranean.

For now, the groundswell of euphoria is such that Tripolitanians would welcome any civilian alternative to the colonel. But the NTC cannot count on the benefit of the doubt enduring indefinitely. Already a cash shortage threatens to turn the disgruntled against the new rulers. No sooner had the NTC reopened the banks than it had to dispatch armed guards to their doors, fingers on triggers, to contain a public sector flustered that reports of salary payments -- unpaid for months -- were false. The Paris Conference on September 1 provided for the release of $15 billion of frozen Qaddafi regime funds (about 10 percent of the total) to the NTC, which should cover the government’s salary and fuel costs for a year, but will leave little left over for an urgently needed disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program. Moreover, as finances and oil revenues come back on line (the Malita gas line to Italy is already partially reopened), the battle for control of them could intensify.

The edifice the incoming government is erecting, too, looks singularly fragile in the face of powerful centrifugal forces. So thinly staffed are its upper echelons that one foreign policy expert visiting Tripoli likened them to a Potemkin village. Some ministers seem reluctant to share the decision-making powers they have acquired, betraying an unthinking patriotism that could yet see Libya’s new masters parrot the old rhetoric and spurn all offers of Western assistance as meddling. “We don’t need the World Bank,” says Naji Barakat, the health minister and a former London exile, despite admitting that only 60 percent of the health system was operational. The UN is struggling to convince the police force to accept outside advice.

And the risk remains that Libya’s militarization will rub off on civilian life, leading Libyans to pursue their various goals by force of arms. Post-Qaddafi, weapons are everywhere. Berber peasants stash tanks in their farmyards. Beneath an overpass in al-Zawiya, high-school children rotate the turrets of the tanks they have commandeered. No sooner had the colonel fled than Tripoli’s population scavenged the arms depots for self-defense. More hardware and missiles lie for the taking across the coastal plains. On the grounds of Bab al-‘Aziziyya, Tripolitanian fathers excitedly photograph their young daughters carrying rebel guns. Six months ago, the Misratan fighters terrorizing Tripolitanians were themselves mere civilians -- engineers, tradesmen, students and jobless youths -- until conflict turned them into battle-hardened fighters. The danger is that, having resorted to violence, the revolution might continue as it started.

One option would be to divert the country’s multiple armed groups into a new conflict with the last swathe of Qaddafi garrisons running from Sirte on the coast to Sabha and the borders with Niger and Chad in the south, and hope that pro- and anti-Qaddafi militiamen eliminate each other. But a fast military victory against a demoralized loyalist force might also further embolden the anti-Qaddafi forces, heightening their firepower and leverage, and accentuating the challenge of militarization.

Delisting them without a program of demobilization, disarmament and reintegration risks spawning separatist tendencies. Already Misrata’s command has refused to submit to Belhadj’s writ. And after five months of de facto independence, Berbers in the Nafusa Mountains are standing up their own force and cultural symbols. Unlike the Misratans, most of the Berber irregulars who swept into Tripoli quickly went home, but only after replenishing their arsenals with loot from the arms depots. “If we don’t keep some men and guns for ourselves, we wouldn’t be able to fend off a counterattack,” explained Nadir Muqadama, the town’s military spokesman.

More tempting could be to export the various fighters’ energies. Already Libya’s experience appears to have inspired some Syrians, frustrated at the limits of mass civil disobedience, to ditch the Egyptian model and adopt the Libyan. Kurdish rebel camps in Iraq have reportedly begun gun running over Syria’s northeastern border, and might well welcome Libya’s expertise. Nearer to home, the Libyan militiamen might set an example for the discontented, particularly Berber kinsmen, seeking to slough off the remaining ancien regimes of North Africa. No sooner did Nalout’s Berbers vanquish the colonel than graffiti surfaced on town walls calling for the toppling of neighboring Algeria’s military junta. Libya is a happier and more dynamic place freed from the colonel’s yoke. But managing the militarization that unseated him is likely to dog Libyans and the broader Mediterranean for some time to come.

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CORRECTION: The initial version of this article misquoted al-Amin Belhadj as saying "we need a new bureaucracy." The quotation has been corrected in the text. We regret the error.

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