Libya: What Will Happen When the Honeymoon Ends?

Michael Christopher Brown for Newsweek

“I see now, Gaddafi made mistakes.” Mabruk, a young physics teacher, considers his words for a while before he continues. “But he gave our people everything. Modern houses, jobs, a new hospital, a nice school. I was fortunate enough to shake his hand when he visited Tawergha, just before the revolution.”

Gaddafi’s visit to Tawergha, a small town between the port city of Misrata and his hometown of Sirte, took place in February after the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt had started gaining traction. It would be the last time Gaddafi benevolently handed out money and privileges in exchange for support. And he did gain support from the black inhabitants of Tawergha, of whom several joined his security guard. “We had everything but freedom,” Mabruk says to me and adds, “Now I, too, am a revolutionary. But what does it matter when it does not show?”

Because the color of the Libyan revolution is white. Or at least as fair as the skin of Arabs and Berbers along the Mediterranean coast. Despite Libya’s having a significant black population, no blacks are represented in its current transitional government, and there are no blacks among the economic or cultural elite. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both reported cases of arbitrary arrests, torture, and execution of blacks in detention, not least blacks from Mabruk’s hometown. Tawergha had more than 30,000 inhabitants, but is now ethnically cleansed. The buildings stare vacantly out toward the deserted streets. Corpses of dogs and cats lie next to laundry hung out to dry on the day the inhabitants fled. The National Transitional Council seems to employ classic Gaddafi methods. If this tolerance for revenge remains as pervasive as it is today, Libya’s new leaders have already lost the struggle to obtain a better image than their predecessor.

Muammar Gaddafi was a master at divide and conquer. By doling out privileges to some and withholding them from others, by the use of force and intervention, he nourished strife within his own country. He often set neighboring tribes, provinces, or cities against each other, leading to a number of conflicts, such as the one between Tawergha and neighboring Misrata. Misrata sided with the rebels; Tawergha’s leaders remained loyal to Gaddafi.

He curried favor on the African continent more than in the Arab world, and today blacks are fair game. I’ve met black Libyan mothers who missed several sons, abducted from the streets, never to return.

A huge political void opened up during the meltdown of Gaddafi’s regime. What to fill it with remains an unanswered question. The hundreds of armed brigades patrolling the country in Misrata, Benghazi, Tripoli, and the Nafusa Mountains are subject to neither civilian nor military control. The various militias have sufficient access to arms for a small conflict to escalate to full-blown warfare.

In Tripoli I met with Judge Ahmed Naass in the local council. Having worked for 40 years as a judge under Gaddafi, he had “nothing to be ashamed of,” he said. “What do you mean?” I asked. “I was only an employee. I had no power. I did what I was told.”

He has new bosses now, and will by all accounts once again do what he is told. Libya’s elders have learned from Iraq, and have chosen not to do away with everybody who had anything to do with the previous regime. In Iraq, Paul Bremer had demanded the removal of all members of the Baath Party from their positions, creating a huge vacuum. Retaining Gaddafi’s system on all levels, however, hardly bodes well for human rights and the rule of law, which have been the stated goals of the Libyan revolution.

And yet, while many Gaddafi minions remain in their positions, what Libyans call “filtering the system” has already commenced. Judges have been killed. One of Naass’s colleagues was shot down in the street.

Libya is a country brimming with plundered firearms. In Naass’s neighborhood alone, where he himself holds the keys to the arms depot, 6,000 weapons have been stolen and only 400 reclaimed. He shows us the slim results of having gone from door to door to collect the weapons. “If you want to start a revolution in your country,” an obese bearded man says, giggling to me, “you can get your weapons here.” He turns out to be the local baker, a devoted Salafi. “Don’t talk like that,” the judge hisses to him in Arabic. “Show some restraint.”

Restraint might be exactly what Libya needs in the power struggle, in the reorganization of the armed forces, in the prison system, in the lust for revenge among people who suddenly can speak freely, act freely, and think freely. In a country where 150 newspapers have been established in a matter of months, many of them produced on a voluntary basis, rumors flow freely. Stories of brigades of black men specializing in rape abound, detailed with reports of how they tote packets of Viagra donated by Gaddafi.

Something else that made an impression during my visit to Libya was the pervasive religiosity. In a reeducation center for prisoners, the inmates, former Gaddafi loyalists—injured and wounded for the most part—were to be cleansed through the Quran. Their “reeducation” consisted of reading the Quran from dawn till dusk. The leader of the center, Imam Haitem Muhammed, a Quran teacher for children before the war, told me he wanted Libya to become a modern, Islamist state. “Sort of like Saudi Arabia,” he explained.

Another encounter was with a medical student named Ehab, who was worried about “bad Islamism,” as he called it.

“We have freedom now, but it’s not a good freedom. There are weapons everywhere. If the rebels remain in Tripoli, this will turn into a new Somalia. They control the streets,” he insisted, “not the government. There have been conflicts here of a kind we’ve never seen before.”

But the brigades celebrating in Tripoli do not want to go home. Misrata has gone through hell and wants something in return. Benghazi started it all and has a proprietary feeling about the revolution. The Berbers from the Nafusa Mountains want recognition for having freed Tripoli. The emancipation of Tripoli is now, in the vernacular, called the “Chocolate Revolution,” as the capital was barely touched by fighting and emerged from the revolution after others in Libya suffered enormous losses.

“We have lived for 42 years in a police state, and now no one is in charge. Who will take care of the streets, if not us?” says the local commander of the Zintan brigade, Yousef Ghabash. He stands with his legs wide apart, full of self-confidence. He had soldiers under his command; he had his Kalashnikov and more. In Zintan, located in the western mountains, he used to work as a bus driver. This is another aspect of the revolution: the intoxicating taste of power, the feeling of wind blowing in his beard, the comradeship under the moon at night. How can he go back and drive a bus in a small provincial town after this?

He might be shaving his beard now. He was supposed to wear it until Gaddafi fell. But although Gaddafi is dead and this beard might have gone, many battles remain. There will be struggles for control of the country, the armed forces, the streets. And when all that’s over, a conquest still remains for Yousef. He wants to find a girl to marry. All he knows about that is “I want to go on a honeymoon to Europe.”

But for Yousef, as for Libya, life will not be easy when the honeymoon is over.

Åsne Seierstad is the author of The Bookseller of Kabul and The Angel of Grozny. She Lives in Oslo.