As the first flush of liberation begins to fade, differences between the new rulers may soon begin to widen.
Sep 3rd 2011
AT LAST they came. After a week of hesitation in the wake of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s flight, the people of Tripoli climbed off the fence and poured into the capital’s central square for an all-night celebration capped by morning prayers. Many of the worshippers were government employees. A finance ministry official said he and the rest of his department would report for work after Eid el-Fitr, the festivity on August 30th that marked the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. A local police chief, pumping his fists in unison with the crowd’s cries of “God is Great!”, said all his men had already reported back for duty.
Tripoli is righting itself with astonishing speed. Clothes shops opened for Eid. Cafés have put up their awnings in Tripoli’s charming squares. Hotels which nervously hung a modest rebel flag in their lobbies four days after Tripoli had fallen are now draped in them.
But myriad handicaps to normal life persist. A dearth of public services is keeping people indoors. The capital has no running water and electricity is sporadic, blacking the city out at night. The price of potatoes has risen twentyfold. Salaries have yet to be paid.
But even sceptics call such shortcomings “a tax” that must be paid for the transition from decades of erratic dictatorship. Moreover, they note improvements. After barely a week, vegetables and frozen chickens are back in the markets. The ports are offloading fuel, putting petrol, whose price had risen from $8 a tank to $200, back into the pumps at a quarter of its pre-war cost (see article). Banks have reopened, albeit with a limit of 250 dinars ($208) on withdrawals.
After decades of people being suspicious of each other, the hardship has created a strange feeling of communal goodwill. Homeowners with wells have attached outdoor taps for those without water. Boys from Zanzur, a village on the edge of Tripoli, which has a large irrigation system, have been trucking water to the thirsty city centre for nothing. Students go shopping for patients in the general hospital, doubling for the foreign nurses who have fled. Religious devotees have collected alms and food for the poor to celebrate Eid. Even in Abu Salim, the last Tripoli suburb to fall to the rebels after heavy fighting, youths have begun sweeping the streets.
Following Friday prayers just after the colonel’s rout, locals met in mosques and appointed committees of five to ten men, drawn from lijan al-sulh, traditional bodies for mediating disputes. In turn, the lijan allocated responsibilities for putting up and arming checkpoints and clearing rubbish.
The first members of the government to arrive from the rebel headquarters in Benghazi have set up shop in the office of Colonel Qaddafi’s departed prime minister. Volunteer guards warded off looters, so the new incumbents receive visitors in the same white leather armchairs in rooms of polished lacquer panelling and red carpets. The filing cabinets seem untouched; even the paper-knives are in place.
Yet the new administration is still desperately thin. Most of the national councillors, including its chairman, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, and the emerging government’s prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, are still in Benghazi, citing worries over security, or are abroad. The new health minister, struggling to reopen hospitals, cuts a lonely figure; the deputy defence minister watches television. “Just a minute,” the white-haired interior minister repeatedly begs partying youth in one of Tripoli’s squares, struggling to make himself heard above a chorus of “Maleshi Abu Shafshufa” (“Diddums, Fuzzywuzzy”, a mocking gibe at the colonel). “You don’t get the feeling they’re robust enough to withstand a major challenge,” says a Western politician who arrived in Tripoli before most of Libya’s new government.
Internal wrangling may ensue. Appointments seem to chop and change. New posts surface by the hour. Divisions between easterners and westerners, tribal people and townsfolk, civilians and militiamen, are all liable to open up. It is unclear how much of the colonel’s system will be kept. Anxious to hold on to their jobs and portraying themselves as apolitical professionals, Tripoli’s bureaucrats argue that only the ministerial upper echelon was rotten. “If you try to get rid of these people, you’ll bring down the functioning state,” says an official operating the “temporary finance mechanism” set up by the British and French to channel donor funds.
Many nervous civil servants from the old order are rallying around Mr Jibril, who until recently was one of them, heading the National Economic Development Board, which used to oversee privatisation. A stabilisation committee, run by Aref Nayed, a relative and appointee of Mr Jibril, has prepared a report that warns against repeating America’s mistakes in Iraq, when de-Baathification (the sacking of people who belonged to the ruling party) and the abolition of whole ministries gutted the state and helped bring about chaos. “Libya for all, Libya with all,” says Mahmoud Warfala, the new broadcasting boss who also negotiates for his and Mr Jibril’s beefy tribe, the Warfala. The colonel’s media people will keep their jobs, he says, except for Hala Misrati, who menacingly waved a pistol on her talk show.
Gradualists v Revolutionaries
Others are less forgiving. The Islamists and many of the returning exiles, a powerful caucus on the national council, are less keen on Mr Jibril’s message of inclusivity and reconciliation. They warily accept that the Supreme Court should continue to administer criminal law, but only for the moment. Some of the more radical former exiles want to ditch Mr Jibril after Eid. “The public demands fresh blood,” says Abdulrazaq Mukhtar, who led the first lot of council ministers to Tripoli. “We have the right to object to him. We want capable people but his team has left a big vacuum.”
Pragmatists and ideologues seem to be pitching rival camps in the capital. Even as the prime minister’s office has become home to the council’s executive committee, a sort of fledgling inner cabinet led by Mr Jibril, the wider national council itself has commandeered the old palace of King Idris to symbolise its break with the Qaddafi regime. The old-timers plan to resurrect a statue of the Roman emperor, Septimus Severus, who was born in what became Libya but whom Colonel Qaddafi knocked off his Tripolitanian plinth.
Those in the moderate secular camp talk of elevating Ali Essawi, a prominent but sometimes controversial figure in the new order, whereas some Islamists back Liamine Bel Haj, a member of the national council who is a Muslim Brother. “The interim government should not come from [Colonel Qaddafi’s] regime,” he says.
The Islamists seem to have the upper hand, enjoying the patronage of Qatar, the boiling-rich little Gulf emirate that hosts Yusuf Qaradawi, an influential mentor of the global Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Jazeera, the satellite-television channel that shapes perceptions across the Arab world. Qatar, some surmise, could yet play the part in nurturing Islamists in Libya that Pakistan played in Afghanistan.
Mosques are already influencing the new order—often for the good. Within days of the rebel victory in Tripoli, imams broadcast calls for gunmen to stop firing in the air. They have used Friday prayers to tell looters to register their weapons with local offices answerable to the national council and have distributed reminders to be pinned to lampposts. In many districts the mosque is the seat of the new local council, receiving alms to subsidise its activities. Many have wells, and the national council has declared that supplying fresh water is a top priority.
Tripoli’s new military commander, Abdel Hakim Bel Haj, once belonged to the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group, regarded as an affiliate of al-Qaeda, which he subsequently renounced. His deputy, Mehdi Herati, sailed with a fiercely Islamist Turkish group in last year’s flotilla to break the siege on Gaza. Ali al-Salabi, a Muslim Brotherhood scholar, has returned from Qatar. Assorted Islamists are suspected of killing Abdel Younis Fattah, the rebel commander who died outside Benghazi in late July in mysterious circumstances.
The exuberant rebel militias that have arrived in Tripoli are making a lot of people nervous. Their celebratory gunfire and wild bravado carry an implicit warning: if you don’t give us a place at the top table, we will use our power to disrupt. The Tripolitanians want them out.
Mr Nayed, architect of the stabilisation plan, says the militias will be integrated into a revamped army and police. Himself an IT entrepreneur, he has proposed a bold buy-back scheme whereby people who hand in their guns will be rewarded with a laptop, mobile telephone gadgetry and free language tuition.
If the recent experience of Benghazi is anything to go by, dealing with the militias will not be easy. The city has some 40 private militias, many of which have put more energy into protection rackets than into fighting Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. “We have militias, not a national army,” bemoans the new deputy defence minister, Muhammad Taynaz. They need to be tamed or integrated—fast.