Post-Gaddafi Libya confronts its diversity (WASHINGTON POST) By Steve Hendrix TRIPOLI, LIBYA 04/01/12)
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TRIPOLI, LIBYA — At the entrance to Tripoli’s main landfill, Mustafa
al-Sepany stands in combat fatigues, wearing an expression that says
no trash trucks will get past him. For four months, none has, leaving
the country’s capital city wallowing in uncollected garbage.
Sepany is one of thousands of still-armed rebel fighters who ousted
Libyan despot Moammar Gaddafi in last year’s bloody uprising. Now he
is one of the residents near the landfill who are exercising their
newfound freedoms by declaring they don’t want Tripoli’s trash.
Anywhere but here, they say. And in post-revolution Libya, not-in-my-
backyard fights come with automatic weapons.
“We will die before we let them open it again,” said Sepany, who was
a notary before the revolution.
Libya, awash in cheery yellow wildflowers a year after the Arab
Spring, is learning a bleak lesson: Unity does not bloom easily in a
region where decision-making has long been concentrated in the hands
of the few and where iron-fisted autocrats for decades papered over
deep cultural, religious and ethnic differences.
In neighboring Egypt, the year since President Hosni Mubarak’s fall
has been marked by breakdowns in law and order and by tensions
between hard-line Islamists and secular liberals. In Syria, religious
affiliation has emerged as an important dividing line as the army
does battle with rebel forces, stoking fears of a broader war.
And in Libya, five months after the death of the man who managed to
hold this country together by brute force, people are beginning to
wonder whether there is any other way to do it. Clashes this past
week between rival tribes in the southern oasis city of Sabha killed
147 people, officials said. Such has been the chaos that no one in
Libya would be surprised if a trash spat ends in a gunfight.
With the dump closed since December, Tripoli residents have taken to
tossing their trash bags on the grounds of Gaddafi’s former palace.
But at least another million tons of garbage is piled along city
streets, creating a looming environmental crisis, according to Adnan
El-Gherwi, the volunteer head of Tripoli’s Executive Council, which
is attempting to run the city.
The old landfill — built by Gaddafi 11 years ago — generated
complaints among residents that it polluted waterways and bred
disease. The city has promised to build a new, sanitary landfill as
soon as possible and to pay for clean water, a health clinic and
other aid to families near the old one. But El-Gherwi insists the old
dump must reopen, at least temporarily. And he won’t rule out the use
“You gave Gaddafi 11 years, and you don’t want to give even one year
to your new government?” El-Gherwi said in frustration over the go-it-
alone attitude at the center of this and many other standoffs. “We
have got to learn to work as one people.”
Instead, rival militiamen, some of them intoxicated and most of them
unemployed, battle over turf in the capital. In the western town of
Tawergha, an entire population of black Libyans was evicted by
fighters from a neighboring city. And calls by the oil-rich eastern
part of the country for greater autonomy from the central government
led to an armed clash in Benghazi, raising, for some, the specter of
“Everything here is screwed up, we know that,” said Sadat El-Badri,
deputy chairman of the Tripoli Local Council. “We went from complete
dictatorship to complete freedom in one step, and everyone is doing
just exactly what they want.”
Unlike Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddafi left behind no scaffolding of
working ministries to build on, no effective civil servants to
repurpose for an age of accountability.
“There were no laws, no rules. It was just the word of one man,” said
Almabruk Sultan, a computer science professor in the eastern city of
Benghazi who is a popular blogger and commentator. “In government
terms, Libya was a farm. And the farmer is dead.”
But not forgotten. A common refrain among Libyans: “Gaddafi is still
in our heads.”
Protesters are in the streets daily, demanding services and accusing
council members of being as corrupt as their Gaddafi predecessors.
Officials are similarly quick to describe protesters as puppets of
The Transitional National Council, hastily formed during the early
days of the revolt by tribal elders and local leaders, is struggling
to replace itself with a representative government. Its flowchart of
reforms describes a 20-month process from the drafting of a new
constitution to the election of a national legislature.
But Libyans are not in a methodical mood. In Misurata, which saw some
of the war’s most intense fighting, the local militia booted the
Transitional National Council and held its own election months ahead
In Tripoli, the traffic lights work, but are universally ignored.
“Why do you need an AK-47 to tame the traffic?” Sabri Issa, a
petroleum services company owner, asked while watching four young
militia fighters gruffly directing the clots of cars around Martyrs
Square, their automatic rifles waving at windshield height. Two
police officers sat in their car a few yards away. “They do nothing
to control these guys,” Issa said. “We have a government in name
Militia members from Tripoli have taken over the towering Grand
Hotel. Others guard the airport. And although fewer dead bodies from
revenge killings are discovered each morning, gunfire still echoes
Interior Ministry officials acknowledge they have no power over the
looting and shooting. Criminal courts are paralyzed. When fighters
are arrested, their comrades break them out of prison. With
unemployment near 30 percent — and higher among young men — the
Transitional National Council has scratched together a one-time
payment of about $1,600 to each fighter, in the hope of drawing some
of them off the street.
The money was being handed out recently at the seaside Mahmoud
Nashnoush Military Base, where rebels in a blend of combat wear and
soccer jerseys crowded around the gate to collect their cash. Some of
their pickup trucks still had heavy machine guns mounted in the back;
most had cardboard revolutionary flags in place of the required
“This is the first money we have gotten for our fighting,” said
Mohamed Calef, a member of a Tripoli militia, as he thumbed the thick
stack of dinar notes. “Some people now will go home.”
The chaos in and around Tripoli may have hastened calls for regional
autonomy that have begun to sound in the eastern half of the country.
“The capital is hijacked by gangs. They can’t clean their streets.
Who are they to tell us what to do?” said Sultan, the Benghazi
Benghazi, the palm-lined eastern capital, doesn’t look like a
breakaway city. Posters of fighters killed in the war fill the old
quarter, along with graffiti hailing the 17th of February, the day
the uprising began last year in these streets.
The new national flag hangs everywhere, including outside a fish
market by the Mediterranean. The red, green and black banner is
displayed on one side of the door, a freshly caught shark dangles on
“Finally, I feel Libyan,” said Adel Mansouri, sitting with his wife
and three children at a table loaded with fried squid and fish. A
Benghazi-born air-traffic controller, he was targeted for
assassination because of his early work in the rebellion. Now he
supports greater autonomy for the east while also experiencing a
newfound sense of national identity.
In the past, he recalled, he would quietly root against the Libyan
national soccer team, a pet project of Gaddafi’s son Saadi. But that
changed when the first post-revolution squad took the field in the
African Cup of Nations.
“I cried,” he said. “Everyone did.”
Beneath the patriotism is a simmering resentment in Benghazi at being
dismissed for four decades as a second-class outpost while Tripoli
got its roads paved and hogged the scholarships.
When the Transitional National Council recently announced outlines of
a legislature that would include 111 members from the populous
western region and 60 from the east, easterners, sensitive to
sleights, pushed back.
On March 6, a group of tribal leaders called for a return to the
federal structure that governed Libya’s three regions in the 1950s:
Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the south and Barqa in the east.
The leaders say that foreign affairs and national defense should
remain the domain of Tripoli but that the regions should have greater
powers over budget and domestic policy.
The proposal was greeted with expressions of horror in Tripoli, where
many saw it as a step toward Libya’s dismemberment and the loss of
oil wealth. Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who, as chairman of the Transitional
National Council, heads the interim government, denounced the idea
and said he would keep the country together by force if necessary.
On March 16, attackers disrupted a pro-federalism rally in Benghazi
with rocks and guns, injuring five. Easterners say the backlash
smacks of Gaddafi-era tactics.
The leader of the federalism faction is Ahmed al-Senussi, a revered
opposition figure who spent 31 years in prison under Gaddafi, nine of
them in solitary confinement.
Speaking at his home outside Benghazi, Senussi insisted that
federalists are not seeking independence from Libya, nor are they
trying to seize the revenue from vast eastern oil fields.
“We are not for splitting up the country,” Senussi said. “The
passport will be the same, the anthem will be the same. Tripoli will
be the capital.”
He leaned forward for emphasis: “I am a Libyan first, a Barqan
second. We are not calling for separation. We are calling for our
rights. And that is not a crime.” (© 2010 The Washington Post Company
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