In the wake of the success of the revolution in Libya, young men retake the radio station from Islamic extremists, women confront the leader of the National Transition Council for endorsing Islamic law and bigamy, and get him to recognize the role of women in the revolution and the new society, and others protest the establishment of a new bureaucracy that delays the issuing of visas. Having a taste of freedom, they will not go back to what was before.
Why Libya could emerge as the showpiece for the Arab Spring
By Mitch Potter Washington Bureau
TRIPOLI—In a broadcast compound long under the thumb of Moammar Gadhafi, the boss’s chair sits empty.
Yet the leaderless building is abuzz with young Libyan men and women on the razor’s edge of history. In a few days, they’re going live to air with something so new it doesn’t even have a name.
Think Radio Free Libya. That’s what they have in mind. And their excitement is infectious.
It was no small feat even getting this far. The revolution paved by NATO bombs arrived here in central Tripoli in August. But since then, a battle for control of this former propaganda emblem of the Gadhafi era has simmered beneath the radar — a microcosm of the larger struggle for the New Libya.
As the dust settled over the capital, a group of Islamists from the rebel city of Benghazi seized the station formerly known as Allibya FM, along with the TV building that stands alongside it.
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“These Islamic people just took it, with guns and power. And a hidden agenda,” says Fatan Allamy, 30, one of a dozen former staffers. The station staff suspected Muslim Brotherhood involvement, wielded from afar.
“They had no right. This belongs to all the Libyan people. So we organized a protest. For two months we protested in front of them. And finally, they backed away. We got our station back.”
Another bloodless coup, writ small. Such is life in Tripoli today, so pregnant with possibilities, so full of claims and counterclaims to the levers of power.
Libya faces a slow, aching journey to the new Arab normal — another hazard-fraught year of huge hurdles. But longer term, if it can get there intact, Libya could yet emerge as the showroom for the Arab Spring. The ingredients are there for a kind of democratic Dubai — a rich, modern, outward-looking yet culturally conservative petromocracy (petro-democracy), with a tidy side of global tourism built around the Mediterranean sun, sand and spectacular history.
For Allamy and her colleagues, the victory is long-sought vindication. Five years ago, they joined the state radio venture on the raft of what proved to be false promises from Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the regime’s favoured son and heir apparent.
It was to be something fresh, free and hopeful for the Libyan airwaves, a next-generation radio and TV empire to overtake the sclerotic regime babble of the main state broadcaster, Al Jamahiriya, the younger Gadhafi pledged. Actual change.
But the openness proved too much for Libya’s old guard. Twice the station was mothballed for extended periods, including one memorable evening when the elder Gadhafi himself walked into the lobby, pointed at a television monitor and barked, “This stops now.”
Each time, Saif Gadhafi coaxed the staff into sticking around, promising that this time the change would be real. But when these media reformers dared criticize the Mubarak regime of neighbouring Egypt, the Libyan Mukhabarat got involved. Over time, the state intelligence apparatus rounded up, interrogated, and gave the entire staff a brief dose of prison to better appreciate the limits of civil discourse.
“They caught us, locked us up. Six of us were women. We were terrified,” remembers Allamy.
Waleed Abudhair, 27, one of the station’s first employees, is quick to observe that it wasn’t just Libyans who swallowed Saif Gadhafi’s reform rhetoric. The world was complicit, too.
“There was a thaw when we started out. And for a while it was very good. We saw ourselves as Libyans, not Saif’s people, although we knew the Gadhafis were at the top,” says Abudhair.
“I didn’t really believe it would work — but it was a tiny bit of open space for us, though we were surrounded by gangsters. But eventually that space disappeared. Our country had been stolen with the approval of the world.”
When the revolution came, one of the stations young audio engineers, Hatem Seddig, was shot and killed protesting unarmed in the streets. Everyone knows someone who has lost a son, a brother, a cousin. Everyone knows fighters and civilians maimed during the eight months of fighting.
What they don’t know is how exactly they should feel now. Hopeful, undoubtedly. But this notion of freedom is one thing in theory, another in practice. The struggle to cast off the dictatorial mindset is still with them.
“To feel free is not easy. We don’t know how,” admits Allamy. For now, they are proceeding onto the airwaves as unpaid volunteers. They have provided a staff list to the new Libyan government in the hope of formalizing their effort. But even that leaves them wary.
“The idea of government is to regulate. But our experience is that government corrupts everything,” said Abudhair. “That’s why we don’t want a new general manager with a car worth a quarter million dinars coming in to dictate things he knows nothing about.”
Full disclosure: Waleed Abudhair has a long acquaintance with the Star, dating to December 2004, when we first encountered him by chance on the streets of Tripoli. Former prime minister Paul Martin had just left town after a state visit to Gadhafi’s then-forbidden Bab Al-Aziziya compound. It was the great unthawing of Canada-Libya relations, replete with top Canadian oil executives and the bosses of engineering giant SNC Lavalin in tow.
Outside Gadhafi’s tent, we couldn’t help but notice two camels noisily making love on the sprawling gardens at the very moment Martin and Gadhafi embarked on the political equivalent inside the dictator’s famed Bedouin tent. One hump or two?
With an extra day to kill after Martin’s departure, Abudhair showed the Star the real world of Libyan despair. No money changed hands. We walked for hours through Tripoli. And when we passed Gadhafi’s Bab Al-Aziziya, it was unforgettable how Abudhair would not allow himself a single sideways glance at the imposing three-metre outer walls. Such was the fear of offending the regime. You couldn’t even look.
We met Waleed’s friends — young, educated Libyans like Hadi Nasr, founder of the country’s first private web services firm, Libyan Spider, then a fledgling outfit trying to limit its own success, lest the “Gadhafi mafia” seized the startup. Despite the sugar-coated notion of a newer, kinder Gadhafi coming in from the cold to rejoin the world community, everyone was scared. We quoted them anonymously, for their own safety.
Last spring, Waleed and friends proved invaluable — again, no money changing hands — in helping a succession of Star reporters cover the slog of revolution, from Benghazi to Tripoli. Introductions were made, drivers and interpreters found, helping hands, all bitterly opposed to the regime, unfurled like clockwork. It was an underground railroad that, once established, was made available to a range of other news agencies, all courtesy of a chance encounter with Abudhair seven years ago.
But our reunion in Tripoli almost never happened when Libya’s new authorities threw up sudden visa barriers last month, wildly complicating the process of entering the country. Waleed, after five days of visits to a Tripoli immigration office on the Star’s behalf, eventually took matters into his own hands. Climbing on a chair, he exhorted a roomful of equally frustrated Libyans to mount a protest on the spot.
“We refuse to allow another constipated bureaucracy to take hold,” said Abudhair, sparking such a clamour that cowering visa overseers suddenly sprung to life, moving the stalled paperwork. Dozens of people stranded outside the Libyan Embassy in neighbouring Tunisia were issued visas instantly.
Eighteen hours and 27 tense, armed militia checkpoints later, the Star rolled into Tripoli, where Waleed and Hadi, the Libyan Spider founder, decided on a Bab Al-Aziziya as the first stop in an impromptu reunion tour. A rite of passage for all Libyans now, the wrecked former Gadhafi compound stands as Revolution Central. Cars routinely burn doughnuts on its pavement in noisy celebration. A popcorn seller added to the festival atmosphere. Waleed and Hadi wore ear-to-ear grins as we walked through a zone once too dangerous for sideways glances.
In the days that followed, we saw the New Libya, warts and all: Overflowing with enough hope to potentially silence the harshest critics of this corner of the Arab Spring so indelibly stamped with Western military fingerprints; enough worry to ruin everything.
We saw hundreds gather for the first-ever Voices of Libyan Women summit, where they lit into National Transition Council chairman Mustafa Abdeljalil with relish, demanding he recant his earlier declaration that Libya would re-introduce polygamy. He obliged, vowing that just as Libyan women supported and led the revolution, “We expect women to be important figures in the future of this country.”
And yet just this week, a commensurately large gathering of Islamic clerics in Tripoli held their silence on similar questions — flatly refusing, in fact, to answer questions posed by female reporters.
Nowhere did the revolution’s ugly aftermath present itself as viscerally as at a Tawerga refugee encampment near Tripoli Airport, where close to 2,000 darker-skinned Libyans are living in fear of continued score-settling. Many acknowledge they fought with Gadhafi forces. But many did not. And unlike lighter-skinned Libyans who allied with the ousted regime, the Tawerga refugees have been subjected to near-blanket reprisals — most recently, at this camp, a night raid in early November involving 60 carloads of fighters from the hornet’s nest of anger that is Misurata, Tawerga’s neighbouring city.
This is one of nine Tawerga camps. And the city they once called home, or what’s left of it, is now in the hands of Misurata militias who vow never to relinquish it again. On Monday, United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon tabled a report confirming what everyone here knows — Tawerga refugees count disproportionately among an estimated 7,000 “enemies of state,” including women and children, now held illegally by Libya’s rebel militias.
We saw up close the scars of torture as one refugee bared a back pocked with cigarette burns. Living here, eight to a room in construction trailers belonging to a stalled Turkish shopping development, the displaced are getting by better than most. Doctors Without Borders is among dozens of NGOs that came come to their aid. But not one has an inkling of a long-term solution.
“All we want to do is go home,” said Arabie Omar, a father of five. “But the rebels burned my house and farm. They stole my car, they slaughtered my animals. Everything is gone. And they don’t want ever to return.”
Omar acknowledges “most, not all” of Tawerga fought alongside Gadhafi. He acknowledges Tawerga was a staging ground for not just locals, but a wide range of pro-Gadhafi fighters who unleashed their worst on Misurata for months before the NATO-backed rebels turned the tide.
“But now our skin is (a) factor. Anyone black is under suspicion. But we are Libyans. We need protection from the new government. The war is over. So let us all have a future together.”
The sheer messiness of the moment renders premature any declarations of mission accomplished. What Canada joined — a new kind of war framed on the emerging ideal of the international community’s “responsibility to protect” — has given rise to a new kind of aftermath.
Libya is altogether different today than Iraq in 2003, or Afghanistan in late 2001. Uglier, in some ways, because of the score-settling. But paradoxically, Tripoli is abundantly more hopeful than bewildered Baghdad was when the fall of Saddam Hussein gave rise to spasms of looting.
Libya’s national treasures are by and large intact. Oil production is recovering at a pace exceeding all estimates, already halfway to pre-war levels. The overarching priority of its newly sworn caretaker government is to establish rule of law and bring militias to heel through disarmament or incorporation into a new Libyan army, paving the way for elections next June.
The difference, perhaps, is that unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, Libyans started this fight. If — admittedly, it’s one huge if — they can get through the myriad challenges of the tenuous year ahead, a future brighter than any other in the pantheon of the Arab Spring could be theirs.
Barely 5 million people. And by some estimates, the potential for an eventual oil flow of 5 million barrels per day, if and when Libya’s mineral wealth is fully tapped. The potential for a largely unexploited tourism industry built around hundreds of kilometres of sun, sand, beach and spectacular Roman ruins such as the epic Lepcis Magna, east of Tripoli. The potential to forge a new social contract that accommodates Libya’s Berber and Tawerga minorities, modernity and Sunni Islam under a moderate, outward-looking polity. It all seems within the grasp of a Libya so pregnant with possibility.
But this first year is likely to make or break those prospects. And already, Libyans have their radar up against outside meddling. They too read WikiLeaks. And many point to Qatar, others to the Muslim Brotherhood, others to the West, as hidden hands behind many of the more 100 fledgling political parties only now beginning to take root.
“We don’t just worry about fifth columns. We worry about sixth, seventh and eighth columns,” says Omar Tume, 35, an independent trader in Tripoli’s ancient gold market.
“We thank the international community for being on our side — but now we ask that you don’t interfere. We need transparency and we need your experience to help us get there. But forgive us, we are still suspicious — the West still has to prove its goodwill.”
For Waleed Abudhair, the absence of civil society is what worries him most. He sees the rapid development of Libyan watchdogs as an essential guarantor against any slide back toward totalitarian habits and rampant corruption.
“Young Libyans like me, we don’t want ideologies or interference from the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar or the West. We don’t want anyone pushing us toward one ‘ism’ or another. The ‘isms’ will kill us,” says Abudahir.
“The only ideology we want now is that of knowledge, skills, dignity and respect for ourselves and our neighbours. And if our new government is unable to deliver it, I promise you at least 70 per cent of young Libyans are ready to have a second revolution to ensure we get there.”
Underscoring that hope, the nights of November passed with fewer bullets — celebratory or otherwise — over Tripoli as the month faded to a close. And the overnight ride back to the Tunisian border revealed fewer and far more relaxed militia checkpoints, suggesting a tentative calm was beginning to take hold. The gunmen who actually took the time to leaf through theStar’s passport did so respectfully.
Nobody asked for a bribe. Not until we reached Tunisia, where uniformed border guards gleefully shouted “Money!” to let a satellite phone pass into their turf. In the tail lights, the old Libya now is long, long gone, its replacement, tantalizingly and vexingly, awaits an uncertain dawn.