“At last, I feel proud to be Libyan”

Under Gaddafi, Libya was plagued by xenophobic attacks. But now its citizens are reveling in their new-found racial freedom

Africa Dispatches
Beachhead: Rebels at Saadi Gaddafi's waterfront villa in Tripoli (Justin Marozzi)

At the Mellitah Oil and Gas complex, a vast city of pipes and gas-flaring chimneys about 90 minutes west of Tripoli, Dr Ali Tarhuni is being mobbed by crowds of well-wishers. He’s here on behalf of the National Transitional Council (NTC) to take back control of the facility from rebel forces from the Zintan Brigade who secured it in late August as they swept down from the Nafusa mountains towards Tripoli. The atmosphere is jubilant.

“We’re here to show the world that the revolutionaries are not only capable of conquering Gaddafi and liberating our dear land, but also of protecting our institutions and of managing our own country,” says Tarhuni, the oil and finance minister. “It’s a great day to see the country getting back to normal-gradually but surely.” Volleys of “Allahu akbar!” (“God is great!”) greet every bullish pronouncement. After a lightning photoshoot and a quick round of pressing the flesh, he is whisked off in a Mercedes and the event is over.

Tarhuni is getting good at this sort of stuff. Only a few days earlier, at a post-Eid celebration in the prime minister’s office in Tripoli, he was kissing babies with the practised ease of a campaigning politician. Until the arrival of Mahmoud Jibril, the interim prime minister, in early September, he was the most senior representative of the NTC in the liberated capital. He was also the first political heavyweight, ahead of both Jibril and Mustapha Abdel Jalil, the NTC chairman, to address euphoric crowds in Tripoli’s renamed Martyrs Square, the focal point of the revolution. 

Two observations can be made about the event at Mellitah, a joint venture with the Italian energy giant ENI which is said to be the largest foreign investment in Libya. First, if it’s not quite business as usual — there’s still fighting to be done and the symbolically important task of capturing or killing Gaddafi — Libya is doing its damndest to show that the country has turned the revolutionary corner and is open for business. In Tarhuni’s words, “Our message to the world: your investments are safe in Libya.” Judging by the lobby of the Radisson Hotel, venture capitalists are already beating a path to Tripoli.

The second observation, whatever the protestations to the contrary, is that politics is starting in earnest. The last time I met Tarhuni, back in June, he was finance and oil minister. Today, he has added the position of deputy prime minister to his twin portfolios, an appointment that occasioned a certain raising of eyebrows. As one Tripoline puts it, “We never had finance and oil under one minister, let alone deputy prime minister too.” Earlier in the month, Tarhuni announced the formation of a new Supreme Security Committee for Tripoli and said he had been appointed its chairman, concentrating additional powers in his hands.

Jibril insists it’s still too early for politics. Speaking to journalists on September 8 after his long-awaited arrival in Tripoli, he rebuked “some colleagues” for starting “the political game”, reminding them that the war against Gaddafi had not yet finished and the country was not entirely liberated. If the politicking continued, he hinted, he would step down and withdraw from the fray altogether. He reiterated his pledge not to seek office beyond the transitional period of 20 months, by which time Libya should have a new constitution and be set for national elections. 

Perhaps the most interesting and telling point Jibril made, however, was not so much the no-politics-please-we’re-Libyan-revolutionaries as the emphasis on future challenges. Libyans had to dwell on future nation-building, he said, rather than be drawn into a destructive concentration on the past. “The most difficult battle is against ourselves. How can we achieve reconciliation, how can we achieve security and agree a constitution that dictates the boundaries of the political game?”

To get a first-hand understanding of the balance between reconciliation and reprisal in Libya, I travelled with a Libyan friend and his family to the southern oasis of Ghadames, home to a mixed Arab-Berber population that has, for many centuries, coexisted with the Touareg, an ancient desert people. The relationship has often been fraught. For the past six months, armed and funded by the Gaddafi regime, a youthful portion of the local Touareg, supplemented by fellow Touareg from Algeria and Mali, policed the small town of 12,000 with an iron rod — and electrical cables for beating suspected rebels.

In the end, after two flat tyres and a five-hour roadside wait sweltering beneath the desert sun, our journey to Ghadames was interrupted by 16 Touareg who burst on to the road armed with Kalashnikovs. In the space of a 24-hour kidnapping in the rolling sand seas where Libya, Algeria and Tunisia meet, our Touareg captors, vestiges of the Gaddafi loyalist militia, threatened to kill us unless their fellow Touareg prisoners in Ghadames were released. Their homes had been robbed and burnt to the ground, they said, their animals slaughtered.

When I finally made it to Ghadames — my friend remains hostage in the desert at the time of writing — much of the talk was of how the Touareg were no longer welcome in the town. While Jibril was sending out all the right messages in Tripoli, echoed four days later in Martyrs Square by Jalil (“We are Muslims, people of forgiveness”), reprisals were already under way in this remote desert oasis. The town council was almost alone in declaring that the Touareg, most of whom had not been involved in the brutal rule by Gaddafi’s Touareg militia, had a future in Ghadames.

If you are a black Libyan, chances are you are more likely to be fearing, or experiencing, reprisals than welcoming reconciliation at the moment. The prevalence of reports that Gaddafi was using sub-Saharan mercenaries to prop up his regime has resulted in attacks on innocent black Libyans who played no role in the conflict. In its report “The Battle for Libya: Killings, Disappearance and Torture”, Amnesty cites figures from the International Organisation for Migration showing that before the revolution Libya was home to between 1.5-2.5 million foreign nationals, mostly from sub-Saharan African countries, including Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan. “Racist and xenophobic attacks, already frequent before the unrest, increased as a result of the breakdown of law and order and an escalation of xenophobic rhetoric by both sides of the conflict,” the report says, documenting numerous instances of reprisals and abuse. 

During a visit to Tripoli General Hospital, I saw four terrified black African prisoners under guard. Possibly fearing for their lives, they tried to escape, triggering a row between the hospital authorities and the rebel guard which resulted in pistol-pulling, gun-waving and only narrowly avoided a fatal shooting.

The number of armed men in Tripoli, many of them throwing up celebratory curtains of lead from Kalashnikovs and anti-aircraft guns, is a concern. For as long as the conflict continues, it is understandable that rebel forces will keep their weapons. Yet it is not clear when they will surrender them. Messages vary depending on which brigade you speak to. For Abdullah Abdullah, a commander in the muscle-flexing Misratah Brigade, currently holed up in the Al Widan Hotel in Tripoli, there is no immediate rush. “We’ll go back when we’ve got Abu Shafshufa [mop-head, a contemptuous nickname for Gaddafi] and a good president and when we have good security in 100 per cent of the country. We can stay in Tripoli. It’s our capital. We’re one family.”

With the city stabilising impressively by the day, from power and water returning to immaculately uniformed traffic policemen marshalling the flows of exuberant traffic, Tripolines may take a less relaxed view of their armed neighbours’ stay in the capital, particularly if it starts to look like a declaration of intent to grab a share of the political spoils rather than reinforce security.

While the mood music from the NTC remains encouraging, emphasising reconciliation, stabilisation and the need to see the fight against Gaddafi through, some fear a growing Islamist role in the new Libya. They point to the rise and rise of Abdel Hakim Belhaj, former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which Washington declared a terrorist organisation and al-Qaeda ally, as the most powerful man in the capital, leader of the Tripoli Military Council. Then there is the Islamic scholar Ali Sallabi, his reputation burnished by a high-profile leadership role during the revolution, and the Islamist umbrella group Etilaf, which is said to have risen to prominence at the expense of more secular groups by dint of its organisational prowess. 

These are legitimate worries, though they should be understood in a context in which the overwhelming mood, both on the street and the corridors of transitional power, is for a democratic, moderate Muslim state. Such an aspiration will naturally face fierce challenges.

Dr Aref Nayed, an urbane religious scholar charged with managing the NTC’s stabilisation programme, says the transition will be a “formidable” task. “Natural friction and competition between various groups and parties in the country must be managed in a democratic and mutually respectful way as the raw materials for democracy rather than the cracks of division,” he says.

As Libyans look west to Tunisia, which kicked off the Arab Spring, and east to Egypt, which also ejected its dictator but is stagnating under septuagenarian military rule, they take heart from the progress of their revolution. “Tunisia and Egypt have more problems than us,” says Krekshi Mohyeddin, a legal translator. “They cut off the head of the regime but not the roots, which are still there. We’ve taken the whole system out.” 

This may tilt towards complacency, but notwithstanding the numerous challenges that lie ahead, Libya still appears best placed of all Arab countries to weather the revolutionary storm and build a more stable state with foundations that are more or less democratic. Ekram al Huni, a Libyan friend from Benghazi days earlier this summer, has just returned to Tripoli to take the pulse. She is reassured by the rumbustious debate she has encountered.

“It’s great to see it. Tripolines are saying to the NTC, ‘Who elected you?’ They’re questioning everything and it’s really healthy. Things that have been suppressed can rise to the surface and people can express their opinions. There’s more openness. It’s healthy for the NTC to know they’re being held accountable.”

One criticism she makes, repeated by other Libyans, is the government’s record on communicating plans and policies to the population. “The NTC is speaking effectively to international donors, humanitarian organisations and its international partners but not really to the people. Libyans aren’t going to be pleased with that.” 

As the revolutionary euphoria fades into quieter satisfaction at toppling one of the world’s least savoury dictators, Libyans are likely to take a closer, more questioning look at their political leaders. They will become impatient with high unemployment, wondering why a country that has the largest oil reserves in Africa is still mired in poverty. The NTC will need to guide a people hungry for rapid change every step of the way.

It is easy to forget, seven months after rebels in Benghazi first braved Gaddafi’s guns, that freedom is a new experience for the inhabitants of Tripoli. During the fortnight I was based in the Libyan capital, the celebrations in Martyrs Square grew from tentative hundreds to ebullient and joyful thousands. It took time for Tripolines finally to believe that it was safe to come out. When they did, they filled the square.

Amid the waving red, black and green tricolours, the rousing new-old national anthem, the booming reports of anti-aircraft guns and crowds shouting “Arfa rasuk fawg, Enta Leebee hour!” (“Hold your head high, you are a free Libyan!”), Yusra al Massoudi, a civil engineer is anxious to speak to a foreign journalist. 

“This is the real picture of Libya,” she says, “the best picture. This is fantastic. I feel great. We can’t believe this. All of my life I never felt this was my country. Libya was like Gaddafi’s farm. Now, only now, for the first time in my life, I feel proud to be Libyan. This is my country.”