Libya, after Gaddafi

Nicolas Pelham writes:

While the foreign media focus on catching the colonel, Libyans seem to consider him to have already passed into history. Finding the deposed despot in a country of 679,358 square miles is a task that has been made all the arduous by the insouciance Libyans display toward the question of his whereabouts. For someone whose persona dominated Libya for four decades, it is striking how fast he has slipped from the public consciousness. His images have long been torn down, and his Green Book aphorisms torched. No one made an effort to stage rallies marking “Fatah September” — the forty-second anniversary of his military takeover on September 1, 1969 — or to respond to his plea for a million-man march on the capital. Threats to unleash stockpiles of mustard gas and al-tarbur al-khamis, or the fifth column, have passed without incident. Having cried wolf once too often, the colonel now sees his warnings of imminent car bombings and a guerrilla “war of bees that sting” dismissed with a complacent shrug. The ubiquitous graffiti drawings of Abu Shafshoufa, or “Fuzzy-Wuzzy,” have reduced a dictator who kept power by terrorizing his population to a joke. Of all the problems facing Libya’s new order, the specter of Qaddafi’s comeback falls far down the list.

In the wake of the colonel’s flight from the capital on August 21, cautious Tripolitanians dithered for a bit more than a week, and then decided that the wind is blowing firmly his successors’ way. Ten days later, they partied in the streets with popcorn, paper lanterns and some 30,000 new Libyan tricolors. The extent of popular participation is inspiring. Where hitherto the Great Leader was so obsessed with omnipresence that he banned soccer players from sporting their own names on their jerseys, a surfeit of new actors has stepped into the vacuum. And in a country where hitherto decision-making was routed through one man, new local coping mechanisms have emerged to address the hardships caused by an absent government, a plugged-up water supply, intermittent electricity and unpaid salaries.

The sense of local ownership of the revolution is important: No one has stripped the electricity cables from pylons for their copper, as Iraqis did after the US invaded their country and toppled Saddam Hussein. Libyans, who before the uprising depended on an army of foreign labor, farm their own allotments, run their own shops, sweep the streets and volunteer as hospital nurses. Homeowners with private wells open their doors to those with none. On their own initiative, policemen in Fashloum, a working-class district in the center of town, met in the mosque on the first Friday after the colonel’s flight and agreed to reestablish a local force. By midday the following day, a score of its hundred policemen had reported for duty.

Residents of housing estates who rarely spoke to each other under Qaddafi have created neighborhood councils, merging elders from the traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, the lijan al-sulh (reconciliation committees), with the underground leadership that planned the revolt, as well as respected men from the mosque. Within a week, their subcommittees were supplying better services than the city’s five-star hotels. The mosque in Hadaba’s Haddad quarter, a poor district of rural migrants, offered air conditioning and so much water it spilled into the streets. Ironically, in the colonel’s absence, Tripolitanians created the very social system he had taught but never realized — a jamahiriyya, a decentralized network of grassroots, non-partisan people’s committees.

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1 thought on “Libya, after Gaddafi

  1. KFritz

    There may be more the the TNC’s ‘insouciance’ than meets the eye. With Gaddafi’s hands off the levers of power, their main goal is accomplished, if not quite complete. They would like to corner and capture or kill him with as little bloodshed and bad blood as possible. Their most recalcitrant citizens in a new government will be the citizens of Bani Walid, Sirte, Jufra, and Sabha, in any event. If there’s significant destruction and/or bloodshed in any of them, the inhabitants will be that much more of a problem. So the TNC is trying to avoid any more armed conflict, if at all possible. I’ve reached this conclusion by reading Al Jazeera’s Libya Blog obsessively.

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