Luke Harding reports: It was once a place you ventured in a tin helmet, with your fingers stuffed in your ears. After the fall of Tripoli last August, rebels celebrated by firing round after round of bullets into the night sky. The debris of battle and revolution was everywhere.
There are no weapons to be seen in Martyrs’ Square now. Instead the square has been turned into a children’s playground with a Superman bouncy castle, a toy train, and outdoor table football. There is a market with women’s clothes and shoes. Other stalls sell kalashnikovs – the plastic variety – and cups of mint tea.
Sitting in a cafe across from the square’s imposing Ottoman palace, Saad Kamur explained that he had voted for Mahmoud Jibril in Libya’s historic election. Jibril, a 60-year-old US-educated political scientist, appears to have won a landslide victory in the poll on Saturday, defying predictions that Islamists would sweep to power in Libya, as they have done elsewhere.
“He’s moderate. And experienced,” Kamur said. “I don’t think the others were capable of running a government.” Kamur, a Tripoli businessman, said observers who predicted that Libya would go the way of Egypt and Tunisia – now run by religious parties – had misinterpreted the national mood, and Libya’s prevailing centrism.
“Libyans are open to the outside world. Many have studied abroad. They haven’t seen anything positive yet from Islamist governments,” he suggested. As for the election, in which he cast his first ever vote at the rather belated age of 52, he said: “Nobody imagined it would go this smoothly.”
Abdul Muntasar, a purveyor of squeaky dog-toys for eight dinars each, said he liked Jibril because he was nothing like Libya’s previous ruler Muammar Gaddafi, who was caught and killed last October.
“Jibril isn’t a man trying to seize power,” he said. Ahmed Ibrahim, a tourist visiting from provincial Al-Jufra, chipped in: “He’s educated, on the side of democracy.”
Indeed, Libya’s new leader has a reputation as a pragmatic moderate.
He attracted votes from all points on the country’s political compass: from liberals and the educated in Tripoli; from tribesmen in the desert south; and – in an arguably hopeful sign for reconciliation – from disgruntled former supporters of the previous regime.