Joy, grief and hope at Libya's feast of sacrifice

Post-Gaddafi, Libyans sense both hope and anxiety during the Eid holiday, and insist politicians not squander war dead's sacrifice.

Libya flag 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani)
Libya flag 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani)
MISRATA, Libya - Joy was tinged by past sadness, hope mingled with anxiety for the future as Libyans thronged their mosques at dawn on Sunday to celebrate one of the great festivals of the Muslim year, Eid al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice.
Nowhere was the emotion and religious symbolism more acute than in Misrata. The city suffered heavy losses resisting a siege by the army of Muammar Gaddafi. Local forces, which took credit for last month's capture of the ousted strongman that ended in his death, are pushing for a big say in the new Libya.
Men streamed away from dawn prayers at the imposing mosque in Misrata's Zorugh neighborhood, preparing to feast on sheep slaughtered in a ritual inspired by Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son to God.
They spoke of the special savor of a first Eid free of Gaddafi's personal rule, of embracing a new democracy but also of sorrow for loved ones killed in the war.
"We are happy," said Mohammed Bashir, a 40-year-old merchant in the prosperous suburb as he exchanged handshakes with friends and neighbours, all dressed in fresh robes and new clothes for Eid. "But we are crying for our children we lost in the war."
"This Eid is different - we killed Gaddafi," laughed Ali Sheikh, 86, his English spiced with a rich Texan drawl acquired over decades working for American firms drilling for Libyan oil.
"Now we're all going home to kill our lambs. It's gonna be OK. We can fix this country real fast."
Ibrahim al-Assawi, 41, a university chemistry lecturer, said: "This Eid is a special Eid because Gaddafi is gone. So we ask God for our country to be better. We want the next government to be better. It can't be worse than Gaddafi."
Teacher Abdelsalam al-Madani, who at 40 was born two years after Colonel Gaddafi seized power, said simply: "This is a special Eid, because Eids before, there was no freedom."
Sacrifice must not be wasted
Yet others, grieving for those killed in months of fighting and heavy bombardment of the rebellious old port city, remain anxious that a new government and new constitution have yet to be established as rival factions coalesce and jockey for power.
Mohammed Saleh al-Taher, a 33-year-old merchant, stopped at the nearby cemetery after the mosque to weep by the graves of a younger brother and a friend who died fighting alongside him in the battle with Gaddafi's forces for Libya's third city.
Gaddafi's fall and his death last month along the coast in Sirte, apparently at the hands of fighters from Misrata, was a comfort, he said: "That's the only thing that soothes my heart. That's the only thing, that their blood was not shed in vain."
Standing amid rows of cement-topped graves marked by simple breeze block headstones, some adorned with the new flag of "free Libya", he was anxious that Libyans should do justice to those considered to have died a martyr's death by building democracy.
"We hope people will honor them and we will have a good country that's fair and democratic," Taher said.
"These were young men, just 20 and 23, and they didn't sacrifice themselves just for politicians who just go on talking and looking after themselves, or for people to go on suffering."
At the neighborhood mosque, a substantial three-domed modern building in traditional style beneath its minaret, Moftah Abdelhamid, a 51-year-old engineer, bore the forehead callous that is the mark of frequent prayer.
He insisted that Eid, which also marks the end of the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, was still a day for joy, since martyrdom was itself a blessing.
"Martyrs in our hearts, martyrs in our blood, martyrs in our flesh, martyrs in our spirits. We will not forget them," he said, but added: "We don't cry for the martyrs."
Self-confidence among the Islamists
An active member of Libya's long-suppressed Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, an offshoot of the movement founded in Egypt in the 1920s, Abdelhamid said he was confident the six million Libyans, sitting on substantial oil and gas reserves, could look forward to a better future without Gaddafi.
The rise of Islamists following the Arab Spring revolts in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt has discomfited opponents who voice concern about their willingness to share power or accept equal rights for women.
But Abdelhamid insisted that Libya's Brotherhood, whose future electoral strength is hard to assess, would respect democratic balances of power and equality.
Citing the example of Turkey, he said: "We want democracy.
"Islamic law does not mean we are against civilization ... When we say Islamic law, we mean civilisation."
He also dismissed fears, promoted by Gaddafi himself, that Libya may fall prey to traditional tribal and regional rivalries. The experience of standing up to dictatorship had, Abdelhamid said, brought Libyans together with a new sense of national pride: "Now, we love our flag," he said.
Some, notably among Gaddafi's tribal kin in his hometown of Sirte and among supporters in the capital Tripoli, suspect those from Misrata, Benghazi and other towns where the uprising took root of seeking dominance at their expense. Negotiations on a transitional government that can run elections are continuing.
But for Othman al-Hwel, 48, an engineer at a steel plant, the suffering of the war in Misrata has gendered a new spirit of cooperation among people that bodes well for Libya's future.
Speaking as neighbors in the street outside the mosque cut the throat of a sheep whose meat would be distributed to the needy, Hwel said that the traditional sense of charity and sharing at Eid had been heightened by the sufferings of 2011, and that people oppressed by Gaddafi felt a new self-confidence.
"This is very different from previous years," he said. "The war has brought people together ... When the blood flowed, when people were being killed, it turned 180 degrees. The people came together and felt solidarity ... There is now civil society."