Anyone But Gaddafi

People in parts of Libya under rebel control put faith in a transitional council, but some say its main lure is ABG – Anyone But Gaddafi.

Children outside a mosque in Darna, Libya 521  (photo credit: STEVEN SOTLOFF)
Children outside a mosque in Darna, Libya 521
(photo credit: STEVEN SOTLOFF)
TOBRUK, Libya - Throughout the rebel-controlled eastern parts of Libya, people are elated to be free of the suffocating and often whimsical policies of Muammar Gaddafi. They have faith that the Transitional National Council (TNC) created in the days following the revolution, launched on February 17, will bring them the prosperity and freedom they lacked during Gaddafi’s 41 years in power.
But beneath the thin veneer of hope, Libyans find it difficult to articulate why they are confident that the council can transition into an effective government that can meet their needs.
“These are the happiest days of my life,” exclaims 32-year-old Muhammad al-Ubaydi as he weighs a kilo of oranges for a customer in his tiny fruit stand in Tobruk. Across town, a young man named Khalid Shiftani voices the same sentiment as he takes a break from cutting up the day’s catch of fish. “I believe our opposition council will make life better,” says Shiftani, 26. “We need to give them time.”
Nearby, the small city of Darna protrudes from the Mediterranean coast. The fierce waves of the sea crash against the rocks on the shore. The ferocity is not limited to the water. Violence and rebellion are embedded in the town’s psyche.
In 1996, an Islamist rebellion claimed hundreds of lives when Gaddafi ruthlessly suppressed it. Corpses of fighters who died in clashes with government forces in the mountains south of here were displayed throughout the city as a blunt message to residents to fall into line or face the same fate. After the United States occupied Iraq in 2003, dozens of young men from Darna traveled there to fight American troops. Residents say hundreds are at the front fighting Gaddafi’s forces.
BUT TODAY DARNA IS celebrating. Outside the Sahaba mosque children recite poetry while men and women wave Libyan flags. “I feel more joy now than when my son was born,” says 42- year-old Salma Benini. A gust of wind blows her violet headscarf over her eyes. “To not have Gaddafi anymore telling us what to do, what to think…this means freedom for us.”
Benini and her small group of friends express their hope that the provisional TNC could transition into a true democratic government. “We want the council to draw up a constitution and have a referendum,” explains Amal Bantaher, 33, coddling her infant son.
Municipal council member Faraj Sassi says the council fills a vacuum, showing people that there’s life after Gaddafi. “We are happy with the council. We have faith that (TNC Chairman Mustafa) Abd al-Jalil will create a representative government.” When pressed, Sassi concedes it’s more about getting rid of Gaddafi than having a perfect replacement lined up. “Anything is better than Gaddafi,” Sassi says. “That is the chief reason we support them.”
Many Libyans express the same view. They support the TNC simply because Gaddafi is not a part of it, rather than any deep understanding of its policies or members. The council is composed of a medley of former senior government officials, dissidents in exile, and civil society activists.
It is chaired by former Justice Minister Mustafa Abd al-Jalil, who resigned his post in February after Gaddafi ruthlessly suppressed non-violent protesters demanding greater freedoms. Another key member is Mahmoud Gebril, a 58-year-old former university professor who returned to Libya in 2005 to run the National Economic Development Council, a government-financed think-tank. Other members include social activists such as Salwa al-Dighayli, who has fought for civil liberties. An assortment of technocrats with experience in the national oil and banking sectors fills out the cast.
RECLINING ON AMAROON SOFA in the Masira Hotel in Tobruk, local council head Farraj Yassin sips his thick black coffee as he details the reasons he backs the TNC. “I don’t have someone looking over my shoulder always telling me what to do,” he explains, adjusting his red felt cap. He was particularly pleased that Gaddafi’s revolutionary committees, which cowed the population for more than 30 years, have disappeared.
By the time he consumes his second cup of coffee, he begins to express his worries. “People are complaining about the high costs of cooking oil,” he explains. “We will soon need sugar. And then there is the question of oil, which is no longer being pumped. I don’t know how the council is going to address all these concerns when members are busy dealing with the international community and fighting on the front.”
As Yassin lists his concerns, a man sitting on an adjacent sofa interjects. “What do you want, Farraj? That Gaddafi return and give us sugar? Abd al-Jalil will bring us our sugar and our freedom!”
Later that night a group of men gathers outside a local grocery to smoke Egyptian-made Marlboro cigarettes and exchange the day’s news. “I am very pleased with Abd al-Jalil. I like (Military Chief of Staff Abd al-Fattah) Yunis too,” offers 24-year-old Ahmad Firjani. Sharp crackles of gunfire fired by ecstatic rebels obscure his words. When pressured to explain what lies behind his satisfaction with the rebel leaders he bursts out, “They got rid of Gaddafi! That is enough for me!”
In the opposition capital of Benghazi, a local university professor tries to explain Libyans’ views. “People here never had any freedom. They never were allowed to think. We don’t have books,” says the 45-year-old academic, who did not want his name to appear in an Israeli publication. Freedom of thought and expression were stifled by Gaddafi for the last 40 years. Local books shops in Benghazi stock only a handful of titles about the country and none of them comes remotely close to touching on political and social topics.
“So when all of the sudden we are free and can say anything we want, it is difficult for people to go beyond slogans and articulate their views,” adds the professor, who received his doctorate in England.
Outside the Benghazi courthouse near the coast, families gather at night to buy souvenirs painted with the colors of the new Libyan flag – apparently a revival of the old one. In 1977, Gaddafi had replaced the national flag with a plain green one in response to Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel.
Tables with lapel pins and wristbands crowd the area. “Freedom is good,” says 19- year-old Muhammad Tati as he surveys the collection of items. “I don’t know what will come next or what the council will do, but I am happy we don’t have Gaddafi anymore.”