Libya's Post-Revolution Realities

Libyans are jubilant over the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi, but with water and electricity shortages worsening, leaders of the National Transitional Council are worried about the future.

Libyan Rebel 521 (photo credit: ZOHRA BENSEMRA / REUTERS)
Libyan Rebel 521
(photo credit: ZOHRA BENSEMRA / REUTERS)
STANDING NEAR A THREE-story structure in former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s compound, Yusuf Rashid scavenged through wooden boxes and steel desks. “Gaddafi stole from us all our lives,” said the 71-year-old Arabic teacher. “Now we will take it all back.” Hundreds of others around him were carting off miscellaneous items, such as furniture and lighting fixtures.
The sprawling Bab al-Azaziyya compound, where Gaddafi lived since he overthrew the monarchy in 1969, had been transformed into an open-air museum. Families came in droves to navigate its circuitous roads and to catch a glimpse of how their ruler lived behind walls they could never broach.
Throughout the Libyan capital of Tripoli, residents are celebrating the fall of the man who ruled them with an iron fist for four decades, while rebel fighters and their political leaders are trying to stomp out Gaddafi’s last remaining pockets of support. They also must plan for the future. And though spirits are high, the lack of even the most basic services has weighed heavily on the celebrations.
In the neighborhood of Mansura, Mohammad Sassi and his young friends man the nightly checkpoints that have sprung up around the capital. Their task is basically to wave through cars and yell “Allahu akbar!” [God is great], as they pass. “The last few months were difficult for us,” says Sassi, brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle. “We saw the fighting in other parts of the country but could not take part. Gaddafi’s men, they were on our throats.”
Dawud Rahab slows down his white Nissan Sunny as he reaches the checkpoint.
He is looking for a grocery store that still has bottled water. The capital’s water supply was cut several days after rebel forces rolled into the city August 21. “Gaddafi was a bad man,” says the 33-year-old geologist, as his daughter, age four, pokes her head out the window.
“He did not let us breathe. Now we will build a great country to rival Europe.”
RAHAB’S OPTIMISM IS A COMmon refrain in Tripoli. Residents complain that all of Libya’s problems – the lack of jobs, poor infrastructure, and its reputation as an international pariah – were all the fault of the man who called himself “brother leader.” They wonder where the oil wealth went and confidently state that a new government will restore the pride they have not felt in decades.
None of the current hardships can dampen their joy. Power outages occur daily and there is no running water. Banks are closed and shops are frequently shuttered. And the country’s precious oil – upon which Libyans’ economy is built – has not flowed in more than six months. But Tripoli’s residents are too busy celebrating to complain about their problems.
“Why do I need water when I have freedom?” asks Yahya Nasr, standing in the city’s small downtown area. “All I want is to rejoice.
Tomorrow I can worry about the problems.”
Though rebels have taken the capital, and some of Gaddafi’s family members have fled to neighboring Algeria, the former strongman’s loyalists have not given up the fight.
They have withdrawn to rural areas around the capital and are flush with arms such as GRAD rockets and RPG anti-vehicle weapons. They attack under cover of night. “It is still dangerous out there,” says rebel leader Ahmad Kajman. “We are still fighting them and it will take some time.”
It is not only around Tripoli that fighting continues. Gaddafi troops are holed up in his birthplace of Sirte, 382 miles east of the capital.
And deep in the south, in areas such as Sebha, Gaddafi still commands strong loyalty from a population that benefited from his largesse for four decades. “The battle is far from over,” says a senior rebel commander in Tripoli. “Everyone is celebrating. But we still have much to do.”
But celebrating is exactly what the capital’s residents want to do after six months of war and hardship. Just outside the medieval city’s wall in Green Square (renamed Martyrs Square), thousands of people gather on a night in late August. Musicians play songs composed for the revolution and rebels fire celebratory rounds. Small children wave the new tricolor flag that has replaced Qaddafi’s green one. “We are happy to have freedom,” says Osama Farhan, 28. “The air smells better, the food tastes better.
Everything is better now.”
LIBYA’S NEW POLITICIANS, however, are too busy worrying about the future to celebrate. They huddle daily in the Corinthia Hotel to plot the country’s course, shuffling in and out of a closed wing in the hotel guarded by stocky men with an assortment of assault rifles. “We should all be happy the tyrant has fallen,” says a member of the rebel’s political body, known as the National Transitional Council (NTC). “But we have a lot of work to do. We need the international community to release our funds.
We need to start pumping oil. I worry about the future.”
Others do not share the NTC member’s pessimism. “We are a rich country and we can handle these problems,” says a professor at a Tripoli university. “I am confident we can overcome the challenges ahead.”
The international community is mobilizing to help Libya surmount the obstacles it faces.
A number of countries have unfrozen assets held by Gaddafi’s government. At a meeting in Paris, Western nations announced on September 1 they would release more than $15 billion to the NTC held in their banks.
Though it’s a start, the new Libyan government had hoped the approximately $160 billion invested abroad would be turned over.
At Gaddafi’s compound, people are in no mood to talk about tomorrow’s problems.
“This is the happiest day of my life,” says Hana Turki with her two daughters. When asked about the NTC’s pessimism, Turki shrugs it off. “We were under siege since February,” she remarks, referring to the start of the revolution. “Oil? Water? We have so much of it that we can be patient for a few days.”
But at the local water plant, Tawfiq Tarhouni disagrees. “There is a limit to the peoples’ patience. They cannot go on endlessly without basic services.” A co-worker slips him a note with the latest news about the water crisis. “Once their celebrations end, they will demand we give them the services they expect. And when they don’t get them, it won’t be a pretty affair,” he says.
At the municipal council offices, bureaucrats shuffle around large corridors dodging the many NTC representatives who are demanding prompt responses to their requests. “We have so many problems, we don’t know where to begin,” says an exhausted civil servant. “Water, electricity, food. And then there is the question of all these armed men.” He pauses to regain his bearings, dizzied by the suffocating heat and lack of airconditioning.
“The NTC’s top guys are still in Benghazi. But they think they can manage affairs here through remote control. That just doesn’t work.”
The dozens of militias rolling through the city in their pick-up trucks do not seem to bother Tripoli residents. They are viewed as liberators rather than potential troublemakers.
With the fighting nearing its end, the rebels spend their days shooting their rifles into the air and parading around town in their battle dress. “They don’t bother us much,” says Mohammad Busiri, as he waits outside a bank he hopes will allow him to draw on his checking account. “We are proud of what they did for us.”
Some 50,000 people were reportedly killed in the fighting to free the country from Gaddafi’s grip and Libyans had feared an even greater bloodbath. Now with Tripoli free after six months of agonized waiting, there is much to celebrate in the capital that Gaddafi promised would be his “Stalingrad.”