In post-Gadhafi Libya, life still feels frighteningly frail

Maclean's reports from Tripoli

Market stalls are loaded with fresh vegetables and fruit and stores well stocked in Tripoli, but, politically, the country is still staring at the abyss. Photograph: Jamie Dettmer

TRIPOLI — At the ripe age of 118, Nuwara Faraj Fahajan has become the poster-child of Libya’s upcoming general elections. Photographers from all over the world snapped frantically when she held up her registration card after signing up to vote in the town of Zliten, some 100 kilometres east of Tripoli.

It is anyone’s guess, though, whether the frail centenarian will still be around when the country actually picks its new leader.

Libya’s election commission has recently announced voting initially slated for June 19 may be delayed by several weeks. And even those elections would merely pick a constituent assembly to replace the current transitional leadership and oversee the drafting of a new constitution.

The time when Libyans will choose a new president and parliament is still months away, and an air of uncertainty is hanging over the country.

Freedom has brought a few immediate, tangible benefits, of course. Stores in Tripoli are well stocked with everything from Italian fashions to the latest Apple gizmos and new shops are opening all over the city. Market stalls near the souk are loaded with fresh vegetables and fruit, and nightly gunfire has become a rarity. And newspapers and magazines are sprouting up all over the country, although reporting standards still leave a lot to be desired and most outlets seem far too cautious. (Little ink has been spilled over plight of the 70,000-some displaced Libyans, rumors of torture and abuse in rebels-run detention centres, or the clashes still ongoing in the south of the country.)

In many ways, Libya still feels frighteningly frail. The current, unelected transitional government has raised eyebrows by issuing laws that were rescinded the following day only to be re-issued again, in some cases. And some of those pieces of legislation have caused alarm. One such law meant to grant immunity to rebels for acts committed during the insurrection is so broadly written western diplomats worry it reads like a blanket amnesty that would forgive even egregious crimes such as the killing unarmed civilians. Another one, which Amnesty International researcher Diana Eltahawi says encourages “carte blanche abuse,” instructs courts to accept as evidence confessions extracted through torture.

There’s also the so-called “glorification” legislation, which makes it an offence punishable with up to life imprisonment to praise the defunct regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi or condemn the revolution that ousted him. As a result of that, schools across the country have stopped teaching modern Libyan history in an attempt to steer clear of trouble. “We are meant to pretend like it never happened and my principal is adamant that 42 years of Libyan history should be erased,” says a 38-year-old teacher, who asked not to be named. “People feel they are walking a thin line,” she adds.

That Libya’s political landscape is still in flux makes walking that thin line all the more complicated. Regional militias and local military councils of varying ideological stripes are vying to define the new order with the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, a favourite at the polls, and a multitude of progressive NGOs and civil society groups that have mushroomed since the toppling of Gadhafi. And then, of course, the old regime’s business and administrative elite– nicknamed disparagingly “the climbers” by ordinary Libyans—who did quite well under the defunct dictator and would like to keep it that way.

As Hussam Hussein Zagaar, director of a local a media development NGO, put it: “In some ways it was easier during the revolution: All we had to do then was focus on getting rid of Gaddafi. Now we have to think about what comes next.”