The challenging transition in Libya

'Power is in our hands'

‘Power is in our hands’

Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

It was the narrative of the victorious. As rebel fighters swept into Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s private compound in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, the chairman of the country’s interim National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Abdul Jalil from Benghazi, bade farewell to the regime’s 42-year rule. “The era of Gadhafi is over,” said Jalil, standing before the tricolour rebel flag. “Congratulations to all the people of Libya on this historic victory.”

Tracer fire and fireworks lit up Tripoli’s night sky as rebels both celebrated and continued their fight to “cleanse” the capital of the last pockets of loyalist cells. The atmosphere was a heady mix of danger and euphoria. For days, the bloodied corpses of regime loyalists had been lying on a central roundabout where they were killed, after rallying in support of the “Brother Leader.” Nearby, a large statue commemorating The Green Book, Gadhafi’s strange guide to life and politics, lay toppled in the road, covered, now, in graffitied expletives. Curious residents explored ransacked Gadhafi homes, feared internal security buildings, and prisons—black holes into which thousands, over the decades, had disappeared without a trace.

At the secretive Gadhafi compound of Bab al-Aziziya, a party broke out. “Today is a great day—everything has been turned upside down,” said Ahmed Ali Ghariyani. “The power is in our hands.” He stood in a building bombed during the U.S.’s 1986 Operation El Dorado Canyon. Gadhafi used the attack to whip up anti-Western sentiment, and famously conducted his speeches from its charred remains. Outside, he built a statue of a giant golden fist crushing a model of an American warplane.

Kitschy pink flowered wallpaper now lines the walls; green chairs with elaborately carved backs sit on faded green carpets. Ghariyani, 73, stood at Gadhafi’s pulpit, dressed in a pink silk robe he’d looted from Gadhafi’s home, and mimicked his long, rambling speeches, bringing raucous laughter from the crowds below. “I will miss him for the jokes,” said an onlooker. “We have lost a man to laugh at.” Mere days earlier, comments and sketches like these would likely have resulted in jail time, or worse.

Across the city, local protection squads are cracking down on men they accuse of being Gadhafi loyalists. Maclean’s watched as dozens of men, mostly black Libyans or Africans, were thrown into rebel-controlled prisons. Nearby, rebels fired bullets into the air and screamed “God is great,” in announcing a high-profile arrest: Mukhtar al-Aswad, a television star. Vehicles jammed the road as locals swarmed to the scene of the arrest, and watched as the men ransacked the trunk of his car, and swore at a passenger.

“You always said you loved Gadhafi,” the rebels shouted at Aswad, 86. “He used to work with [state] media, and made speeches in support of him just before Gadhafi was finished,” a man named Adel Mohammed al-Hasi explained to Maclean’s, as they tore through Tripoli streets with their new captive, swerving maniacally through traffic. The plump, elderly prisoner sat slumped and defeated in the front seat. “I don’t know what happened. I work in television and by force the director…” he began, before being cut off. “You lie!” Hasi shouted. “You support Gadhafi! This is a bad man!”

Rebel groups insist captures like these are conducted in accordance with the law, and that prisoners are well cared for. “We will run an investigation,” says captain Salah Naji. “If he has done nothing wrong, he will go home. They are fed in prison, and given medicines—a five-star hotel,” he adds, “compared to Gadhafi’s time.” But at Tripoli’s Furnaj police station, dozens of prisoners have been locked up for days without ever seeing a lawyer. More than 40 black captives, wide-eyed and frightened, are crammed into three concrete cells. “We have no lawyers,” say civilian volunteer Fathi Mohammed, “and there is only one prosecutor.”

Scenes like these are jarring reminders of the challenges facing Libya’s provisional government, which is still taking shape. Despite news that Gadhafi’s wife, Safia, daughter Aisha and sons Mohammed and Hannibal have fled to Algeria, loyalist forces have kept up the fight, and Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, along with the southern towns of Sabha and Bani Walid, remain under the control of the forces of the ousted regime. Many Libyans remain fearful of a future without their leader, meanwhile, and fear and distrust the new rebel leadership. “For weeks residents were told by state television that these men are al-Qaeda terrorists,” one Tripoli resident told Maclean’s. “Now they have come to their city. Many people find it difficult to trust them.” This sentiment is widely shared, with the exception of the NTC’s Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the former justice minister. Rebels and civilians alike have told Maclean’s that Jalil is the only man they trust.

Only he and Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the executive of the NTC and another former Gadhafi minister, seem to have garnered enough popular support to carve out a future leadership role. Analysts fear that if the NTC does not quickly assert control, Libya could descend into factionalism and bloody chaos as military leaders, rebel groups and religious elements vie for control. Dangerous rivalries, in a country awash with heavy weaponry, could easily tear open this finely woven patchwork of loyalties.

British diplomats and NATO representatives have spent months in Benghazi working to draft strategies for a smooth transition of power from Gadhafi to the NTC. “We do not want another Iraq,” said one Western diplomat, recalling the looting, shootings and revenge killings that ravaged Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In the last month, Jalil has sought to bring the dozens of rebel militia units under the control of the National Liberation Army. “Any man that doesn’t want to be under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of the Interior will be given to his tribe for them to deal with him,” military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani told reporters. “He will be alone—no one wants to be left alone in these times.” Jalil has threatened to resign should the groups working beneath his command fail to fall in line.

But the transitional government is facing another threat. The July murder of Gen. Abdul Fattah Younis, the rebels’ top military leader, revealed not only the depth of divisions within the rebel movement but another, equally worrying phenomenon: the increasing presence of hardline Islamists and jihadi elements. The so-called 17th February brigade—the faction thought by some to be responsible for the killing—is Islamist, and believed to be angry at Younis’s long-time efforts to crack down on Muslim extremists.

“I am happy for this revolution, but I am afraid of the Islamic groups,” says Masud Buisir, a rebel musician who has been fighting on the front lines since February. “I am a Muslim. I pray, I believe in Islam. But these people misinterpret the Quran. Gadhafi was fighting and killing and jailing them. Now they have a chance to regain power. And they have weapons.” There are many jihadis fighting on the front line, he adds. “They tried to stop me playing music: ‘It is haram [forbidden in Islam],’ they said to me. ‘You are playing for the devil!’ ” They convert young men, he says, who are especially impressionable, giving them money. “They are dangerous, militant in their beliefs and they want to rule.”

Buisir’s concerns coincide with reports from diplomats in Benghazi confirming the increased traffic of known jihadists into Libya. Anwar al-Magariaf, the brother of a founder of the key opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, is particularly worried about the Muslim Brotherhood. “They want to control this whole area, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, and they are gaining power every day,” he says. Most worrying to some, however, are signs of support from the government of Qatar. The 17th February brigade, which has received funding, weapons and military training from Qatar, counts known jihadis who fought religious wars in Afghanistan and Yemen among its ranks. “I am afraid because they can spoil our freedom,” says Magariaf. “I don’t want them to start a war like in Iraq and Afghanistan in Libya.”

Islamists, however, remain the minority, and, publicly at least, Libya’s new government remains committed to creating a moderate, democratic, Muslim Libya. Six months ago, many of Libya’s fighting men were doctors, engineers, students and taxi drivers; many simply want to return to these careers. But as Jalil himself has noted, “the road ahead will not be paved with rose petals.”

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