/ 14 September 2011

Tripoli’s new normal: Bickering politicians

Less than a month after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall, Tripoli is bustling. Shoppers throng markets. Banks are open. Electricity and water are back, most of the time. Out in the desert, some oil flows.

With parts of the giant Opec member country still at war, the rapid spread of a semblance of normality is startling.

“We actually thought it was going to be far worse than this in our planning for Tripoli,” said a security official, who asked not to be identified as he was not authorised to talk to the media.

But for Tripoli, home to a third of Libya’s six million population, it’s a distinctly new kind of normal.

The welcome return to everyday routines after six months of turmoil has been accompanied by emerging signs of a country starkly unfamiliar to Libyans brought up under 42 years of Gaddafi’s rule.

And that’s not just because of the arms and ammunition left lying around the city by fleeing Gaddafi troops, or the bursts of celebratory gunfire from revolutionary fighters who still control part of the city.

One of the most telling novelties since the fall of Tripoli is free speech, and with it an early, and for some uncomfortable, dose of public political bickering.

Jockeying for power
Some figures within the anti-Gaddafi camp are airing their differences in public as they jockey for power ahead of the nomination of a new interim government, a move expected about a week from now.

For Libyans, forbidden by Gaddafi to form political parties or hold elections, a bit of political openness is welcome — more the birth pangs of the world’s newest democracy than a harbinger of a fight over the revolution’s spoils.

For much of the past six months, after all, Libyans have argued at length on Arab satellite channels and on social networking sites about what kind of country they would like to become.

But now that Tripoli is in the hands of Gaddafi’s opponents, some of its citizens see a need to protect the revolution from talk that could stir up powerful rivalries.

The coalition of forces that came together in the National Transitional Council (NTC) alliance to topple Gaddafi can ill afford open divisions when much of the city remains heavily armed, tribal and regional rivalries are accentuated and emotions run high after the death of tens of thousands.

Withdrawing cash at an automated teller machine in a central Tripoli square, former airline pilot Mohammed Saadi said he was relieved to see NTC leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil arrive in Tripoli on Saturday, his first visit to the city since Gaddafi’s defeat.

Some Libyans had said that as a man whose home region is Libya’s east, Jalil would have to work hard to establish his political credibility with the residents of Tripoli in the west.

But Tripolitanians were eager to send a message of national solidarity.

“Gaddafi wanted to split the country into eight pieces. So Jalil’s arrival helps to keep things together,” Saadi said.

“Yes, we can speak freely now — in the past if you said one word wrong you could disappear — but we need a lot of help to build a new country and, frankly, to build a new people.”

“We need a lot of education to understand how to handle this period, to be honest and cooperative.”

Drama professor Ibrahim Mohammed said Tripoli was “50% back to normal”.

“People are going to the banks to get their salaries, people are going to hospital for treatment. Fuel is available.

“And for Jalil — yes he’s from the east, but first and he is from Libya. That’s the most important thing.”


The need for tolerance and unity was the theme of a speech by Jalil that received a rapturous reception at a rally in a central square on Monday evening.

But within an hour of him speaking, an influential anti-Gaddafi scholar, Ali al-Salabi, gave an interview on an Arab satellite television channel suggesting the NTC was not strong enough to rule effectively.

On Tuesday, Salabi, a critic of Jalil’s number two, Mahmoud Jabril, the effective prime minister, explained to Reuters that he opposed the participation in the leadership of prominent figures who had been in long exile and had not been “among the masses when the revolution erupted and the people were fighting”.

“We want a strong national government where all factions participate and are involved, and where no party is an outcast. We want a strong prime minister,” he said, an implicit barb directed at Jabril, who spent years in academia overseas.

He said some of Jalil’s aides were acting unjustly towards Islamic factions by accusing them of radicalism.

“Libya will reject any radicalism whether it is religious, sectarian, partisan or secular,” he said.

One of Salabi’s allies, Tripoli military commander Abdel Hakim Belhadj, did not appear on stage with Jalil at the speech on Monday evening, analysts noted, a notable absence for such a senior revolutionary official.

Asked about Salabi’s comments, NTC official Osama Abu Ras shrugged and said: “Anyone is free to criticise.”

Three Libyan political analysts contacted by Reuters said they felt Salabi’s comments were hasty and did not serve the cause of tolerance.

“It’s too early for this kind of thing. Criticism should be challenged through a political process. The people he is criticising are trying to create that process. Once it’s created, then the public politicking can start,” said one.

“You’re seeing the effect of 40 years of dictatorship,” said another. – Reuters