Greetings From Tripoli
By Jess HillJuly 18, 2012
Ahead of Libya’s first-ever democratic election, our reporter headed to Libya's capital to meet — in person at last — some contacts who’d bravely spoken to her amid the violence surrounding the end of Gaddafi’s regime.
The first time I spoke to Muhunnud Mangoush, Tripoli was under siege.
It was just after midnight on the morning of February 24, 2011. The rebels had just claimed Benghazi, but in Tripoli, Muammar Gaddafi was vowing to hunt his opponents house to house. Libyans from Benghazi — such as Muhunnud —were considered particularly traitorous. The Colonel's soldiers menaced the streets, and as the sound of shooting moved closer to his family's house, Muhunnud's four-year-old daughter began wetting herself repeatedly. Trapped inside the house, Muhunnud had nothing to defend his family with but a baseball bat and a knife.
At the time, I was a producer for ABC Radio Current Affairs in Sydney, and had received Muhunnud's number from a friend of his in Canada. Muhunnud insisted we use his full name on air, even though he knew phones were being tapped. A bank employee "on a very good salary", Muhunnud had decided that after 42 years of being treated like "scared people", he wanted to be identified along with his opinions, no matter the cost. Before the interview went to air, however, we decided to omit his name — it was too great a risk.
I spoke to Muhunnud the next day, but after that his line went dead. In the months that followed, I tried repeatedly to track him down, but he and his family had gone to ground. I promised myself that once the civil war was over, I would go to Libya to find him.
Of course, finding someone nowadays is not as hard as it used to be. Eventually, Muhunnud showed up on Facebook.
A few days ago, I stood with him on the grass where the now late Muammar Gaddafi once slept in his air-conditioned tent. Just a few minutes' drive from central Tripoli, Gaddafi's once-impregnable compound, Bab al-Aziziya, is now an apocalyptic scene of destruction: reduced to rubble by NATO, the gigantic property is now a dumping ground for Tripoli's trash. At 43 degrees, even under the trees that once shaded Gaddafi's tent, the breeze was blowing like a blast furnace.
Standing in front of the pile of concrete that was once Gaddafi's house, Muhunnud recalled the sound of a missile flying over his house, en route to one of NATO's targets. "It's like a Formula One car driving three thousand kilometres an hour," he marvelled. "At that moment, it's terrifying — it's four o'clock in the morning, the windows are flying open. But once it's over, you're like, 'Aah, that's cool. Keep up with what you're doing.'"
Like many Libyans in the capital, Muhunnud praises NATO for what he calls a "clean campaign". In Tripoli, where government buildings disembowelled by NATO's bombs stand beside virtually untouched apartment blocks, his assessment seems valid. In cities like Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte, however, NATO's bombing raids were far more intense, and the attitude towards it less amiable.
Ahead of the elections, Muhunnud was adamant: Libyans would not elect the Muslim Brotherhood. "Maybe you don't believe me," he said smiling, "but you will see. We don't know who they are, and we don't want them".
Of all the parties campaigning in Tripoli, the Brotherhood was the most visible: their billboards, which feature a jumping horse and look like an ad for the Spring Racing Carnival, towered over the city, and fresh young recruits distributed election material from the back of expensive Mercedes vans.
But money can't buy you reputation in Libya. "Without word of mouth, advertising means nothing," he said, as we drank coffee at an outdoor café near Martyr's Square. Gloating just a little about his election prediction coming true, he explained why the Muslim Brotherhood had been just been trounced. "They have no central figure and no clear plan for Libya. Why would Libyans vote for them?"
But that's just one reason the Muslim Brotherhood fared so badly. "Here, Islam is a personal thing, and everybody has their own variation: some are Sufi, some are moderates, others Salafis," Muhunnud explained. "Libyans think, 'I am already Muslim — I don't want someone to take over and tell me their Islam is better than mine.'" There's distaste for a foreign agenda here, too: Qatar, the conservative Islamic emirate that armed and assisted the rebels during the fight against Gaddafi, is a generous patron of the Brotherhood, and pushes its agenda on the Qatari-owned channel, Al Jazeera Arabic. "We are grateful to Qatar for the role they played in the war, but we don't want it to influence our politics," says Muhunnud.
Muhunnud voted with the majority, for Mahmoud Jibril, Gaddafi's former economic minister, and the transitional prime minister who led the opposition from Benghazi until Gaddafi was captured and killed in October last year. Like many Libyans I spoke to, Muhunnud characterised Jibril as a man of strong words and hard work, who had stood up to Gaddafi during his time working for the regime. Jibril may have led a coalition of so-called "liberal" parties, but it was the individual, not the ideology, that most Libyans voted for. Throughout his election campaign, Jibril tried to shirk the term "secular" — which his candidates used to discredit him — by aligning with prominent sheikhs and pledging to govern from a sharia base. Libyans and Egyptians may have chosen different kinds of politicians, but their voting criteria were basically the same: a familiar face/organisation with enough political experience to run the country. (As the last votes are counted, it looks like the Brotherhood will make up somewhat for their party's loss with independent candidate wins; more proof that personalities trump party politics.)
Overall, the elections in Tripoli were a triumph. Polling stations were both orderly and festive, and at the two I visited, police were even handing out fruit juice and sweets to voters. Even residents in largely pro-Gaddafi areas, like the Abu Salim neighbourhood next to Bab al-Aziziya, came out to vote.
The morning of the elections, as flag-waving, horn-honking Libyans jammed the streets, Ali Alkerdasi, a 26-year-old medical student, came to pick me up from my hotel. He greeted me shyly, wearing camouflage pants and a t-shirt emblazoned 'Welcome to Libya', an official ID badge hanging around his neck and a Kalashnikov slung around his shoulder.
In May last year, shortly after he joined Tripoli's underground resistance movement, I was put in touch with Ali by a Libyan friend of his living in the UK, and in the months that followed, he would call once or twice a week with "news", usually at around two o'clock in the morning. Just after dawn on August 22nd, it was Ali who told me the rebels had defeated Gaddafi's forces, as the final rounds of fighting exploded around him. Later that same morning, Ali described the scene on ABC Radio's AM.
When the fighting finished last year, Ali became a volunteer for Tripoli's official security forces. On our way to a polling station at his old high school, he showed me his injuries. Several operations have been unable to remove the six pieces of shrapnel buried in his back, arm and thigh, which have left him in chronic pain. "I was severely depressed when I came back from Bani Walid," he said, referring to one of the last Gaddafi strongholds to fall to the rebels last October. "I'd hear bullets firing over my head and think I was back on the frontline. [The transitional government] didn't help us, they just left us after everything we saw — people getting shot and dying in front of us."
So Ali did his own research. "I heard at the hospital that there was a psychiatrist who was helping people, so I went to see him. Then I said to the other guys [I had fought with], there is someone who can help us." Ali was able to persuade them to see the psychiatrist, and in group therapy, they spoke about what they had done. Unfortunately, they are the exception to the rule; before the revolution, there was virtually no mental health system in Libya, and seeking treatment is still an alien concept.
As we drove past an intersection in the centre of town, two men in balaclavas were angrily resisting attempts by soldiers to unmask them. "The military is asking them to remove them, because people will be afraid," Ali explained. "Everything is going good, and we want to prove that the people are going to vote by themselves — nobody is forcing them."
Tripolitanian patience with rowdy thuwar is wearing thin. After the sun goes down, the night air crackles with Tripoli's answer to bogan burnouts: thuwar shooting off their AK-47s and anti-aircraft guns. This is actually a marked improvement; it used to happen all day long. "Everyone knows a family who's lost someone to celebratory gunfire," says one young woman at a café near Martyr's Square. Today, such gunfire is severely frowned upon, and apart from checkpoints, the thuwar are rarely seen with their guns out on the street.
But just because they're less visible, doesn't mean they've gone away. One physician in his late 20s told me he knows many young men who have been "arrested" randomly off the street by thuwar, taken to farms and physically abused for periods of up to two weeks, depending on the "strength" of the area they come from. "It's like mafia," he says. He says he was detained himself in January, but only for 15 minutes — when they found out he was from Jadu, a "strong area" in the Western Mountains, they let him go. When he complained to the police, they told him to find another brigade to protect him. What did the two incidents have in common? Both men were out walking in public with women. "They want to build an Islamic state," he says, "but nobody here supports them." Amnesty International recently published a report that proves these two cases are not isolated incidents.
So what do successful elections, general calm and daytime vigilantism add up to?
There are two opposing Libya narratives — "success against the odds" versus "insurmountable obstacles" — waiting in every reporter's keyboard. Each extreme can be justified. But what reporters choose to emphasise seems to have more to do with their own personal resonance with Libya than an objective truth. Because in a country as vast as Libya, with so many different "truths" at play, the best we can say is that this is a country in transition. To where? Who knows. In Tripoli at least, Libyans are optimistic. And after months of conflict, a law-and-order vacuum, and thousands dead, that fact alone is pretty remarkable.