x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

With Qaddafi gone, Libyans can answer: 'Who are we?'

Analysts believe a botched transition from the rule of Muammar Qaddafi could see revolutionary energy dissipate as disagreements develop in the heavily armed Libyan society.

TRIPOLI // "Once all this is over," said Mohamed Sherwi, waving his hand across a scene of militiamen and pickups in front of the militia office, "I will put down my gun, take off this kit and go back to work."

Mr Sherwi, 28, a doctor and militiaman in the Libyan capital, spoke for a country aching to end its civil war and start rebuilding.

Libya's oil reserves and small population could make it a model of freedom and prosperity.

But analysts believe a botched transition from the rule of Muammar Qaddafi could see revolutionary energy dissipate as fault lines emerge in a heavily armed society.

The country, obscured for decades behind Qaddafi's green flag, is one of disparate cities, regions and cultures, ruled for most of its history by empires and oppressors, of whom Qaddafi was the latest.

His fall from power and death on Thursday presented Libyans with a new chance to ask a crucial question: "Who are we?"

Since the regime fell in August, the National Transitional Council (NTC) has struggled to form an inclusive interim government, hampered by reported squabbling among political leaders.

This month they named a stopgap cabinet that left most key officials in place, but said the capture of Sirte would open the way to declaring Libya fully liberated and forming a new interim government.

This kind of stop-and-go progress is part of "normal growing pains", said Ronald Bruce St John, an independent Libya expert based in the US.

The NTC should avoid Iraq's purge of former regime officials from public life, Mr St John said, lest "hundreds of thousands of supporters of the old regime are turned into determined opponents of the new regime".

NTC leaders should also engage Islamists to avoid friction, wrote Shashank Joshi and Jason Pack in The World Today magazine, published by Chatham House, a British foreign affairs think tank.

Meanwhile, Libya's new rulers face more pressing issues, including getting weapons off the streets.

The NTC has pledged to round up weapons and wants to form a national security force from the local militias who have fought together under its banner but are increasingly competing for influence. However, some young fighters have other ideas.

"The NTC doesn't have weapons - the fighters do," said Hassan Aderat, 19, a militia member in Misurata. "So all of us are going to govern together."

Mr Aderat wants resume university engineering studies interrupted by war. But there was a time when all he wanted to do was die. In March, he lay bleeding from the mangled remains of his left leg. Armed with an RPG, he had taken aim at a government tank. The tank fired first.

"In a way I wanted God to take me, as I wanted to see martyred friends," he said last month. "But this is what happened," showing his stump and crutches. "This is what the Lord decided, and I'm happy."

After the amputation, Mr Aderat operated a truck-mounted anti-aircraft gun. For him, the uprising was inseparable from those fighting it. The NTC prime minister Mahmoud Jibril "gets on TV and says things, but there's no action. The people I have faith in are the fighters".

But while Libyans credit volunteer militias with toppling Qaddafi, some have also been accused of ransacking what they believed to be pro-Qaddafi villages.

In Tripoli, rifts have emerged between home-grown militias and fighters from Zintan who helped liberate the city in August and reject the authority of Tripoli's military council.

The NTC has pledged to round up weapons and wants to form a national security force from the local militias who have fought together under its banner but are increasingly competing for influence.

Mr Sherwi, the doctor and fighter from Tripoli, has been issued a badge for the "National Protection Unit", which he said is a planned security force meant to incorporate his militia, the Tripoli Revolutionaries.

"Later on, those who want to join the professional army can do so and the rest can go home," said Ibrahim Ben Younes, an oil company employee and Mr Sherwi's fellow militiaman.

The NTC also needs to allocate state money fairly to head off regional rivalries. Following years of rural flight, "the new regionalism is based on urban areas, especially those that did not fare well during the Qaddafi era, seeking to position themselves to receive the maximum amount of state largesse", Mr St John said.

During the uprising, cities rose up one by one, empowering local leaders and militias in the process. Now those same cities, desperate for cash, may be tempted to monopolise local resources, said Taha Shakshuki, a member of Tripoli's revolutionary council.

"In Misurata they may try to solve their problems by controlling the harbour and free zone, to collect money on their own," he said. "Tripoli could do the same, Zawiya could control its refinery. This would be a worst-case scenario."

While leaders scramble with policy, a generation raised in the cultural asphyxiation of Qaddafi's Libya yearns to breathe free.

"We don't want to wait for a government, or parliament, or elections for people to feel a change," said Abdelkarim Namssi, 25, a pilot and founder of the Libyan Youth Union.

One evening last month Mr Namssi helped organise the first of a series of art shows in Tripoli's Martyr's Square, featuring 27 works by local artists displayed along a red carpet.

"The idea is to send a message to politicians that Libyans want to live" through self-expression, Mr Namssi said.

Five days later another form of self-expression was on display in the square, as the blue, yellow and green flag of Libya's minority Amazighs, or Berbers, fluttered beside the red, black and green of the NTC.

"I never imagined I would see this," said Salah Ingab, 29, a medical student and Amazigh activist, who joined hundreds for the Amazigh festival last month.

Qaddafi suppressed Amazigh culture for decades. In the end, Amazigh fighters from the Nafusa Mountains descended on Tripoli to help drive him from power.

For Mr Ingab, Qaddafi's mistake was not embracing the full richness of Libya in his narrow vision.

"A society based on acknowledging its differences will be stronger," he said.