The Magazine

Life in Libya

So far: less poor, less nasty, and less brutish than under Qaddafi.

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Tripoli

Chalkboard with names written on them in Arabic

In Sirte, a list of people who should come forward to reclaim property lost during the war

NEWSCOM

Life in post-revolutionary Libya is not quite normal yet—and Libyans are just beginning to work out what that new normal is going to look like. Shops are mainly open and well stocked, though most carry the sort of low-quality goods more common in places like Afghanistan and Mali than a rich oil state like Libya. 

Then again, the country’s finances are shaky right now. A number of banks have shut down, and those still open have set a limit on how much people are allowed to withdraw—which amounts to 750 dinars (a little more than $600) every two weeks. Given these restrictions, people are understandably afraid to deposit their cash in banks, a caution that exacerbates the currency shortage. The National Transitional Council’s plans to redesign the currency—without Qaddafi’s face—also make people nervous about holding onto the notes currently in circulation, especially the large denominations that Qaddafi printed when he needed cash in recent years.

Libya is not only newly on the path to democracy, but also just 60 years removed from desperate poverty and illiteracy. There’s a rocky road ahead, even if Libya is able to develop into a viable democracy. And the signs so far are mixed. 

For instance, the transitional city councils created by local neighborhood committees are highly undemocratic in one key respect: They have no women. There isn’t one woman on the councils in Sabratha, Tripoli, or Zuwarah, which between them have about 2 million citizens. Amal Bugaighis, a prominent female lawyer in Benghazi, says the same is true in that city of 800,000. The odds are that, even when the local transitional councils are phased out, women will still be underrepresented when elections for the four-year city council jobs are held in eight months. There are just two or three women on the National Transitional Council itself.

Another issue is the role of Islam in the future Libyan constitution. The population is almost entirely Muslim, and when National Transitional Council head Mustafa Abdel-Jalil announced October 23 that Libyan laws must be in accord with the Koran, he expressed a popular, though not entirely universal, opinion. And yet the fact is that even self-described liberals sound a lot like the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood. For example, Essa Ali, a member of the relatively liberal Association for Democracy and Equality, says that what is in the Quran is “an order from God.” Still, he is at pains to distinguish his party from the religious fundamentalists.

Libya is a web of loosely, and eccentrically, connected city-states that reflects tribal alliances and rivalries. For instance, Tripoli is a commercial city that was nourished by the Qaddafi regime, while Benghazi, hated by Qaddafi, was starved of government spending. It’s hardly surprising that Benghazi is now exultant in the wake of Qaddafi’s downfall and death and Tripoli less so. 

There are other winners and also-rans in the post-Qaddafi order. In Berber regions like Zuwarah in western Libya, the revolution won locals the freedom to express their indigenous culture. In the revolution, fighters from Misurata and Zintan paid dearly. (The latter, a town of perhaps 60,000, may have lost more than 200 men.) And now these cities seem to be trying to parlay their losses into political power. The rebels from Zintan refuse to withdraw from Tripoli, and are confiscating, or stealing, goods and property.

Accordingly, Libya’s biggest worry is the omnipresent bands of young men with assault rifles and truck-mounted antiaircraft guns. In Sabratha, for example, locals in the quiet, conservative town of 100,000 worry because the three different brigades of revolutionaries based there answer to different commanders. Disarming these revolutionaries in order to avert civil conflict is a big concern for every Libyan who isn’t one of them. One Libyan diplomat says he’s worried that the country might not even get to the point of holding elections before violence erupts. 

The country’s emerging security establishment recognizes the urgency of the situation. Mustafa al-Sagezli, Libya’s deputy interior minister and the deputy commander of the 17 of February brigade, has a $10 billion plan for getting the weapons and fighters off the streets. First, says the American-educated computer entrepreneur, Libya has to register all those who fought for the revolution, which he figures is about 100,000 men. There will be opportunities for about 20,000 men to join new internal security forces and another 20,000 to patrol the borders and secure the oil fields. Others will join the national army, which, says Sagezli, has to be rebuilt “on a professional basis.” Qaddafi gutted the Libyan armed forces for years while he created parallel brigades reporting to him or his inner circle that were better equipped and paid than the army.

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