The future here was hard to discern when I was last here in November. Would it gradually descend into conflict between militias, or would it enjoy some level of security? Would the town’s Salafi contingent rule, or would Sabratha come under the sway of a more moderate Islam?
The answer now is, it’s a mixed bag.
A group of Salafis tried to destroy Roman statues in the town’s world-famous archeological site on March 17, but they were thwarted by the site’s guards – some of them revolutionary fighters – who put the statues in the site museum.
But, on the other hand, a prominent local businessman, Hassan al-Fathily, recently planted hundreds of trees along one of the town’s main roads, paying tribute to the town he loves. Fathily, 42, explained his generosity to me: “Before, there was no love of nationality. But now, I want to serve my city and my country.”
All agree that the economy is better now than under Qaddafi. Part of that is because of increased economic freedom. Colonel Omar al-Herik, 54, a pilot in the Libyan Air Force who also produces honey on his Sabratha farm, told me, “Now all the people can do whatever business they want to do.”
Also, Qaddafi’s security establishment distorted the Libyan economy, raising prices. Previously, Herik explained, the Qaddafi militia stationed around Sabratha had first crack at anything in the markets or stores. Now, everything except meat is cheaper.
Herik also said that the country was finally free of Qaddafi’s treasury-draining follies, many of them aimed at bolstering poor African states. Herik explained that he once saw a Libyan Air Force “plane filled with bags of cement from Ukraine that Qaddafi was sending to Chad to build a hotel so he would have a place to stay there.”
Khalid al-Fathily, Hassan’s cousin who owns a computer equipment and repair shop on Attar Street, says he is grossing around $16,000 in a good month and earning a profit of about $3200, more than double what he made before the revolution.
Meanwhile, government services are functioning here on a basic level, better than in Tripoli. The schools are operating in both cities, and while trash piles up in frightening heaps in the capital, the garbage is collected daily here. The shops on Attar Street now put their trash out in plastic cans along the median, and the street itself is a lot cleaner than it was in November.
Sabratha was the first city in Libya where the police resumed work, according to Khalid Ahmed, chairman of the Supreme Security Committee. Previously there were about 600 policemen in Sabratha, about half of whom have returned to work. They are joined by 590 revolutionaries who want to become police or border police. At major intersections, blue-uniformed cops direct traffic with the help of revolutionaries still dressed in camouflage. The police salaries have been raised to about $810 a month. Ahmed said that the judicial system in Sabratha is functioning, with the usual routine of pre-trial jail during an investigation, a trial before a judge, and a verdict.
Under Qaddafi, Sabratha held both a major army base and the headquarters of one of the notorious militia commanded by regime thugs. Today, about half of the 1,000 Libyan army soldiers stationed in a camp in the center of town under Qaddafi have come back to work. (Glitches in moving from a cash payment system to direct deposit mean that salaries are two months in arrears, which might account for some of the absenteeism.) But about 200 men from Qaddafi’s militia have been accepted into the new army. These 700 men won’t be going back to work at the old base, which was severely damaged in the battle on August 14 that freed the town. The citizens of Sabratha objected to having soldiers in the town center – or rather, they’d always objected but now their wishes are often realized. So the old base will become a much-needed park, and a new facility will be built for the army on the outskirts of town.
The town council gets mixed reviews from many Sabratha citizens. Colonel Bashir al- Madhouny, a tank commander in the Libyan army who fought on the revolutionaries’ side last summer, explained that they wanted to hold an election to form a new council, but sitting members refused to vacate their seats. Khalid al-Fathily explained that, “some people say we are not ready for elections for mejlis.” Then the twenty-nine-year-old added that he thinks no one over 50 ought to be able to be in the new government, because “this was a revolution of young people.”
On Friday, March 30, about a hundred Libyans strolled around the famous Roman ruins, but no foreigners. This isn’t a huge revenue loss to the town – even in the best of times, numbers of overseas visitors were small – but the local business community is trying to woo Libyan tourists. The tourist board is renovating the large four star Dar Tlil hotel on the beach to the west of Sabratha. It’s the biggest beach hotel between Tripoli and Tunisia, with a projected room rate of around $56 a night geared to Libyan budgets. The work is very much in the do it yourself spirit of the revolution. One prominent local businessman used his own large tractor to grade the beach in preparation for opening to the public this summer.
The Dar Tlil is unlikely to host many women bathers, however. While perhaps one in ten women on the street in November wore a face veil, perhaps as many as three in ten seemed to be covering their faces now. Maybe this is because more women are going out now, including more conservative women. I saw two different groups of four niqab-wearing women walking into two of the new restaurants that have sprung up since the revolution. Is it progress if women feel free to go out to eat, and have the money to do so, but feel obliged to veil their faces?
In evaluating Libya’s progress since the revolution, it’s important not to forget that at independence in 1951 this was one of the poorest and least educated countries in the world. Many of the streets in the outskirts of town aren’t paved, and people born before 1950 or so are likely to have had little or no formal education. Hassan al-Fathily’s 72-year-old mother, Shala, is case in point. She never went to school, and married a farmer at 13. But the mother of nine and grandmother of 40 has composed dozens of poems in Libyan dialect celebrating the revolution, which she can reel off eloquently at the drop of a hat. (I was told they are very beautiful, but no one felt up to translating them.) Her six sons are all educated. One grandson, Mahmoud, a tall, powerfully built 18-year-old revolutionary fighter, is about to start university. It’s his generation – a huge slice of Libya’s population – that will determine what Libya looks like in the next decades. For the moment, it looks as though Sabratha is becoming more Sabrathan.