Life After the Despot: Libya Settles Uneasily Into Life After Gadhafi 

By Christoph Reuter

Moammar Gadhafi may have been toppled, but his presence is still felt in Libya. Rebel leaders are seeking to restore order as the country reinvents itself despite the chaos that still sometimes prevails in Tripoli and elsewhere.

The war is over in Tripoli, yet every night the battle begins anew. Around 10:00 pm, the crackle of Kalashnikovs and the percussion of machine-gun fire can be heard. When the anti-aircraft guns rumble individually or in salvos, the air trembles. The revolutionaries are shooting night after night as if they had to defeat former Libyan despot Moammar Gadhafi over and over again.

In the city's main hospital, the more lightly wounded fighters are gradually being released, but the beds are still not yet empty. New casualties continue to arrive with gunshot wounds caused by falling bullets from celebratory shots fired in the air.

"This now accounts for half of the cases on the children's ward," says Dr. Ahmed. During a recent visit, he introduced his new patients: "Here is nine-year-old Hanadi. She was hit in the back when her neighbor fired a Kalashnikov into the air. That is 14-year-old Hani. He received shrapnel wounds to his stomach and leg during a family trip to Gadhafi's headquarters." The physician walks from bed to bed: "We should probably have a word with the boys and tell them to stop," he says with a laugh.

But the good doctor may have to wait a while. So far, no one from the various new committees, councils and commissions has visited the hospital. Physicians have independently organized the evacuation of personnel, ensured that water is transported and received medicine from the Red Cross. "We are currently a completely autonomous hospital," says Ahmed.

Tripoli at zero hour, 42 years after the monstrous dictatorship began, is a mixture of wild shooting and astonishing acts of good citizenship, of mob law and leniency, of confusion, courage and opportunism on all fronts.

The transition has been more radical than in Tunisia and Egypt, where each country's army was able to tell their respective presidents when it was time to go. Not so in Libya, where Gadhafi dismantled virtually everything that characterizes a state. Under the dictator, the country no longer had a constitution and institutions were replaced by revolutionary committees, militias and people's congresses that served only one purpose: cementing Gadhafi's rule forever. Although the insurgency began rapidly in February, it turned out to be a tough and bloody fight that dragged on for months.

Order Being Restored

Tripoli has fallen after being taken by a rebel army of a few thousand brazen-looking fighters who race through the streets in shot-up, battered pickups mounted with artillery, as if they were extras in an apocalyptic action film.

In the first two to three days after they stormed the capital, raging revolutionaries and looters trudged through the deserted mansions of the Gadhafi clan, but the anarchy did not last long. The villas belonging to Gadhafi's relatives and minions were soon placed under guard.

People who for two generations had known nothing other than an oppressive regime were now organizing Tripoli -- street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood. Within a matter of days, the mosques became community centers where repentant looters returned some of the spoils of war and the Red Crescent stored powdered milk and drinking water for redistribution to the city's nearly 2 million inhabitants. Notices on the walls appeal for calm and urge people to respect others' property. There are also messages calling on shop owners to immediately open their businesses again and exhorting them to "Keep prices stable! No extortionate prices!" From the surrounding countryside, farmers are venturing back into the city with fruits and vegetables, while tanker trucks with water are on the road day and night. Only gasoline is in short supply.

In the Abu Madi mosque in the old quarter of Intisar, a Libyan doctor and three Filipino nurses at the nearby hospital had set up a small emergency clinic in the days running up to the fighting, and during the battle treated over 100 injured people from the district. Now, despite all their efforts, one of them has died after the victory.

At noon, hundreds of men wearing their best suits gathered for a funeral prayer. The imam spoke of victory, of dead friends -- and then his voice trailed off. A sob was heard and, after he turned off the microphone, his gentle weeping permeated the hall. Otherwise, there was total silence -- until he spoke again: "We refuse to be like Gadhafi, we are not like him! Do not go out and kill! We are, after all, one people."

Afterwards, while the coffin was being loaded onto a hearse, they wanted to talk, all at once: "We did not revolt out of hunger," said an architect. "We want to finally breathe freely," said a shopkeeper. "We want to live in freedom and dignity," added an aircraft engineer.

The first newspaper is distributed on a street corner. Its text covers just half a standard sheet of typing paper, and it has no photos, but it includes the warning that Gadhafi may be traveling disguised as a woman. This information is followed by a request to no longer shoot in the air in the evenings. A police officer dressed in civilian clothes asks a group of revolutionary fighters at a checkpoint who his officers should report to now. They would like to return to duty, but they don't know how to go about it.

It's a picture-book revolution, where the people are trying to restore order after a tyrant has been toppled. At the same time, three sullen young revolutionaries refuse to allow journalists into one of Gadhafi's villas: "The committee has decreed that no one may enter! The committee has to decide!" And they don't even notice that they sound exactly like the regime that they have just overthrown.

Why does the committee have to decide about something as trivial as whether someone may take a photo of a building? "42," one of them shouts, as if this were the answer to all our questions, "we had to obey this monster for 42 years." He says that his father was still a young boy when Gadhafi staged his coup. The system whose leading figure they hate with such passion has influenced them more than they realize. These days in Tripoli, it's not obvious when something has ended.

Trapped in a Time Warp

In 1969, the year in which Gaddafi and his "Free Officers" so easily seized power, the Beatles gave their last public concert, Neil Armstrong set foot on the surface of the moon and Willy Brandt was elected German Chancellor. The world out there kept turning, but in Libya it simply stood still. There was only Gadhafi and his state apparatus, which revolved with never-ending zeal around the "Brother Leader of the Revolution."

In the gutted surveillance headquarters of the country's domestic intelligence services, where for some strange reason no one was standing guard one morning, the electricity is still on -- only the equipment is missing. Somewhere in the depths of the building an error signal is continuously whistling. The shelves are lined with meter after meter of informers' reports and wiretap transcripts. This is the heart of a paranoid state that created thousands of files to track genuine and presumed dissidents, including Libyan students studying in Saudi Arabia and the officers of the country's own armed forces. Anti-Gadhafi slogans in mosques have been collected in the "al-Qaeda" file, as if only this dramatic title could do justice to the sheer outrage of insulting the demigod Gadhafi.

They even suspected the wind. Memo 5581/2008 on the back of a photo provides information on the need to conduct an investigation on the following incident: The country's leader has been wrinkled! An enormous poster congratulating Gadhafi on the 39th anniversary of his coup had broken loose and put a crease on his image. Was it really just the wind? Or perhaps part of a plot?

Everything and everyone was under suspicion, yet there was nothing other than power and privilege that held together the inner workings of this apparatus -- and too little of either, as it turned out. While the wiretap transcripts for the months of April and May showed the rebels' attack plans, the insurgents had their own sources of information at the heart of the regime.

The rapid and, until now, untold success of the final offensive on Tripoli in the wake of months of stagnation along with the precision bombing by NATO in the capital are largely the work of an undercover agent who went by the code name "Alewa" and was hunted by Gadhafi's intelligence services like no other man. They even arrested him -- but for another reason -- and when they finally discovered his true identity it was already too late.

Conquest of Tripoli Planned Months Ago

Even after the rebels toppled Gadhafi, it took me days to persuade them to let me meet Captain Mustafa Noah, who was dishonorably discharged in 1992 for lack of loyalty to the regime. The military planner of the revolt in Tripoli was wearing a black T-shirt and khaki trousers, and he provided, for the first time, insights into the preparations behind the final offensive.

Using code names and phone cards from foreigners who had left the country, he says that they had already formed a core cell back in February, divided Tripoli into 18 districts and left it to the commanders on the ground to form a trustworthy and reliable group. Liaisons in Djerba, Tunisia passed on the information to NATO about Gadhafi's ongoing relocations of command centers and intelligence units.

"Sources in the intelligence services, the army and even individuals in Gadhafi's entourage kept us up to date," says Noah. "We had only one major problem until June. We had no weapons in Tripoli. That only changed when Gadhafi had thousands of them distributed." He says that purchases of those guns were organized with the help of wealthy business people, and groups slipped out of the city and into the Nafusa Mountains to the west. According to Noah, some 20 men were trained there with electronic devices for target detection.

These weapons made it possible to equip 3,000 fighters -- a development that didn't escape the watchful eyes of Gadhafi's henchmen. They frantically searched for the fighter named "Alewa," whose real name remained unknown to them. When a group attacked the Sheraton Hotel in the posh Andalus district on July 21, slightly wounding Gadhafi's top intelligence commander Abdullah Sanussi, one of the arrested rebels divulged Noah's name under torture. On July 22, he was arrested and personally interrogated by Sanussi.

"That's an honor that you usually don't survive," says Noah, whose second identity still remained unknown to them at the time. Ironically, Sanussi was against shooting him: "If we do that, we'll get nothing more out of him."

The preparations went on without Noah. August 20 was chosen as the day to mount the offensive. "That was too early for NATO," recalls Mohammed Omeish, the coordinator of the "Coalition of February 17," an umbrella organization of various groups in Tripoli, "but the men didn't want to wait any longer." For months, the air strikes had put Gadhafi's troops on the run. Moreover, the rebels came up with a simple yet brilliant idea: attacking in all districts of the city simultaneously. Within four days, the system collapsed, and Noah alias Alewa escaped from prison. In the end, Noah says that Sanussi probably guessed who he really was, "but he was already busy planning his own escape."

Old Attitudes Die Hard

Sanussi has disappeared, along with Gadhafi, and his house in Tripoli was bombed to rubble months ago. In order to view it, the revolutionary guard at the checkpoint says that we need permission from the local committee. We head back to the Abu Madi mosque, where just days earlier the last martyr was buried. This is also where the district committee has its headquarters. But none of the members has arrived there yet at 10:00 am. The officer on duty, Mohammed Raid, plucks somewhat sheepishly at his beard. It's an awkward situation for him. Still, he says we have to wait. The minutes slowly tick away. Raid asks if we would like to see the prisoners in the meantime. He says that they are holding three women who are suspected of being members of Gadhafi's legendary force of female warriors.

He walks to an adjoining building. The front door is kept locked, but the door two floors up is ajar. He knocks. The three women are sitting on cushions. One is wearing a sweater, one a nightgown, the third a traditional dress. Even an air conditioner is running. The remnants of Gaddafi's legendary Amazonian Guard look rather ragtag. There's a common thread to all their stories. They all say that they somehow stumbled into this situation. Suhaila, the youngest at 21, claims that she served as a typist for Gadhafi's son Khamis in the 32nd Brigade. Hanan, at 32 the oldest, says that for 50 dinars (€30) a week she lived for weeks as a human shield in Gadhafi's main compound, Bab al-Azizya, and only had the Kalashnikov for self-defense. Karima, 25, says that she was from out of town, knew no one in Tripoli, and was therefore living with Nigerian mercenaries in an apartment in Abu Salim.

Raid speaks to them in a measured voice, as if he were talking to children who had gotten into trouble: "You may be telling the truth. But you were arrested with weapons, so the committee has to determine if there are witnesses." Suddenly a Rambo in combat gear with hand grenades on his belt and brandishing a Kalashnikov storms into the room and barks at the foreign journalists: "Where is your authorization from the council to speak with the prisoners?!"

That is why we came here, to get permission.

"You need authorization!"

Once again: That is why we are here.

"Get out!! I know you media types, you're probably all spies! Get out of here!!" Two revolutionaries, two different worlds.

Outside, the representative from the district committee has arrived. It's the aircraft engineer who spoke about life in dignity and freedom. He says that permission to take a picture of Sanussi's house can only be granted by the new city council. Where does it meet? He has no idea.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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