TRIPOLI — The weather in Tripoli this New Year’s weekend is unseasonably bone chilling, with heavy rains flooding the streets reminding this observer more of dreary London this time of year than the southern Maghreb coast of the Mediterranean. My modest family-run neighborhood hotel off Omar Muktar Street is clean and cheap, but my room has no heat except what eventually builds up under a stack of velour Turkish blankets.
Much valued by me and the only other registered guest, a Libyan engineer from Sirte whose home was torched by rebels in early October, is the hotel proprietor, who reopened in early November following closure since last March. He is an encyclopedia of knowledge and opinion on “the current situation” here. But the hotel owner and his two English speaking sons are not the only ones who are increasingly speaking out about realities in the “new Libya” nearly two months after NATO declared another victory and stopped systematically and seemingly indiscriminately reducing to rubble this essentially defenseless and, militarily speaking, Third World country, with the First World’s most advanced arsenal.
My good luck this trip was to find my best friend from the months I was in Libya last summer, “Ahmad”, who, like most contacts, disappeared without a trace on August 22nd following the fall of Tripoli to NATO forces. As so many of us have learned, those we knew this summer either fled fast, were jailed, or were killed. “Ahmad” resurfaced in September via email to explain that he was in hiding. He went deep down in South Libya in a small Sahara town, the name of which he told me has never even made it on a map, much less Google Earth. Then, a few weeks later, Ahmad disappeared again when he ventured out to see his family near Tripoli. He was betrayed by friends for militia cash, was arrested, tortured, and jailed without charges simply because his family members were known to be Gadhafi supporters. The last week of Ahmad’s incarceration, which ended only because one of the guards recognized him as a former classmate, he and the other more than 100, including Sheik Khaled Fantouch, all held in a large room in a makeshift Misrata militia prison, were given nothing at all to eat and shared bottles of water to stay alive.
Life has become more complicated in Libya for about everyone, it seems, including foreign visitors. One example: Back in the summer, before August 21st, if one found himself on a side street somewhere face to face with some heavily armed and scowling types, it was a good idea to whisper, “Allah, Muammar, Libya, al bas (‘that all we need!’)”, and chances were quite good that you would be warmly received. Now it’s much more complicated. More than 55 rebel militia, totaling more than 30,000 armed fighters control parts of Tripoli, some of them loosely under the protection and direction of the TNC, Tripoli Military Commander Belhaj. Belhaj, formerly with Al Qaeda, spent seven years in prison here when the US and UK sent him to the Gadhafi regimes as part of its rendition program. His party, now being formed into the Muslim Brotherhood, will likely win next June’s election. His in the third largest militia in Tripoli. The largest is run by Salh Gait, from Tripoli, which according to his deputy has 5,000 fighters and is adding more.
These days in Libya, it is a good idea to memorize the name of the largest of the local militias and the name of its leader so when approached by the heavily armed unfriendly types one can rub two index fingers together and say the leader’s name while adding “mieh, mieh”, “good, good.” One wants to avoid saying the wrong militia and leader name because there is today an uneasy calm among militias in Tripoli after a few weeks of largely unreported skirmishes.
Largely unreported for the following reason: The transitional government daily touts the new freedom of the press here and they claim that there are 43 new newspapers or magazines. That on the surface sounds pretty good and there are more or fewer each week as local and foreign funders fail to deliver on funding promises or others start publishing a newspaper or magazine.
What is remarkable about the “new free Libya, new free media” is that it is 100 percent pro “new government”. I am advised that it’s only partly out of fear of consequences for failing to toe the line that accounts for this apparent universal support for the TNC. Another reason, according to a western ambassador who has returned to his post here, is that the new media sprang from the myriad militia and they simply have a psychological issue with criticizing any of the obvious problems which seem to be swelling by the day. Ahmad agrees. “They were so involved with NATO and its rebels that they do not want to admit that they were wrong in many ways, so they ignore what is really happening in front of their eyes”.
This observer witnessed one example yesterday at “Green Square”. “Almost everyone still calls it Green Square rather than its TNC re-name of Martyrs Square” the hotel proprietor explained, “because it’s been Green Square for decades and what’s wrong with that name? If you tell someone to meet you at ‘Martyrs Square’ its sounds silly to most of us. What if the new Egyptian government renames Tahrir Square? Will people in Egypt accept it?”
What surprised me yesterday is that there were two well attended anti-government demonstrations being held at opposite ends of this large space. One was led by two women I knew during the summer who were and openly say they remain, Gadhafi regime supporters. One ran a women’s lawyers’ group last summer and the other a women’s group. The one demonstration was demanding that the husbands and children of Libyan wives and mothers be granted Libyan citizenship. The same struggle that continues decade after decade in Lebanon.
The other demonstration, led by the lady lawyer who I last saw giving a speech at a conference at the Corinthia Hotel a few days before Tripoli fell, was organized by a group demanding accountability for those who have disappeared and are being held in scores of secret militia prisons around the country. According to her committee’s research, in addition to the 7,000 plus pro-Gadhafi loyalists acknowledged as imprisoned by the TTC, 80% identified by name, the Committee for Justice for the Disappeared claim that there are more than 35,000 Libyans being held secretly by militia that are outside the control and sometimes even the knowledge of the essentially powerless TNC. Ahmad agrees with this figure from what he learned in prison and explained that he would take me to a school near my hotel before classes open on January 7th, and if we walk by at night without traffic noise, we can hear the shouting of guards and screams of prisoners being held.
It does appear that at least for now, demonstrations are being allowed, although there were plenty of observers watching, and which ones are from the TNC and militia security forces is anyone’s guess.
Ahmad just arrived to pick me up and informed me that neither demonstration was reported in this morning’s papers, thanks to the new Libyan feel good media who don’t criticize the new government.
The lady who heads the woman’s group has several issues her group plans to raise. One is the fact that Libyan women have been disappearing from public places and not heard from again. One of her suspicions is that some are ending up in the homes of former Gadhafi relatives and supporters of the regime. She estimates that just in Tripoli more than 90 such homes, all of them in desired areas, often on the sea, were ransacked by various rebels gangs, stripped of possessions, some appearing now in various street souks for sale. Following the trashing of some of the properties, many militia members got a better idea. Why return to, say, Benghazi, Misrata, or wherever they came from when they can just live here in Tripoli and in relative luxury? Militiamen are now doing this by the hundreds, “Mara”, the women advocate, claims. “They are well-armed, living off a little militia pay, but mainly from various crimes, these groups are repairing some of the damage they caused and have moved in long-term, even charging rent to some new arrivals.” Mara added, “If they see an empty house, especially if it’s a really nice one, they assume, often correctly, that it belonged to a Gadhafi relative, official or supporter, and they think it’s theirs for the grabbing. And they are grabbing. They dare anyone or even another militia or the non-existent new government to try to remove them. They have no intention of returning to where they came from and less on given up their arms. Actually they are stockpiling more weapons and explosives both as security and to increase their political bargaining power. It appears that Libya is up for grabs for so many, local and foreign operations.” The same lady said the population of Tripoli has risen by one million and the locals want the “outsiders” to return to their towns and leave Tripoli’s real residents to take care of their city. The outsiders are said to add to traffic problems and a decline in security so people stay inside at night.
Some of the home invaders have moved in their families from other parts of Libya and some are accused of holding kidnapped female foreign domestic workers and are suspected by the women advocacy groups, kidnapping women off the streets and enslaving them within their sanctuaries.
What outrages many here is that the new “government” will not even acknowledge that these problems exist. Just as the new government has no desire for the International Criminal Court to investigate any crimes from either side because they don’t want investigators snooping around asking questions.
Libyans inside the country and those seeking safety in nearby countries are increasingly turning to the ten largest Libyan tribes to put an end to this situation and many other problems.
One situation that is said to be ready to explode in violence is from areas like Bani Wallid and Serte, where NATO and its local forces killed many civilians that no human right group even knows about. One local militia commander explained to me and my two colleagues some of what he learned while helping run a secret prison: “Whatever intra-tribal or geographical divisions existed a year ago, they are 500 times worse today. The tribes are arming and have given the new government several deadlines for committing to rebuild destroyed homes and businesses, helping homeless families, and getting the guns off the streets and sending the armed gangs back to where they came from. To date nothing has been achieved by the new government and people are growing very angry.”
Other current problems causing strife here are the rising prices on everything except electricity, which no one has paid in the whole country according to my sources since last February. But the electricity cuts are similar to during the NATO bombing. Lack of money is a problem with citizens not being allowed to withdraw more than 750 dinars each month. Money is still relatively scarce and if one accepts that 7 billion was taken out of Libyan banks by former Libyan officials and businessmen early last spring, more than 8 billion was withdrawn by citizens in a panic last summer before a limit of 500 dinars per month was imposed by the Gadhafi government.
This observer has been advised both in neighboring countries and inside Libya by Tribal officials that war in coming maybe as soon as March 1. “Our history, our culture, our dignity, is at stake. It is the responsibility of the tribes to cleanse the country of these outlaws just as we did against the Italian colonizers.”
During a meeting in a nearby country, one Gadhafi loyalist explained: “We know which tribes worked with NATO and sold out their birthrights. Some did the same thing with the Italians and over the years with foreign oil companies. We will fight to restore a path for the Libyan people knowing that mistakes were made by the Gadhafi regime, but also that his support today ranges from 90% in Wafala Tribe areas like Bani Walid to close to 60% in Tripoli. He is not coming back, but many of his good policies will return, inshallah.”