For Libya's Tripoli, A Second Revolutionary Spring Is Just Beginning
As Libya marks the first anniversary of the Benghazi uprising, revelers in Tripoli find themselves in a state of limbo – happy to be free from Muammar Gaddafi, confused by the sudden changes and uncertain about how reconciliation will play out.
TRIPOLI -- From his office overlooking the sea, Hamid can see three business buildings built on Muammar Gaddafi's orders as symbols of the country's modernity. The nearly empty skyscrapers taunt the rest of the capital and its lack of infrastructure, its paltry public transport and its ancient colonial-era sewage system. Off to the other side is the Mediterranean, which is somewhat hidden now by a belt of trash and haphazard constructions - evidence that for now, at least, no real state authority has risen to replace the defeated dictator.
The city, however, is safe. Despite all the electronic equipment in Hamid's office, the doors remain wide open and there are no guards. Some employees came in to work despite the extra holiday, which was scheduled to mark the anniversary of Benghazi's uprising on Feb. 17, 2011. "There's a lot we have to learn, and we have to learn it fast," says Hamid.
Following the anniversary celebrations, Tripoli woke up happy and, most importantly, free. These are days many here thought they'd never have a chance to experience.
In the heart of the medina, or old town, cafés are still empty. A police car from the fallen regime has been repainted in revolution colors. A policeman is talking to a group of fighters from Benghazi who spent the night screaming the name of their town, the hotbed of the Libyan uprising.
Hamid is confident reconciliation will come with time, but he still has more questions than answers. "Our spring is unfortunately one of ignorance," he says. "I see the rift among my employees or in my family every day. Among those over 40, many were broken by Gaddafi. They didn't have a choice but to cooperate with the system."
A makeshift makeover
Behind the thick walls of the medina, on which Gaddafi paraded and called Benghazi insurgents "rats," information spreads by word of mouth. Newspapers are still struggling for credibility. The day's story is about the fate of Saadi Gaddafi, one of Muammar's surviving sons. From Niger, where he fled, he has once again called for a counter-revolution.
Mahmud, a jeweler, makes fun of him, describing Saadi as "mentally ill." An old man sitting in a café explains how the Gaddafis "crushed anyone who got near them." The former dictator's image has been graffitied across the city and remains a symbol of Tripoli's very long ordeal.
Hadiah teaches art. Her house near the Regatta seaside resort complex, where the regime used to keep foreigners, is undergoing a makeover. The goal is to take advantage of the transition period – when permits aren't required - to revamp, breakdown or build.
Tripoli, despite its glorious past as a roman city symbolized by Marcus-Aurelius' arch outside the medina, doesn't look like a city with a lot of history. Houses in Hadiah's neighborhood line up one after the other with no apparent urban planning. Nor are there walls to ensure privacy for families, especially women.
At the bottom of the stairs in Hadiah's house, three empty boxes of AK-47 ammunition are a reminder of the fighting that took place there. Young men from Hadiah's Berber family arrived in Tripoli on Aug. 20 from Nalut on the Tunisian border, armed and ready to fight, while others from Zintan and Misrata besieged Bab al-Aziziya, forcing Gaddafi and his entourage to flee to Sirte, their stronghold, where the dictator would eventually be caught and executed in late October.
An arsenal in every house
Since then, Tripoli residents are discovering what normal life is like and what they've been missing all these years. Customs have been reactived but no longer operate on orders from the secret service or serve the interests of hidden allegiances. Second hand cars, mostly from Switzerland, are no longer stuck in the port. Neighbors who used to ignore each other out of fear now communicate openly.
"There's a childish side to Libyans. You don't feel the fear of vendettas, or infighting between militias that foreigners are worried about," says Abdulhamid el-Assadi, a local television star. "Tribal affiliations aren't as strong here as they are in the desert. We just want to enjoy life after 42 years…"
Still, there's cause for concern – particularly that violence could erupt between "Katibas," the revolutionary brigades that stayed on to ensure the safety of the capital. The long nights of relatively peaceful partying on Feb. 17 and 18 proved skeptics wrong – at least for now. Things could change, however, once the difficult task of redistributing power and the nation's oil wealth has begun in earnest.
"We don't know what regional or political group will win," says Hamid. "Everything is happening behind the scenes, with no transparency. But if people don't believe in their new leaders, it could all go very wrong."
After all, every house, every neighborhood is an arsenal. In the traditional neighborhood of Suk Juma, members of the Bakkush family proudly show their war prizes taken from the fallen regime's military warehouses: 10 AK-47's, as many guns and 3 RPGs. Tripoli's spring has just begun.
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