TRIPOLI, Libya — The red, green and black flags of the new Libya still line the streets here, although tattered in the desert wind. The wall murals that sprouted up after Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown – some of them peace symbols and doves, some of them dark parodies of the dictator’s death – are fading after a year in the blazing North African sun.
This is my sixth trip to cover the Libyan revolution, sadly this time it has been to report on the killing of the U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other diplomatic employees. It has been almost a year since my last trip, in October 2011, when I reported on another death: Gadhafi’s.
My first impressions are of a city frozen in time. It looks almost exactly as I saw it eleven months ago. A symphony construction cranes sit silently above the skyline, exactly as they were on Feb. 17, 2011, the day the revolution that would ultimately overthrow Gadhafi began, the cranes rusting in the salt air. The millions of “guest workers” (read: cheap labor) from Egypt, Central Africa and South Asia who fled in the weeks that followed the uprising have not returned.
It was only last week that that Libya saw its first democratically-elected prime minister selected by parliament. Not that he needed to be reminded of the scale of the challenge he faces, but the parliamentary vote came (by coincidence) less than a day after Stevens and three other Americans were killed in that attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
In Tripoli the streets are calm. As always in this part of the world the traffic is chaotic. Stop lights and stop signs are considered more polite suggestions to be respected at random rather than followed rigorously by social convention.
There are few Westerners on the streets. As we wander with our camera people look at us, but it seems more curiosity than menace.
I notice that the street market in the magnificent-but-decayed Old City (the “medina”) seems to have a more plentiful selection of consumer goods. The harbor (where in 1804 the very first U.S. overseas invasion went horribly wrong) is now busy with cargo ships unloading containers from around the world.
And as night falls I can hear a constant chorus of traffic and horns.
Then I notice the first big difference from a year ago. The menacing AK-47′s shooting in the air have been silenced. In a country said to have more guns than people, young men bursting with repressed machismo relentlessly fired their AKs in the air to celebrate their new-found freedom. In the days and weeks that followed liberation the stray bullets raining from the skies made the streets more dangerous than many days at the height of the revolution.
After what were reportedly dozens of random civilian deaths a campaign to silence the guns has worked impressively. But, several people tell me, the guns haven’t disappeared. They’ve just been hidden under beds and in closets.
The veneer of order on the streets is maintained by men who still bear guns. They wear nameless green army fatigues or black shirts and black jeans. These are the former rebels who collectively overthrew Gadhafi. Because he left no effective (or trustworthy) police force or army, the government has allowed regional militias to assume the role of police and keepers of the peace.
But we quickly learn they write their own rules.
We have valid journalist visas. Many of the militia members smile at us and extend a hand of welcome. But a few feel compelled to show us they are in charge.
“You cannot take pictures here,” says one militia official as we set out to film a small peaceful demonstration of people holding signs condemning the killing of Ambassador Stevens. Our visas and press cards have no effect. He insists we need a letter from the authorities. Five of his comrades implore him to ease up and let us do our work. But he stubbornly refuses. While my colleagues try to sort things out I amble over to the crowd and shoot some footage on my iPhone. I discretely ask a few of the protesters to wait one minute and then walk down the street behind me and wait for me. My team hops in our van and we drive around the corner. We interview the protesters in a grimy alley.
“Free Libya” feels a lot like Gadhafi’s Libya.
That night another militia member does the same thing to us as we scramble to shoot my on-camera commentary and feed it back to New York before deadline. His endlessly changing rules push us precariously close to missing the newscast. We check with government officials and as we suspected there are no letters of permission required for journalists to film and interview in the streets. The country has been purged of its dictator, but his arbitrary ways live on.
We learn that this is but a benign example of the unsettling and unpredictable rule-by-militia that maintains a veneer of order in Libya. Cities and neighborhoods have become the fiefdom of warlords who rule at will and regularly clash like street thugs over turf.
There’s another small change I didn’t notice at first. Right in front of the Radisson Hotel where we have stayed before sits a huge pile of rubble: concrete boulders and twisted steel. I had forgotten that a beautiful old mosque sat between the new hotel and its view of Tripoli Harbor. But the mosque is gone.
I learn that in late August the Sha’ab mosque was leveled by bulldozers in a brazen push for push for power by ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims. The Sha’ab was a Sufi mosque, part of a mystical branch of Islam that builds shrines to its dead and dances in celebrations. The Salafis consider them heretics. The two factions co-existed under Gadhafi’s iron rule, but now the Salafist militias are flexing their muscle and terrorizing Sufis.
Libya’s Supreme Security Committee, responsible for state security, ordered the Salafis to leave the Sha’ab standing. But when the bulldozers arrived no one dared challenge the well-armed Salafis. The “police” stood by and watched as the mosque was bulldozed. A day earlier they had done the same thing to two Sufi mosques in the city of Zlitan and one in Derna. Collectively these demolitions are being seen as ominous signs of sectarian persecution.
The incidents have not garnered international headlines, but they is being compared to the 2001 Taliban dynamiting of two 6th century Buddha statues carved into a mountainside in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.
It is no coincidence that Salafist extremists in Benghazi are suspected of orchestrating the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. (Salafists came out of the woodwork when Tunisia’s dictator Ben Ali was overthrown last year, attacking bars and art exhibits. They’ve been responsible for much of the worst violence in Syria, Yemen and Egypt.)
As the new Libya struggles to stand up it begs the question: Is Libya on its way to becoming the next Afghanistan.
I ask another question of people I meet: Now that the country finally has a new, democratically-elected government what does it need to do urgently so that the country can move forward?
“Security, that’s it,” says one woman. “Nothing else matters.”
She and others tell me that until the streets are truly safe and the militia men are held accountable to the central government the country cannot progress. All those guns that I saw on previous reporting trips are still in the hands militia members and ordinary citizens. Efforts to collect them have been feeble and they remain a huge threat to personal safety and to the stability of the government.
Tunisia and Egypt have a degree of post-revolutionary stability because they had quasi-independent and relatively well-trained police and army. Libya is more like Iraq, Afghanistan or Haiti, where an entire new police force and army have to be trained (or in the case of the militia re-trained) from scratch. There is no sign of that happening.
At night you can see and hear something else happening. Those young men who used to fire machine guns now drive their cars and trucks at a terrifyingly high speed along the harbor’s edge, squealing tires and revving engines. Their parents may be simply relieved to be free of Gadhafi, but these young men are waiting for their future to begin. People here in Tripoli tell us that many of the young men can be found in late night cafes and at private parties drinking alcohol and taking drugs, in a country where both are outlawed.
Libya’s oil production has returned to its pre-revolutionary output much faster than expected. But the country has always relied on the manual labor of those millions of guest workers and the technical expertise of Westerners to build and maintain its infrastructure. In his 41 years in power Gadhafi never used the vast billions of oil money to put up schools, universities or hospitals or to raise his people out of poverty. None of that can begin to happen until there is security.
The fear is that those young men drinking and driving in their fast cars will wait only so long for their future to begin. If it doesn’t happen soon the Salafis and other fundamentalists may see a way to persuade them – or force them – to take choose a different path.