The Sweet Taste of Freedom: Libya Moves Forward

Gaia Anderson/AP Photo

 The color of freedom: black, red and green. Those are the colors of the old Libyan flag that was outlawed by Muammar Gadhafi. That flag now flutters from buildings, balconies, car windows and it adorns almost every street. There are hats in red, black and green and necklaces, bracelets and bumper stickers, as well as T-shirts and scarves. Today it is as if the entire country has been painted those colors in an act of collective revolt against Muammar Gadhafi’s oppressive rule.

The sound of freedom: the rousing chorus “Libya! Libya! Libya!” from the old national anthem — also outlawed by Gadhafi. On Sunday as it was played at the official ceremonies marking the country’s liberation, Libyans bursting with pride stood with hand on heart singing along at full volume.

The face of freedom: smiles. Everywhere.

When I first visited Tripoli shortly after the revolution began it was an oppressive, airless place filled with fear and suspicion. Foreign journalists were under a form of house arrest. We could only venture out with government minders. We were taken to events where men and women enthusiastically waved Gadhafi green flags in our camera lenses and our faces. But we could not help thinking it was all stage-managed. More than once we saw the “Greenies” rise to perform as we arrived and then disappear as soon as our cameras turned away. People on the street were afraid to talk with us.

How different it is today. The staged political rallies have given way to a giant street party. Every night since Gadhafi was killed Martyr’s Square — formerly Green Square — and the streets around it overflow with deliriously happy Libyans.

It is as if this entire nation of six million people had been locked in an airless cellar for four decades and has finally been released into the sunshine. The people can breathe. And sing. And dance.

This is history on a huge scale, a change in the Arab world that would have been unthinkable even a year ago. Three countries in North Africa — Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya  — have thrown off their dictators in what has come to be called the Arab Spring. On Sunday, as Libya declared its liberation, neighboring Tunisia held its first truly democratic elections, for a 217-seat assembly that will draft the country’s new democratic constitution.

As one man said to me in Misrata this weekend, “other dictators should take note.”  The world is now watching Syria’s Basar Assad and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh.

No dictator can have missed the gruesome ending that Gadhafi faced. He was caught alive by rebel soldiers last Thursday. We know that he was alive because there is cell phone video of him pleading for mercy. Later video shows him beaten and bloodied. Within hours he was dead with a bullet wound in his forehead.

Since then his body has been on public display at a shuttered shopping plaza in the city of Misrata. It is a grisly and undignified spectacle. He lies on a blood-soaked mattress on the floor of a refrigerated meat storage locker in a shopping plaza under the glare of fluorescent lights. Next to him lie the battered bodies of his son Moutassim and his Defence Minister.

All weekend long, thousands of Libyans lined up patiently to see the trio. But they are not coming to pay their respects.

“I am just curious, I want to see that he is dead. I have seen the pictures but I want to see it myself,” Sharif Shakalawun told me as he waited to enter the cold storage locker.

Two minutes later he emerged smiling.

“Now I’m satisfied he’s dead,” he said.  “This guy was a brutal dictator for 42 years. This is an end of a tyrant, an end of a dictator and we are so happy to see that … We have been looking forward to this day so much for so many years, I never imagined I would live to see this day.”

Every other person we talked to echoed those sentiments. Some rhymed off the family members tortured and murdered by Gadhafi over the decades and then they listed the family members who died fighting Gadhafi’s soldiers in the revolution that has just ended.

There is controversy swirling around the abuse and indignity Gadhafi has been subjected to since his capture. From outside Libya, governments and international organizations have expressed concern that a country dreaming of democracy is celebrating vigilante justice. The International Criminal Court in The Hague had wanted to put Gadhafi on trial for war crimes.

But that sentiment is different here.  Under Muslim tradition the dead are buried within a day. That is not being observed. Instead, Gadhafi is being treated as a trophy of war.

“People don’t even see him as human,” Jamal Rego told me after viewing the body.

The manner of his death is uncomfortable, but his death will make it easier for this country to move forward. There will be no prolonged show trials, the threat of an insurgency may have been neutralized.

It is not surprising that after Gadhafi was captured fleeing his hometown of Sirt, he was brought to Misrata. Misrata suffered on a staggering scale during the revolution. Loyalists took control of the city in late February. For more than 70 days the Misrata endured relentless assault from shells, mortars and snipers. After Gadhafi ordered the water turned off and food supplies dwindled, hundreds of thousands suffered. But the rebels triumphed, regaining control of the city in May.

Today much of Misrata lies in ruin. The main street, Tripoli Street, is lined with the crumbling remains of dozens of buildings that were battlegrounds.

Misratan soldiers went on to play leading roles in the Battle for Tripoli in August and the Battle for Sirt that ended just last week.

Of course, none of those victories would have been possible without the air campaign mounted by the U.S. and its NATO allies. The campaign was hastily cobbled together in March after Gadhafi and his son Saif threatened to crush the people of Benghazi. Since then NATO warplanes have flown more than 26,000 missions over Libya, more than 10,000 of those missions involved dropping bombs on Gadhafi’s army and his assets.

But while the air war was essential, it was Libya’s untrained and ill-equipped rebels who fought and died for their country’s freedom. The estimates vary wildly, but according to the interim rebel government, the National Transitional Council, 25,000 rebels died in the revolution. The NTC claims another 20,000 were seriously injured.

This is very different revolution from the one I saw in Baghdad in 2003. Back then the U.S. stormed in with all its military might and toppled Saddam Hussein. For a brief — and awkward –moment the U.S. flag was raised in victory. The people of Iraq were spectators.

There is no sense of that here in Libya. Because of the long battle and the huge sacrifices, Libyans feel heavily invested in this revolution. There is a widespread sense here that Libyans own this victory.

But amidst all the euphoria of this moment, there is a sobering reality.

Everyone agreed that the objective of the revolution was freedom. Now Libyans have to define what that freedom is. With Sunday’s declaration of liberation, the clock starts ticking on the journey along the road to democracy. An interim government must be appointed in 30 days. Elections for a constitutional assembly are to take place in eight months. Full parliamentary elections are to take place a year from after that.

A hint of the challenge ahead came at the liberation ceremonies in Benghazi, when Libya’s interim leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil told the crowd, “We as a Muslim nation take Sharia law as the basic source of law.”

Many here share that view. They want a democracy based on Islamic law and Islamic tradition. It is not clear what the democracy will look like. Some point to Turkey, the only truly democratic Muslim nation in the region. But that country’s constitution is secular. People here think they can create something different.

What outsiders may not appreciate is that Libya is a very conservative Muslim country. Women are usually only seen on the streets shopping or in the company men. While women can drive (unlike in Saudi Arabia) virtually all women keep their arms and legs covered and wear the hijab (or headscarf) and some where the niqab or full face covering. Alcohol is officially outlawed in the entire country.

For a Western visitor it can at times make for some unusual sights. Restaurants and cafes are almost exclusively filled with men. Even at the victory celebrations this week there was a segregated area in Martyr’s Square just for women.

Yet women were heavily involved in the revolution and many say they expect to have more equality in the new Libya.

If there is to be a democratic Libya, the framers of the new constitution will have to find ways to reconcile these seemingly conflicting values and create a country that permits free speech but also respects religious tradition.

“Now comes the hard part,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told government leaders here during a surprise visit to Tripoli last week. She is right.

There is already enormous tension between the rival militias that helped secure this victory. Some do not want to cede power to a central army.

But after five visits to this country in the last seven months I can see reason to be optimistic. Simply walking the streets of Tripoli and Misrata in the last few days has been a revelation. The rebuilding has not begun, but the cities have been scoured clean. Trees are trimmed and flowers are planted in public places. The streets are busy and the shops are full. There is absolutely no sense of menace in the areas we have visited. Instead, there is an orderly calm (apart from the chaotic and congested traffic) and a disarming sense of welcome.

All of this is even more astonishing when you consider that unlike neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, Gadhafi did not leave this country with effective police or military to secure the streets.

More than one person has mentioned the anarchy that left Baghdad in ruins and hobbled Iraq in its efforts to rebuild.

In Libya militia members and soldiers from the emerging army are on patrol, but what really seems to be keeping order and civility on the streets is a widespread sense that after having invested so much in this revolution the people do not want see it undermined.

It won’t be easy. So many things could go wrong. But at least for a moment in Libya, the future is filled with possibilities.