Unsteady Progress in Western Libya

ZWARA, Libya, November 6th — Most people are experiencing some economic pain, but in this most unmaterialistic of countries, where archaic pride and courtesy still reign, they put a brave face on the situation. On the plus side, there are no more gasoline shortages, and Libyans are indulging their fetish for the road on fifty-cents-a-gallon gasoline, often in battered jalopies.

But the presence of thousands of young men with assault rifles and truck-mounted antiaircraft guns has slowed the revival of economic activity. Tripoli’s traffic-clogged streets—abysmally designed, with few opportunities to turn and poorly marked directional signs in Arabic only—rapidly empty each day about half an hour before midnight. “Our staff wants to go home. We do not like these checkpoints” (manned by the thuwar, or revolutionaries), said a waiter at an expensive restaurant in a fashionable district, as he shooed customers out at eleven o’clock.

In Tripoli, many restaurants are closed, because chefs and staff from other African countries fled and have not returned, and those that are open have few customers. One wealthy Tripoli woman speculated that many better-off Libyans spent months exiled in Tunisia, depleting their bank accounts and making them long for nothing so much as nights at home. Foreign tourism and business travel are of course depressed, so huge hotels like the Kabeer and the Grand stand empty. Some smaller hotels that are open, like the Hotel Zimot, a restored old mansion aimed at the upscale individual tourist market, are almost empty. They might also be empty even if the city were more secure: the sheets at the Zimot are thin enough to see the mattress through them and the owner maintains an unpopular affection for the Qaddafi regime. In Sabratha, a town of one hundred thousand and located an hour and a half to the west of Tripoli, the sole city center hotel, the Gamar, was taken over by the city council because its owners were Qaddafi stalwarts. It is staffed by amiable Moroccans—and free of charge to guests.

Libya’s public schools reopened in September, but only in the east. In the west, they will be closed until January, under the rationale that eastern schools shut down when the revolution began in February, so the delay should prevent western students from getting ahead. Whether due to 42 years of quasi-socialist nonsense or to older cultural norms, Libyans often seem more concerned with keeping anyone from gaining an “unfair” advantage than with raising the general level—and by Libyans’ own account, public education has been so bad that students already trail global standards. Libya’s universities have remained closed since February—to allow the male students to fight for their country.

Despite the widely televised demonstrations in Tripoli’s Maidan Shahadat, or Martyrs’ Square (Qaddafi called it Green Square), the capital city does not have the revolutionary fervor or sense of social transformation that lit up faces in Benghazi and threw a coating of fairy dust over the squalor and decay of the revolutionary stronghold. Libyans say that Tripoli has always been a commercial city, where everything is about money, while Benghazi, starved of government spending and hated by Qaddafi, always had a rebel spirit. Young people in Tripoli and other western towns work on cultural projects, newspapers, radio stations, and other novelties (as they do in Benghazi). But the feeling is different in the west. Only Zwara, where freedom has meant the ability to express the local Amazigh or Berber culture, approximates the exultation of Benghazi. 

The whole world is watching to see if Libya—not only new to democracy, but just sixty years removed from desperate poverty and illiteracy—can develop a viable democracy, and the signs so far are mixed. Yes, Libyans are keeping order and organizing the basics of daily life themselves. And partly due to the cohesiveness of this conservative Muslim society, there do not seem to be outbreaks of lawlessness, looting, or violent crime. Here in Zwara, city of fifty thousand, the president of the town council was elected in Libya’s first real vote since the 1960s. But none of the members he appointed is a woman. More tellingly, in the bigger cities of Tripoli, Benghazi, and Sabratha, none of the town council members—not elected but nominated in a complicated process—is a woman either.

In some key respects, too, the interim National Transitional Council has struggled to perform the normal functions of a government. Colonel Bashir Al Madhouni of Sabratha, a tank commander in the Libyan Army who defected to the rebels, speaks highly of the NTC’s foreign relations but complains that the Ministry of Defense has done little so far to re-organize Libya’s army. Controlling exit and entry to the country is another work in progress. The big border crossing to Tunisia, at Ras Al Djar, is manned exclusively by Amazigh thuwar from nearby Zwara, which is nice for the many young men from Zwara who now have jobs, but less so for Arabs from nearby towns who also come and go across the border. Libyan consulates in Washington and London are still not issuing visas to foreigners, which in effect means that only foreigners who have already been here and established connections can enter easily.

At the moment, disarming the thuwar in order to avert civil conflict seems to be the biggest concern of every Libyan who isn’t one of them, while foreign diplomats here are also concerned that the weapons will spread to neighboring countries. The slyly humorous and generally relaxed Libyans, however, are able to see the lighter side. Here in Zwara, locals quip that the battle-hardened brigade from the dismal, religiously conservative mountain town of Zintan, enticed as they are by the big city, now refuses to return home.


Photo Credit: Helena Obolensky

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