Last weekend a few friends and I decided to make the most of the hot June weather by heading to the beach for sand, sea and barbeque. We drove to a beach an hour east of Tripoli and when we arrived we found the summer weather had enticed half of Libya to the coast. After picking our way through picnicking families and excited children, we eventually found an empty bamboo beach hut which we took over for the day. On either side of us were groups of young men barbequing chicken, playing football and singing to improvised drums. I was drifting off in the afternoon sun when strains off ‘Allah, wa Muammar, wa Libya wa bus’ floated across from the group of teenagers next to us.
I sat up, wondering if I had misheard. I hadn’t. These young guys were chanting a pro-Gaddafi song. My Libyan friends, two of whom were imprisoned and tortured by Gaddafi’s forces, laughed and shrugged. The ‘tahalib’ (literally algae, but used to talk about ‘green’ Gaddafi supporters) are everywhere, they told me. They’re uneducated and don’t know any better. After joking I was also a ‘tahluba’ for wearing green, they then went back to their previous conversations. Apparently this wasn’t a big deal.
The truth is that despite the current image of Libya as a divided country plagued by internal rifts and vengeful militias, Libyans have largely managed to put the past behind them. They have proved remarkably resilient in the aftermath of a brutal, violent revolution which claimed the lives of 30,000[i], the limbs of 50,000[ii] more and ushered in a period of monumental change for the country. Given there are currently a huge number of weapons swashing around within Libya’s borders, the post revolution environment should probably look much more apocalyptic than it currently does.
As it is, in many parts of the country Libyans have settled back into normal life and the prevailing attitude seems to be ‘let bygones be bygones’. The revolution was fought so that Libyans could decide what to think, not be told what to think, and for many this belief extends to Gaddafi supporters. The reality is that every Libyan under forty spent their entire lives under the Colonel’s whimsical iron grip, and there seems to be a sympathy bordering on pity for those who still can’t get rid of the Gaddafi in their minds. As a result, there is a tolerance for the ‘tahalib’, so long as their words don’t translate into action.
However, this spirit of acceptance does not extend to those who wielded power under Gaddafi, and at an official level it doesn’t seem to exist at all. The NTC recently issued two laws which are ominously reminiscent of the Gaddafi era; Law 37 which criminalises the glorification of Gaddafi and his regime, and Law 38 which effectively gives amnesty to all those who fought on the side of the rebels, no matter what abuses they may have committed. Libya has also made headlines lately with a spate of attacks including, among others, an assault on Tripoli International Airport by an allegedly pro Gaddafi brigade, and the ongoing saga of the ICC lawyers appointed to defend Saif Gaddafi who are currently being held by the now notorious Zintan brigade.
While Libyans are quietly proving that they can forgive, forget and move forward together, the current political and military powers in Libya seem intent on proving the opposite to the rest of the world. Recent threats to security have indeed been serious and in some areas of Libya life is far from peaceful, yet what most Libyans are striving towards is stability, security and rule of law. They don’t want a redraft of Gaddafi’s draconian laws; they don’t want vigilantes in military uniforms dishing out their own brand of justice; they don’t want their martyrs to have died in vain.
At the moment the self-appointed powers in Libya seem so intent on proving how much they hate Gaddafi and his 42 year rule that they are either unaware or indifferent to the fact that their actions are beginning to mirror his. Did the people who are now claiming ownership over the February 17 revolution fight for the freedom of Libya, or for their own gain? Do they think they can preach national reconciliation while stirring up infighting and inciting division? It goes without saying that the road ahead for Libya isn’t going to be easy, but perhaps if the government and militias were to follow the example of much of the rest of the population, they would face far fewer challenges along the way.
[i] According to an estimate from the Libyan Minister of Health, Naji Barakat from September 2011.
[ii] According to an estimate from the Libyan Minister of Health, Naji Barakat from September 2011.
This article is the weekly-featured-column for Arab Awakening's This week's window into the Middle East.