Libya's new leaders must build state from scratch

September 15, 2011 - 3:10 PM
Mideast Libya

An internally displaced man, right, answers questions asked by a former rebel fighter, in a checkpoint at the northern gate of Bani Walid, Libya, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011. Libyan fighters are signing up for a final assault on one of the last remaining bastions of Moammar Gadhafi. The volunteers are pouring in by the dozens, coming in pickup trucks from cities as far as Tripoli and Tobruk, as a deadline expired on Saturday for the pro-Gadhafi loyalists holed up inside the town of Bani Walid to surrender. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — In the turmoil since Moammar Gadhafi's fall, Fathi Sherif got a new job: The gas station owner and his friends set up their own prison, jailing anyone they suspect of acting against the uprising.

In a windowless office clouded with cigarette smoke on a recent day, two of Sherif's men questioned a middle-aged woman they accused of arming civilians to kill rebels during Gadhafi's last months in power.

"We know you're lying! We know you killed people!" one man yelled when the woman, Zahra Mamara, said she had only recruited women to work at checkpoints. Hours earlier, they had snatched Mamara from her home in Tripoli's Abu Salim neighborhood and taken her to the makeshift jail in a drab, gray building.

Her interrogators took no notes, carried no badges and worked under orders from no one.

"We have no titles," said Sherif, who runs the prison at a regime-era security agency. "We are all revolutionaries."

The United States and most world powers have recognized the National Transitional Council — the leadership body of the rebels who swept Gadhafi out of power three weeks ago — as Libya's legitimate ruler.

But that doesn't mean it has much authority, even over the capital, Tripoli, not to mention the rest of this vast desert nation.

Right now, despite initial steps being taken by the NTC, government remains largely atomized. In Tripoli, an array of armed groups and local councils make their own rules neighborhood by neighborhood, carry out their own arrests, hold their own prisoners and care only to varying degrees about the personalities who make up the national council.

Some police have returned to the capital's streets, primarily to direct traffic. Crime has not been a problem since the fall of Tripoli, which has not experienced a wave of looting such as the one that swept Baghdad after its fall in 2003.

Outside the capital, damage to telephone networks hinders communication between major cities, meaning all are mostly run as independent entities. At least three cities remain under the control of Gadhafi loyalists.

Farther south in Libya's desert stretches, the revolution has meant different things in different places. Some localities are struggling to set up their own local councils, with no official interaction with the national one. Other towns remain fiercely divided between loyalists and supporters of the revolution.

NTC chief Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and acting Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril arrived in Tripoli late last week for the first time since the capital's fall on Aug. 21 to start forming a new government. The NTC is made up of representatives of Libyan cities. The council's acting government is composed largely of technocrats, some of them would-be reformers in Gadhafi's regime who broke away. Its members are unelected, so it's questionable how much they really represent anyone.

What may prove the NTC's strongest lever in establishing its legitimacy is money.

Making the first visit by world leaders since Gadhafi's fall, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday promised to work to release to the NTC tens of billions of dollars in Libyan assets that were frozen in international banks to punish Gadhafi.

During the uprising, the NTC worked to continue paying government salaries; now it is distributing to the nascent ministries funds which have already been made available. Health Minister Naji Barakat said his staff of around 100 has drawn up a $300 million budget for the next four months to cover emergency services, medicine and other supplies. Medical companies have agreed to provide medicines now and take payment later.

Schools are slated to open this week, and Barakat said new textbooks are on the way.

The NTC's current transition plan envisions a nationwide vote for a national assembly, which would draw up a new constitution, followed by parliamentary elections.

"We would like to get people back to feeling normal as quickly as possible," Barakat said.

That's a daunting task. Libyans lived for more than four decades under a brutal dictator who outlawed independent civic institutions, brooked no dissent and left behind a shattered nation with no experience at the ballot box.

Tripoli itself is a patchwork of local committees under no clear umbrella.

Fighter Fituri Rashid said his Hay al-Andalous neighborhood in Tripoli has at least three local councils, all of which ignore each other.

"It's the first time there is freedom, so everyone thinks he's qualified," he said. "Anyone who wants to calls his friends, and they set up a council."

Tripoli's military council, which is led by Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, an Islamist figure, is the primary military force in the city.

Armed brigades from elsewhere, such as the western city of Misrata and the western Nafusa Mountains, also operate independently in the capital. NTC leaders say they are working to bring the scores of armed groups under a single command overseen by Defense Minister Ahmed al-Dugheili.

But many in the fiercely independent bands of citizens who rose to take up arms against Gadhafi say they follow no one but their local commander.

Salahadin Badi, who led a group of fighters from Misrata and has 200 men in Tripoli, called al-Dugheili "a defense minister with no defense" and said the national army exists in name only. Badi said he cooperates with other commanders but makes his own decisions — a right he said his fighters earned through their role in the revolution.

"The only ones protecting the nation right now are the revolutionaries," he said. "We are our own leaders. We are still in charge of ourselves."

An unknown number of groups have been arresting suspected loyalists, many of them kept in improvised prisons.

Sherif, the gas station owner, said his men had arrested about 40 people during the week since they'd opened the makeshift prison. He said some were released or transferred to other facilities, though he kept no records.

He said Mamara, the regime supporter, would eventually be passed to the prosecutor's office to stand trial. But he acknowledged he didn't even know whether that office was working yet.

Surprisingly, Tripoli still functions, as local committees driven by a feeling of national duty run their own affairs while waiting for a new national government.

Since the fall of the Gadhafi regime, Mohannad Abu Gharara and other young men from his Sharia Zawiya neighborhood have run a checkpoint in front of Tripoli's central post office and telecommunications hub, near their homes.

"We knew we had to protect public institutions, so we came without orders from anyone," he said, sitting in front of the complex's front gate with a rifle across his lap. "We were worried that the fifth column would come and destroy stuff."

The neighborhood council later issued them ID cards that read "Occupation: Revolutionary. Permitted to carry weapons."

But decentralization brings confusion.

Fighters from the Nafusa Mountains arrived at the checkpoint, saying they wanted to help, but the locals caught them trying to steal computers, Abu Gharara said. Another group from Misrata tried to make off with five large generators before the local group intervened.

"Now, we don't trust anyone from outside the neighborhood," he said.

Abu Gharara said they respect the Tripoli military council. But much remains unclear. Just a day earlier, his men turned away fighters who arrived with a signed and stamped letter from the Tripoli council saying they were supposed to protect the site.

"Anyone could make up a document like that," Abu Gharara said.