After Gaddafi: The People’s Makeover of Tripoli

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A Libyan man holds his new national flag during the weekly Friday noon prayers in Tripoli's Martyrs Square, renamed from Green Square after Moamer Kadhafi's ouster, on Friday 7 October 2011. (Photo: AFP - Marco Longari)

By: Ghassan Bin-Khalifa

Published Saturday, October 8, 2011

Tripoli – The scent of victory still fills the air in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Children in Martyrs Square chant the revolution’s anthems and odes to its leaders. The walls of the city’s buildings have been turned into something resembling an extended art gallery, containing images representing decades of accumulated loathing toward Muammar Gaddafi and his regime.

The national flag is seen everywhere. One smiling woman explains on TV that this is the first chance she has had to wave it since she was a child. But the flag is not the only symbol from the past returning to exact revenge against the fugitive colonel. Posters and pictures abound of the ‘sheikh of the martyrs,’ the anti-colonial leader Omar al-Mukhtar.

Also found, albeit less commonly, are images of King Idris al-Sanousi, the monarch who Gaddafi overthrew four decades ago. Some Libyans speak highly of al-Sanousi. They say he was a good man who built whatever modern institutions the state has, whereas Gaddafi and his sons left only ruins. Regardless of the accuracy of that assertion, people are certainly rejoicing at the revolution that ousted the ‘Leader of the Revolution.’

As striking as the heavy presence of rebel gunmen – ‘the revolutionaries’, as Al Jazeera called them from the start – is the explosion of color in the city. It seems as though everything is being repainted in the national colors of red, black, and green. Gaddafi was obsessed with coloring things green, the color of his Green Book. The Libyans are now retaliating.

Alterations are not confined to paint. Gaddafi-esque place names have been changed too. First of September Street, commemorating the date of Gaddafi’s coup, is now Independence Street. Green Square has become Martyrs Square, and Al Fateh University is now the University of Tripoli. The regime’s perceived foreign supporters have also been on the receiving-end of this treatment. Many Tripolitanians have taken to referring to Algeria Square as ‘Qatar Square.’

The public’s real contempt, however, is directed at the person of Gaddafi and his sons, who are the objects of universal derision. Libyans who once risked retribution if they uttered the leader’s name without including an honorific title now call him ‘Abu-Shafshoufa’ (mop-head). While Arabs elsewhere also mock their deposed rulers, here it is different. Here, it seems personal. Libyans do not forgive what they see as the demeaning language which Gaddafi used to describe them during the revolution. They relish being able to turn it back on him and his sons. There is much graffiti describing them as a family of rats. One mural depicts Gaddafi in a heap of garbage, another in a sewer.

Talal, a young man in his twenties who was active in the revolution, says it is natural for Libyans to be so resentful of Gaddafi. “There wasn’t even a regime here for us to demand its downfall,” he remarks. “Gaddafi’s rule was total chaos. He took the country years back.”

The mosque minarets also seem to be settling scores with Gaddafi. They constantly broadcast the takbir – chants of Allahu Kabar said during prayer – at all hours of the day.

Talal explains that the mosques played a key role in the revolution in Tripoli. He was at the first demonstration that began at Gamal Abdel Nasser Mosque (some refer to it as the Islamic Center) on Green Square on February 20. That day, he says, his friend Ayman Toumi became Tripoli’s first martyr, shot by Gaddafi’s police. Talal recalls that when a group of youths made another attempt to start a march from the mosque, they were surrounded by members of the Popular Committees who opened fire and arrested many of them. He says committee members and African mercenaries also used to infiltrate the worshippers at Friday prayers to prevent any attempt to stage protests. Bullet holes can still be seen on the mosque’s facade.

The takbir was also used as the signal for the launch of the Tripoli uprising on the 20th day of Ramadan last month. Today, calls to prayer often blare in reaction to news from the battlefronts in Sirte and Bani Walid. But the call’s haunting melody is frequently overpowered by the sound of gunfire. The city remains bristling with gunmen. Their celebratory firing in the air has claimed many casualties. But numerous public and official calls for an end to the practice – in the media and in posters put up by the Transitional National Council – continue to go unheeded.

Almost equally anarchic is the media scene, with new print and broadcast outlets mushrooming, as though in a rush to savor the climate of freedom before it passes. New newspapers have begun publishing with titles like al-Kalima (The Word), Febrayer (February), and Midan al-Shuhada (Martyrs Square). Several private radio and TV stations have also begun broadcasting since the National Transitional Council (NTC) decided to close down the regime’s state-run channels. The most prominent new venture is Free Libya TV, which is close to the NTC. Its programs remain largely confined to news, celebration of victory against ‘the despot,’ and related coverage, such as footage of weapons Gaddafi stockpiled to use against his people. The channel does not air discussion programs on the political struggles now dividing the country’s new rulers.

People in Tripoli are taking advantage of their newfound freedom to organize publicly, but political parties as such have yet to emerge. It’s not that Libyans have taken to heart Gaddafi’s famous dictum that ‘Partisanship is treason,’ quips Adam Kaabar, a professor at the Tripoli Law College. It is simply because “the political game has not yet begun.” But there are plenty of posters and notices advertising public meetings or charitable events organized by religious groups or cultural or youth associations.

Salem, a 24-year-old with a business administration degree from a US university says that it “will take at least another 40 years” to build a real democracy in Libya. “It’s no easy thing for us Arabs,” he muses. He is not concerned about excessive Western influence on the NTC. “We wasted tens of billions of dollars under Gaddafi and a third of Libyans were left below the poverty line,” he says. “Yes, we’ll have to pay a few billion more to the West, but what matters is that we have recovered our freedom.”

Optimism is the dominant mood in conversations with Tripolitanians. Fawzi, who sells fruit in a market in the working-class district of Souq al-Juma, says Gaddafi’s fall has made him feel at ease. Life has returned to normal, and there are no more municipal police to harass vendors and demand bribes. “Everyone can get on and make a living. Anyone who wants can bring his goods and sell – there are Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan vendors working freely too now.” Even prices have gone back down to what they were before “the events.”

Fawzi says people in his district want a government that lets them get on with their work without problems and provides better health and education services. He has always relied on himself. Laughing, he explains that although he was born on the first of September, he never benefited from the gifts which Gaddafi would distribute to those who share that birthday. Those only went to the well-connected few.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

1) "National flag" is a flag of king. A good beginning, sure
2) "Talal, a young man in his twenties who was active in the revolution, says it is natural for Libyans to be so resentful of Gaddafi. “There wasn’t even a regime here for us to demand its downfall,” he remarks. “Gaddafi’s rule was total chaos. He took the country years back.”"

Now he sounds just like a Russian in 1991! Never mind, when he return to reality, he would be NOT heard. He is - he takes for granted what he has now and believes he'll got more. He is up to some VERY crude awakening.

3)"The mosque minarets also seem to be settling scores with Gaddafi. They constantly broadcast the takbir – chants of Allahu Kabar said during prayer – at all hours of the day."

Nice - one more secular state turned into religious one?

In short, it is a typical "feel good" article. What about REAL problems? What about where is the power and to whom the power beholden?

I just want ONE example of NATO's revolution with turned OK for the people.

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