The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Nic Pelham on Libya

Our friend Nic Pelham — who intrepidly went to cover war-torn Libya with a broken arm! — has a good long piece in MERIP on the situation post-Tripoli, in which he finds thatmost Libyans don't care much about catching Qadhafi. They're too busy making sure that their neighborhoods run and keeping the rebels from outside at bay:

But while the incoming fighters rake the night sky with triumphal volleys from anti-aircraft guns, locals decry them as impostors, intent on stealing their credit. By their telling, the capital’s conquest was an act of self-liberation, an intifada launched by residents on 820/820 -- 8:20 pm on August 20 -- or the twentieth of Ramadan, the day the Prophet is said to have liberated Mecca from unbelief. A fighter recalls how four sentries shared one Kalashnikov, rotating guard duty every six hours, maintaining eight shifts before the rebels arrived. An NTC member from Tripoli claims Operation Mermaid never happened. “NATO didn’t bomb its 40 pre-designated targets, and the fighters from the mountains turned up 48 hours late,” says ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Radi. “By the time they arrived in the early morning of August 22, Tripoli was a liberated city, and they could march all the way to Green Square without a fight.”

Neighborhoods that claim to have freed themselves continue to man their own checkpoints and barricades long after the fighting has moved on. Their purpose, they say, is to guard against pockets of loyalists, but few doubt that they also intend to keep out incoming anti-Qaddafi fighters. Inside these enclaves, the neighborhood councils hold sway, reestablishing civilian life in the name of the NTC, but with little if any actual contact with it. They run their own local police and aspire to a monopoly on the use of force, by requiring that all residents license their weapons. Mercifully free of gunfire, the celebrations in these districts have encouraged families -- not only men -- to come back into the streets. Anti-Qaddafi flags at first only found at checkpoints have spread to public buildings, then to private homes and cars, and finally shops nervously opening their shutters. Ahead of ‘Id al-Fitr, the three-day feast that marks the close of Ramadan, children on Fashloum’s main street painted a camel in the hues of the rebel tricolor, before a butcher sent its blood spilling into the road. Others strung up scarecrow effigies of Abu Shafshoufa. Halfway down the road, teenagers erected a small stage for performers. From the minarets pealed the takbir, the opening line of the call to prayer, “God is great.”

[. . .]

By nightfall the fighters raced through the city center in their vehicles bearing the names of their various militias for their men-only celebrations. Gunmen from Misrata turned the Old City’s Green or Martyrs Square into a racetrack, spinning and careening around the Italian colonnades. Beneath white billboards pleading with rebels “in the name of the revolution” to hold their fire and banners advising that “bullets scare women and children,” fighters discharged a dreadful cacophony into the night. Locals, who had tiptoed out, hurried home. Bullets fired up in the air smashed their garden coffee tables when they came down. Daybreak revealed a carpet of spent shell casings covering Martyrs Square. Having repulsed a 70-day siege on Misrata, Libya’s third largest city, its militiamen now stand accused of imposing their own, pinning Tripoli’s residents in their suburbs while they strut proudly in the city center. “People from Tripoli were happy when the revolutionaries first arrived in the city. But then they saw them stealing government cars and shooting RPGs, and would now prefer they secure it from outside,” says the NTC’s al-Radi.

More than bravado and a cry for acknowledgement, the gunfire carries an implicit challenge: Make room for us in the new order, or we might use the power we have to spoil. While the Misrata gunmen risked their lives for Tripoli, they resent the rebel bigwigs belatedly trickling from Benghazi into the post-conquest capital to assume control of its spoils. “We will not forget the martyrs,” reads graffiti daubed across the walls, as if to protest attempts to bypass them. Simmering umbrage at Benghazi’s interim government, first aroused by its failure to send more than a few tugboats to relieve Misrata under Qaddafi’s siege, has found further grist in the tardiness of the two NTC leaders, Mustafa ‘Abd al-Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril, in relocating to the capital.

Reminiscent of the vigilante committees that spontaneously formed in Cairo during the uprising.