From planning battles to organizing trash collection: Libyans settle into peace

A reporter who covered the battle of Tripoli returns for Libya's first election in decades to find a city that has achieved a tenuous peace.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
People walk past a car covered with clothes for sale in Tripoli July 9. Libyans, relieved that their first free national election in 60 years had survived violence and protests, celebrated the chance to draw a line under Muammar Qaddafi's dictatorship and forge a brighter future for their North African country.

This morning, walking past the military office near my hotel, I found several young soldiers admiring a shiny new red and white car marked “Libyan Army.”

“See that? We have 3,000, maybe 4,000 like it,” says one of them, a tall young man in camouflage named Sari. “What we need is not guns and chaos – it’s order.”

I don’t know whether Sari's estimate of 3,000 to 4,000 Libyan Army cars is accurate. I do know that he voiced the hopes of millions – hopes that seem to be coming true as order slowly returns to Libya.

When I came to Tripoli in August 2011, militiamen were fighting Muammar Qaddafi's forces for control of the capital. It was a time of heat, power outages, checkpoints, green flags pulled down and trampled, and gunfire – some of it far-off, some of it close. Everybody, it seemed, had a gun then. My neighbors in the old city, where I rented a house, had guns. They were mainly the sons of fishermen and laborers. Overnight they became revolutionaries, too.

Since Mr. Qaddafi fell, some militias have resisted calls from the interim government to disband. Some have also brandished their weapons for political power grabs, while local arguments have spiraled into gunplay. When Libyans voted on July 7 for the first time in more than four decades, they feared that violence would disrupt the election.

Happily, it didn’t, and in Tripoli, at least, Libyans are now quick to assure visitors that things are getting better.

The other day I dropped by “my” neighborhood in the old city. There were the same dusty alleys, the same barefoot children. But there were no guns in sight.

“John!” came a voice. It was Ayman, the young man who had rented me his house. He is married now and wears a heavy silver ring.

We sat in his courtyard under a jacaranda tree, drank coffee, and talked. Ayman had repainted his wall and his neighbors had built a new one.

“More and more, people are taking care of the neighborhood,” he said. “The other day the people here went over to the waterfront and picked up litter.”

“Shouldn’t the state handle that kind of thing?” I said.

“Right now the state is weak,” said Ayman. “We can’t wait for it.”

It's a big change from 11 months ago, when my neighbors organized to do battle. Now, they had organized a trash detail.

Civic activism is getting more common, according to Taha Shakshuki, a member of Tripoli’s local council, and militias have begun allying themselves to the defense and interior ministries, he says.

Yet peace is tenuous. Recently there has been fighting in the southeastern city of Kufra over tribal disputes. Everywhere, tempers flare quickly. Yesterday the arrest in former Qaddafi stronghold Bani Walid of two journalists from Misratah prompted an ultimatum from a Misratah militia commander: Free them within 48 hours or face assault.

Mr. Shakshuki said that the relative calm in Tripoli is due in large part to its inhabitants’ attitude.

“The government has asked people to surrender weapons but has no means to enforce it,” he says, explaining that instead, officials passed the message through family networks to at least keep guns at home. “Social life here, social ties, have a big effect," he says. 

There is still much work ahead if Libya’s leaders are to meet their goal of folding militias into national armed forces.

I asked Sari, the soldier, about this. He served in Libya’s Army before the war, then joined a militia to help bring down Qaddafi. Now he is back in the Army.

“Those who stayed in the militias don’t have jobs or anything to do,” he said. “Libya is like a flower” – he bent and touched some small red blossoms beside the steps – “and needs water.”

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