Thursday, July 26, 2012

Lions of Libya

One family’s story from the city that broke Gadhafi’s back

Misrata, Libya

Stone and concrete lie folded like paper in downtown Misrata. Bullets and mortars and rockets have left abstract patterns of craters and soot. Sheets of metal bend like crumpled flower petals. This is where nearly 30,000 Gadhafi loyalists, many of them highly trained and extremely well armed, came to crush what had begun as a peaceful revolution.

“The stench of bodies was unbearable,” Abdulhadi al Gaid, a Misratan now living in Tripoli, says. “I didn’t think that it could ever look like a normal city again.”
For many months after the revolution, Misratans would not let other Libyans into their town unless they could prove their family ties to the city, partly out of security, partly out of pride. At a checkpoint near the city, at the town of Dafniya, al Gaid chats with a guard. A quick listing of family names brings smiles of recognition to both their faces and access to the town.

This stretch of highway was one of the most important fronts in the war - and one of the bloodiest. After successfully liberating Misrata, locals pushed west to link the liberated eastern part of the country with the still occupied western region, where the capital Tripoli lies. This is the road where foreign guns and artillery eventually replaced home-made weapons-systems to turn the tide of battle in favor of the revolutionaries. This is the road from where images of fighting were broadcast across the world. This is the road where one of Abdulhadi’s cousins was killed.

Rows of Gadhafi's destroyed tanks line the side of the Misrata-Tripoli highway.

But before all that, it took ordinary citizens with no fighting experience to liberate their coastal city.

“I had never seen a gun in my life except in the holsters of policemen,” says Mohammed ben Taher, 23, who fought to liberate the city and has the scars to prove it.

Sitting on the carpeted floor of his family’s living room, with the AC and lights phasing in and out along with the city’s electrical grid, Mohammad shows his wounds. He has a splotchy, pale scar under his left arm about the size of a soda can - his first injury that required hospitalization. He was transported to Izmir, Turkey to receive treatment before managing to hitch a ride back to Misrata on a fishing boat to resume fighting.

Mohammed has dozens of scars, a giant dimple in his right tricep where muscle once existed, and two straight streaks, as wide as a ruler, across his chest. His chest wound was inflicted when a 23-and-half millimeter anti-air craft bullet landed near him and two of his fellow fighters. The bullet’s impact sent shrapnel into Mohammed, some of which remains in his neck, jaw, and cheek. The medical reports from his hospital stay in Tunisia tell him that his heart stopped twice, that he required artificial breathing, and that he had serious internal bleeding near his heart and lungs – little of which he remembers after waking up from a twelve-day coma.

He still has shrapnel in his back from another battle, which makes it difficult for him to sleep lying down. When he does manage to fall asleep these days, it is usually in a chair.

But Mohammed was the lucky one.

The Libyan Insurance Building, looms above downtown Misrata. Its white walls are now broken and blackened from gunfire. However, for weeks on end in the spring of 2011, Gadhafi’s snipers destroyed the building’s stairs to cut off access, and used the roof to pick off countless revolutionaries. In an alleyway not far from the building, Hisham ben Taher, Mohammed’s older brother, was shot and killed on March 6.

A photo of the Libyan National Insurance Building in downtown Misrata

Mohammed and the younger of his two older sisters, Halima, show me a video on their iPad of Hisham’s last moments. The footage shows Hisham sprawled in the middle of the street as two young men attend to another wounded man lying several feet from Hisham. The men wait for the gunfire to stop so they can retrieve the older ben Taher. Within two weeks, both men would be dead.

Halima and her older sister, Ilham, who sits in another corner of the room, shed silent tears before continuing their story.

“It’s strange,” says Halima, as Mohammed retreats back into silence, his head twitching, his tongue flicking inside his cheek, his shoulders jerking up from time to time. “We lived in a war, but we did not live in fear. We used to see the Palestinians before the war living, eating, drinking, marrying – we used to ask ‘how can they live?’ Then it happened to us.”

Ilham nods in agreement. Why weren’t they afraid?

“We knew that when they are here, the boys won’t let us get hurt,” says Halima.

As Ramadan ben Taher, the father of the family, quietly brings coffee and fruit to offer his guests, the youngest son, Abdurrahman, sits sheepishly near Ilham. His sisters did not allow Abdurrahman, now aged 17 but only 16 during the war, to fight alongside his brothers. One day he ventured outside the confines of the family’s besieged basement to join his brothers only to have his foot shattered by a stray bullet. Trapped by gunfire, he lay on his own street for hours, losing consciousness twice before neighbors rescued him.

On the iPad, Halima and Mohammed show photos of their house’s gray, destroyed façade, unrecognizable from the now rebuilt house surrounded by greenery. On March 13, five days after Gadhafi forces stormed the city, the girls, Abdurrahman and their mother fled to a relative’s house, using small openings in backyard walls to navigate across the neighborhood’s alleys.

The family spent five days in Halima’s uncle’s basement, along with 103 other people.

Asked about the conditions there, Halima chuckled. “The kids wanted warm bread. We only had old bread.”

Navigating back to normality

Now that the war is over, Halima has returned to teaching primary school. Ilham has returned to teaching the Quran at the local mosque. Abdurrahman has begun his first year of university in the faculty of engineering, and their father, a retired businessman, beams with pride.

Everyone seems to have returned to normal except for Mohammed. He says he doesn’t believe in school, and will not return. Asked if he is working, he replies no, prompting a patient, almost gentle silence as the family smiles lovingly in his direction. Ramadan quietly mentions that he would like to see his son go back to school, but looks pleased when Mohammed says he would like to start his own business someday.

The family has just voted in Libya’s first multi-party election since 1952, proudly brandishing their henna-stained fingers. They say they have all voted for Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance, a non-Islamist coalition that has shirked ideological debate and focused instead on the practical steps needed to rebuild the country.

“What Mahmoud Jibril says is what we dream,” says Halima.

However, Mohammed’s scarred hands remain unstained.

“I don’t want to give my vote to anyone. There are still too many problems,” he says. “When Gadhafi was alive, we were still one people. Now people have changed.”

Mohammed says he has unsuccessfully applied to the local medical board four times for a grant to be treated outside of Libya. Apart from medical treatment for himself, he says he wants the country to have a better education system, solid infrastructure, rule of law and the removal of guns from the streets.

“Of course I have hope, but things will be slow,” he says, conceding that he would prefer to move to the United States.

Asked why he went out to fight in the first place, he responds immediately with only one word.


This photo, taken days after Libya's July, 7, 2012 elections, shows a wall in downtown Misrata covered in revolutionary graffiti.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Libya's New Politicians Resist Labels

Libyans celebrate election day on Omar Mukthar Avenue in downtown Tripoli, Libya on July, 7, 2012.

Tripoli, Libya

Sitting in his garden in the Tripoli suburb of Ain Zara five days after the July, 7 elections, surrounded by a circle of friends and family chatting quietly, Abdelnasser Siklani watched his TV screen as Libya’s Higher National Election Commission announced results. Siklani, an independent candidate for the new General National Congress, had just heard the news that he had won a seat, but was waiting to hear it confirmed on televised broadcast.

Suddenly the results for the district, which has two seats in the new congress, appeared on screen. Siklani rushed up to the screen and held his finger over his name. He had indeed come in second place, ahead of the next candidate by less than a hundred votes.

For Siklani, a businessman, this foray into politics is totally new.

“This is a special feeling you can’t get in business. This dream was always inside me, but now I can transfer my feelings and love of Libya through a program,” he says.

In the new Congress, only 80 out of 200 seats were reserved for political parties, with the rest left to individual candidates. This has made determining the political leaning of the new body difficult to identify, particularly in a country where there were no politics for 42 years under the rule of former dictator Moammer Gadhafi. While the non-Islamist National Forces Alliance, or NFA, of former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, has performed exceedingly well in these elections, other parties have said that they intend to tip the balance by attracting independent congressmen to their cause.

According to Siklani, he has already been contacted by five, different political parties seeking his support, with one phone call coming only minutes after his victory.

“All parties are calling me to get me to join, but I will remain independent,” he says.

Siklani says he is skeptical of parties that were formed too quickly.

“I don’t rely on theories or ideas. When I see something in practice that works, I will go to that,” he says.

Siklani says his skepticism of the political parties comes from the lessons he learned when he spent 7 years in Gadhafi’s Abu Slim prison. Siklani was jailed twice for plotting to assassinate Moammer Gadhafi. The first time came, in 1980, when he was a pilot stationed at an airbase in Sirte. Noticing that Gadhafi only traveled with a dozen-car escort in this Gadhafi-friendly town, rather than the normal 100 in Tripoli, he hatched a plan with one co-conspirator. Siklani’s confidante let the plan slip to a third party. Siklani was arrested, but managed to convince the jailers that his partner was simply trying to climb up the ladder of success by inventing traitors.

The second time Siklani plotted to kill Gadhafi was in 1982 in Benghazi, and this time he was caught.

Siklani’s brother, Abdelrazek, celebrating tonight in Ain Zara, recounts looking for his jailed brother for three years.

I lied about my age so I could get a license and drove house to house around Tripoli to try to get information and clearance [to see Abdelnasser],” he says, noting that the family had no idea whether he was alive or not.

Abdelrazek and his mother were finally granted permission to see Abdelnasser in prison in 1985.

“I think the guys sitting around him tortured him. He couldn’t even walk, his legs were blue,” Abdelrazek says.

“Your mom had to watch it,” Abdelnasser interrupts, pointing out that he had to pretend he was in better condition than he actually was so as not to worry his mother.

The Siklani story, like thousands of others in this city, gives a clue as to how external political influences, like Islamism, have failed to mold the political landscape of this fiercely independent country.

“We learned enough from Gadhafi that no one will cheat us in the future, even the Libyan parties,” he says.

This attitude may help to explain how the NFA, which has thus far shirked ideological labels, managed to secure a sweeping victory. Following the elections, NFA head Jibril gave a press conference specifically to reject the labels ascribed to his coalition by the media.

“Some media channels, Arab and non-Arab, started referring to the National Forces Alliance as liberal and secular. That’s not true. This alliance is open and it is composed of all political mixtures of Libyans,” he said. “This alliance is an alliance of the national forces. It has no relationship to any ideology.”

He also went on to reject the labels of ‘leftist,’ and ‘Islamist.’

According to the NFA’s General Secretary, Doctor Faisal Krekshi, the NFA learned well the lessons of Tunisia and Egypt. He noted that in Tunisia’s first democratic elections in October of last year, the Islamist Ennahda party won less of the vote-total than all the non-Islamist parties combined, but took power because the others remained divided. Learning from that experience, Krekshi says that Jibril toured 30 cities in November and December, talking with local political groups and non-governmental organizations to build the NFA’s current 55-party coalition.

Beyond grassroots coalition building, Krekshi says the NFA has beaten Islamists by taking debate to a higher level.

“We should provide for the basic needs of people, then we can talk about politics. We feel that it is more important to build the future principles of Libya rather than debate about secular or Muslims or stupidity like that,” he says. “We never go into a level where debate is so cheap. We prefer that debate will be about what you can offer and provide as a program, schedule, timetable and tools. But debating that you are Muslims, non-Muslims; you are secular, they are not secular; you drink, you don’t drink; you pray, you don’t pray – that’s not the way to build a country.”

More than that, Krekshi says that talking about religion as a political matter, in a country where nearly everyone is Muslim, is moot.

“This is a 100% Muslim country. You cannot speak about secularism. It’s like speaking about secularism inside the Vatican. That’s crazy,” he says.

The NFA has instead put forward basic guidelines for fixing Libya’s security challenges and preempting calls for federalism by advocating a policy of decentralization. Siklani, who says he is similarly opposed to ideological debates for now, says his first priority as a newly elected official is to solve Libya’s fragmented security apparatus.

“We cannot talk about politics while people have no electricity, have no clean water, when health services are not provided, when you have no laws, or telecommunications. Those are essential needs for your people. You should provide, and then you can talk about politics,” Krekshi says.

Monday, July 16, 2012

In Libya, Ink-stained Hands Pen a New Chapter

A mother (C), her daughter (L), and their family friend wait in line to enter the voting booths at the Ali Oureyeth High School in Tripoli, Libya on July, 7, 2012.

The following is an excerpt from my latest piece in Egypt Independent on Libya's historic elections:

Into a sun-washed courtyard, yards away from a street full of blaring car horns and waving flags, Laila Gurgi and her husband Mohammad al Taboli step out of the Ali Oureyeth High School. The couple has just voted for the first time in their lives, and they are smiling.
“It is difficult to explain how we are feeling,” she said. “It’s like a dream. Today we touched the sky.”
A stranger, Khansaa al-Obeydi, approaches to congratulate the couple on voting.
“We suffered a lot. Today we forgot everything except our martyrs,” al-Obeydi says.
Saturday marks Libya’s first multi-party election since February 1952. There are over 2000 candidates vying for 200 seats in a new temporary assembly tasked with picking a cabinet and appointing a new prime minister. There are lingering security concerns around the country, and many worry that some groups pushing for greater autonomy in the eastern region of Cyrenaica will destabilize a country recovering from a bloody revolution. However, the residents of Tripoli today downplayed these threats and took to the streets en masse, celebrating what many see as “victory day.”

Election volunteers display their henna-stained fingers after voting at the 'Turkish-Mosque' primary school and voting center in Souk Al Jouma neighborhood of Tripoli, Libya, on July, 7, 2012.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Libyan Elections: A historical note

Reading Libya: The Struggle for Survival, Geoff Simons' (at times very biased) historical account of Libya, I came across a passage about Libya's 1952 elections:

Political parties contended for power in the general election of February 1952, after which they were dissolved and banned. Two opposing tendencies had come into conflict: the Istiqlal [Independence] party under Salim al-Muntasser, linked to business and the British military administration; and Bashir Bey Sadawi's National Congress Party, leaning towards the Arab League. The Congress Party won all the seats in Tripoli, but lost in the rest of the country, a result that confounded its expectations and led to claims that the government had rigged the ballot. As soon as the results were announced Congress supporters invaded the government buildings, cut telephone wires, and blocked transport. The government arrested scores of demonstrators, banned the Congress Party, and banished Sadawi to Egypt. The fledgling multi-party politics of independent Libya had collapsed at the first test, and it was destined not to return: factions continued to operate on a clandestine basis but healthy political contention was at an end.

Hopefully history will not repeat itself, and the upcoming elections on July 7th will be the first step to a lively, but peaceful, representative political system.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tunisia's Continuing Systemic Corruption

The following is an excerpt from my latest piece in Foreign Policy Magazine's Democracy Lab Project. The full article can be read here:

Belhassen Trabelsi is not your typical immigrant seeking refugee status in Canada. For starters, he arrived in Canada on a private jet. His family owned a $2.5 million mansion in Montreal -- at least until the Canadian government confiscated it. And unlike many people escaping their home countries, Trabelsi is fleeing a democratically elected government, one that came to power after the Tunisian people revolted against the rule of Trabelsi's brother-in-law, longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Trabelsi -- a balding, baby-faced 49-year-old with sunken eyes and a large double chin -- is the brother of Leila Trabelsi, Ben Ali's wife. According to U.S. Embassy cables leaked by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, Belhassen Trabelsi is "the most notorious family member" in Ben Ali's extended family. The cables refer to the entire family as a "quasi-mafia," noting that "the Trabelsis' strong-arm tactics and flagrant abuse of the system make them easy to hate." Described in the French press as a "hoodlum," Trabelsi profited from his sister's 1992 marriage, using public institutions and resources to create a Tunisian business empire that included luxury hotels, an airline, a radio station, a newspaper and two banks.
Trabelsi fled for Montreal when Tunisians took to the streets in the winter of 2011 to bring down the Ben Ali regime. Despite a request from the Tunisian government to extradite Trabelsi so that he may face justice, the Canadian authorities, by holding fast to legal procedures designed to protect the rights of legitimate asylum seekers, have allowed him to remain. Earlier this month, Trabelsi lost his bid to have his Canadian permanent residency reinstated, but it is likely he will remain in Canada for years while he appeals for refugee status.
In many ways, Tunisia's so-called Jasmine Revolution was a rejection of the corrupt system led by a small oligarchic clan in which Trabelsi figured so prominently. Yet even today, corruption remains one of Tunisia's major challenges in creating a democratic system. Tunisia has made some headway on the domestic front by confiscating local Ben Ali assets, bringing some of the old oligarchs into custody, and setting up anti-corruption mechanisms. Yet the new government is still struggling to fully reckon with the abuses of the past. One of the biggest challenges: Bringing all ex-regime figures to justice and recovering Tunisian financial assets -- over $15 billion by some estimates -- that were spirited away and hidden around the world.
"This is a fight between two groups: The Tunisian state and an international mafia," says Abderrahmane Ladgham, referring to the Trabelsi and Ben Ali family and those who continue to support them. Ladgham, a member of the coalition government's center-left Ettakatol party, is a deputy prime minister in charge of governance and the fight against corruption.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Syrian Opposition Skeptical of International Commitment

Syrian expats and a member of the opposition Syrian National Council stand outside the Palace Hotel in Gammarth, Tunis, Tunisia on February, 24, 2012.

As foreign ministers from around the world gathered in Tunis on Friday to discuss possible responses to the Syrian regime’s bloody crackdown on its people, members of the main Syrian opposition group present at the so-called “Friends of the Syrian people” conference were incensed at the what they see as a weak response.

“We didn’t come here to talk about humanitarian aid, we came here to talk about the violence. Aid will not stop the killing,” said press spokesman Mouayad Alkiblawi of the opposition group the Syrian National Council, or SNC. “They never talked about self-defense. Do you need 100,000 victims to intervene?”

SNC members were also upset with what they saw as the weak opening remarks of Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, who suggested that the international community seek a deal with the Assad regime similar to the one that was reached with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Alkiblawi’s comments came after the Saudi delegation walked out of the conference, citing the “inactivity” of the talks.

A senior Turkish diplomat said it was understandable that the Saudis wanted stronger language in the working document that had been circulated throughout the conference but said that the meeting was important to create an international platform to pressure the Syrian regime.

“This is the voice of the international conscience,” the diplomat said, suggesting that the show of international backing for increasing pressure on President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime could create the dynamics needed to push through another United Nations Security Council resolution on the issue if the U.N. route is revisited at a later date.

Friday’s meetings came after a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Assad to step aside was vetoed by Russia and China. Russia boycotted the Tunis meetings, while China did not send a delegation.

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives closing remarks at the Friends of the Syrian people conference in Tunis, Tunisia on February 24, 2012.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered harsh prepared words for the two abstaining nations on Friday, calling their position on Syria “despicable.”

“Whose side are they on? Clearly they are not on the side of the Syrian people,” she said in her closing remarks. “We call on those states that are supplying weapons to kill civilians to halt immediately.”

She said that the conference had achieved concrete steps to putting pressure on the Syrian regime, including “commitments” to impose travel bans on senior regime members, freezing regime assets, and more sanctions. She did not specify which nations made these commitments or when the commitments would be realized.

While the United States pledged $10 million in additional humanitarian aid, the issue of immediately putting a stop to the violence was not concluded.

“I regret deeply that there will be more killing before [Assad] goes,” Clinton said.

Tunisia as Host 

The organization of Friday’s conference was finalized “last minute,” according to conference participants. Security was lacking in the morning, with few police guarding the entrance to the Palace Hotel in Gammarth, the conference venue. A metal detector placed at the entrance to the hotel beeped without entrants submitting to additional screening.

Security issues came to the fore when a small but vocal group of Tunisian pro-Assad protesters stormed the hotel’s gates. The group of a couple hundred pushed forward, nearly to the entrance of the hotel, blocking off car access routes and delaying the arrival of Secretary Clinton, President Marzouki and other delegates. The protesters were finally dispersed after police beat them with batons and chased them back.