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Libya: Tripoli, a city once again brimming with life

By Mathieu Galtier
Posted on Monday, 8 November 2021 12:58, updated on Thursday, 11 November 2021 10:03

Start of the Grand Prix of the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, 29 October 2021, Tripoli © DR

A year and a half after Khalifa Haftar’s offensive ended, and a little over a month before a possible presidential election, Tripoli has been reborn. However, this rebirth has not lessened the Libyan capital’s endemic ills.

There is no doubt that Muammar Gaddafi – with his frizzy hair, playboy face and slightly provocative pose – is back in Tripoli. At least on shop windows. According to a bookshop in the city centre, the Guide is (re)making a fortune. Mujahid al-Bousaifi’s book La Nation de la Tente is a success.

Released this past summer, the book does not glorify the former dictator. However, its cover is unusual, as it features a close-up shot of Gaddafi at the height of his power. No militia has demanded that the book be banned. How times have changed, or maybe time is just cynical. Tripoli seems to be reliving the sweet euphoria that dominated the first months of 2012, just before the legislative elections. Is this because the first unitary government since 2014 was established in March or is it due to the fact that the first presidential election is due to take place on 24 December?

Seif el-Islam, why not?

“Seif el-Islam, president, why not? I could vote for him. It would be the best way to unify the country,” Chibani, a cafe owner in the chic Ben Achour district, says without blinking. However, the cautious man prefers to give a pseudonym – Chibani means ‘white hair’ – rather than his real name. His main customers, young men who have little or no experience of the Jamahiriya, don’t see a problem with voting for el-Islam, but their favourite is Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dabaiba, who hands out dinars – LYD40,000 ($8,666) – to newlyweds without a second thought. The promise of a new life.

Dabaiba can afford it. He is close to the governor of the Central Bank, Sadiq al-Kabir, who is printing money, and he also has his uncle.

Ziad talks about a wedding he recently attended. “With this money, the husband was able to buy a plot of land for their house. If he hadn’t had it though, he would still be saving money and not be married,” he says. However, people at his table are wary. Two months after the programme was launched, delays in payment and rumours of corruption have been spreading rapidly. Nevertheless, everyone welcomes the initiative, especially young people who often see themselves as cannon fodder for the various battles that have punctuated Libyans’ lives since 2011. “And at least it’s a nicer topic of conversation than the power cuts,” says Ziad.

During the siege of Tripoli (April 2019 – June 2020), power cuts could often last more than 12 hours. The end of the fighting and the Government of National Unity’s efforts to revive the power plants have silenced the hum of the generators, although they are still there in the corner of the room, just in case.

Another one of Dabaiba’s major projects is urban rehabilitation. Here again, the leader, who is supported by the powerful city of Misrata, where he comes from, does not go into detail. Every illegal piece of infrastructure was bulldozed. Informal souks that had existed for years were knocked to the ground, like the one between the sea and the Corinthia.

The aim was to make way for Libya’s Stability Conference, which took place on 21 October in this luxury hotel. No decisions were made, but the objective was achieved: to bring together high-ranking delegates from more than 30 countries and international organisations in Tripoli, without incident. According to the organisers, no event had gone this smoothly since the EU-Africa Summit in November 2010.

Uncertain vote

The government hopes to erase 10 years of failed attempts to transition to a democratic government. The Bab al-Azizia construction site is an illustration of this. Excavators and dumpers are busy in the former Gaddafi HQ.

Destroyed by NATO bombing in 2011, the various authorities have not touched it since. Instead, they allowed this crushed concrete scar to disfigure the capital, which has become a centre for all sorts of trafficking and a squat for many impoverished families. The site will be transformed into a huge park, where families can enjoy the area’s charms.

“Life is returning to normal thanks to the prime minister. We can indulge in our economic activities and passions once again,” says Imad Achaa, chairman of the Libyan Horse Racing Authority. Under the prime minister’s supervision, the authority relaunched the Grand Prix of the Arch of Marcus Aurelius on 27 October, with a prize of LYD1m ($219,527). Just one example of how good life in Tripoli is now.

However, there is a downside, as the upcoming elections are scaring the more moderate. Libya’s largest private employer, Mohamed Raied, who is also president of the Libyan Chamber of Commerce and a member of parliament, believes that the country is not yet ready for such a divisive presidential election. The posters, which feature the words ‘Haftar, war criminal’ over the marshal’s face and a big red cross, hanging all over Tripoli, seem to prove him right.

The east believes that Dabaiba and Fathi Bachagha, the former interior minister, are loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood, that Aguila Saleh has been one of the main perpetrators of the instability since 2014, and that Aref Ali Nayed, the former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is a pawn of the Gulf State.

Among these leading figures in Libyan politics, el-Islam seems to be, as the cafe owner says, the least divisive. However, his interview with the New York Times this summer seems to suggest that there will be a serious backlash if he is elected.

He does not deny any of his father’s achievements, except for the occasional ‘excessive use of force’. Tripolitans also remember that the hostilities, which led to the country’s division between east and west, began after the two assemblies refused to transfer their power after the 2014 legislative elections.

Grooms rather than grants

These generously distributed subsidies are more reminiscent of the type of clientelism that has been the rule since Gaddafi, than of a well-thought-out economic strategy. “Dabaiba can afford it. He is close to the governor of the Central Bank, Sadiq al-Kabir, who is printing money, and he also has his uncle,” says a local banker, referring to Ali Dabaiba.

The latter is said to have bribed members of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, of which he was a member, to get his nephew elected.

Abdelfattah Salama strolls through the rubble of what was once his home and industrial chicken coop, which has been wiped out by rockets and anti-tank missiles. He has received nothing from the government, yet his life was destroyed during Haftar’s siege.

We were used. We were told to take up arms and so we went. It was fair to fight against Gaddafi and IS in Sirte, but when it was to shoot our Libyan brothers, who was it for?

This man, who used to earn a comfortable living and raise 1.7 million chicks, has been reduced to sleeping with his family at relatives’ houses. “I think that we, those who have lost our homes because of the war, should be prioritised for state aid rather than young people who are getting married,” he says.

Moustapha lives in a house that was partially destroyed by the fighting, but it is not his. For the past 10 years, he has lived in a guard post in Bab al-Azizia. The former army major was evicted in the spring by the public works company. The only home he could find was this seedy flat in Qasr Ben Ghashir, 30km south of Tripoli.

“The door is destroyed. The wind is blowing everywhere. At least I have water and electricity,” he says. Mustapha’s house in Bab al-Azizia wasn’t any better, but at least he felt “at home.” The retired soldier knew the place like the back of his hand. Above all, he did not pay any rent. When he was evicted, he was promised compensation, but he is still waiting. Moustapha receives LYD600 in retirement, which is the sum total of his rent.

The return of the militias

The only reason that Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign affairs minister, and many of his foreign counterparts have travelled to the Corinthia, and horse lovers have filled the stands at the Abu Sitta racecourse, is because security reigns supreme in the capital now. The flip slide of this is that the militias have returned in full force, notably the ‘foreign’ groups. Not the Russian mercenaries, nor the Syrians sent by Ankara – those are hardly visible in the city -, but rather, the armed forces that hail from the two powerful military cities of the west: Zintan and Misrata. Under Fayez el-Sarraj’s previous government, the Tripolitan katibas ruled and held the barricades.

Just like in the aftermath of the revolution, the city is divided between the Tripolitan armed groups, the Misrata and Zintan forces: each has its own neighbourhood, trade and emblems, which are displayed on the hoods of 4×4s. “Being ordered by an ignorant mountain dweller from Zintan to make a diversion because such and such a road is blocked, even though it’s my neighbourhood, my town, is unbearable,” says a well-to-do young businessman.

Passing through Tripoli, Aymen al-Saïd, the Zintani, and Abdelmoutaleb Mohamed, the Misrati, are not happy with what they see. They are both in their 30s and are former soldiers. Between them, they have taken part in almost every war since the revolution, sometimes side by side or face to face. Today, they have laid down their arms to enrol in a retraining programme run by the NGO Super Novae, which is funded by France and the European Union (EU).

“We were used. We were told to take up arms and so we went. It was fair to fight against Gaddafi and IS in Sirte, but when it was to shoot our Libyan brothers, who was it for?” says Abdelmoutaleb. Aymen, for his part, is pleased that he managed to convince his younger brother not to take part in the 2019 war on Haftar’s side, but for the rest, he has few illusions. “I lost a leg in 2014. It has been seven years and no state official has come to offer me anything.” Both married, they still want to believe that the upcoming elections will help Libya turn the page. For the sake of their children’s future.

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