Appetite for normality in strange new Tripoli

Libyan youths stroll in the streets next to graffiti reading "Free Libya, The rebels From The Old City" in Tripoli, Libya, on Saturday
Image caption The daily rhythms of normal life are reasserting themselves, but Tripoli is still marked by the strange and incongruous

In the first heady days of liberation, Tripoli felt more like a place where an old system had collapsed than a place where a new one was being created.

There were too many guns, and not enough government - not surprising in a place where freedom was won on the battlefield and not through a ballot box.

On the other hand, a sense of joy ran through the streets like an electrical current. Just as well, since the actual electrical current was proving erratic, along with the water supply.

The victorious rebels looked, for the most part, exactly as you would expect - like civilians who had suddenly been asked to pick up guns and fight.

Their dress code is "21st-Century revolutionary chic" - desert camouflage, mirrored sunglasses and bandanas in the colours of the revolutionary tricolour.

But gradually their profile on the streets is being reduced - an essential measure to reassure ordinary Tripolitanians that the warlike appearance of their city is temporary.

The sound of celebratory machine-gun fire hammering away in the Mediterranean darkness which made it impossible to sleep immediately after the fall of Col Muammar Gaddafi has now dwindled - partly in response to appeals from imams in local mosques.

Image caption Food and utility shortages are lessening, and prices stabilising

There are still security checkpoints, but fewer of them, and they are of varying degrees of military usefulness.

One near the hotel used by most foreign journalists consisted simply of a wheelbarrow drawn across one carriageway of a two-lane road.

Elsewhere, freight containers and traffic bollards have been pressed into service. One or two are fashioned from real tank traps - huge pieces of ferro-concrete shaped like giant geometrical puzzles.

Harley Davidsons

To get a feel for when the fighters themselves think things will come back to normal I went to the Tripoli suburb of Hayy-al-Andalus where I found the local commander and his men living in the grounds of an elementary school building.

You quickly get used to the incongruous here, so it hardly seemed surprising to find two Harley Davidson motorcycles parked in the playground. They had been found in the hands of looters, we were told, and would eventually be handed back to their owners.

The rebel commander here, Nasi al-Esarwi, is a local man but most of the fighters sitting around in the sunshine have been brought by ship from the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the last few days.

A couple are from Misrata, which Libyans see as the home of the toughest rebel units - men who bore the brunt of the fighting against Col Gaddafi's armed forces.

Their main task, with the revolution itself now secure, is to hunt down and arrest people suspected of playing significant roles in Col Gaddafi's regime.

'Fair treatment'

Mr al-Esarwi, though, is keen to stress how much things in Libya have changed: "This is not like the old days under Gaddafi," he said.

"We are in touch with human rights workers and we understand about human rights. They are just under arrest and will be investigated. They will be treated fairly."

We are told that there are prisoners in the school building - two or three, it seems - but we are not allowed to see them.

But if you want to get a sense of how much this country is changing and how quickly, how about this: Mr al-Esarwi was a political prisoner under Col Gaddafi held for five years without trial in a notorious jail called Abu Selim.

One of the prisoners he is now holding is a former guard from Abu Selim who was responsible for looking after the secret graves at the complex.

When I asked Mr al-Esarwi if they recognised each other he smiled drily. "He pretends not to remember," said the commander.

So the work of the rebel fighters continues although the most dangerous days in Tripoli are past.


But Libya won't feel normal again until the normal rhythms of daily civilian life re-assert themselves.

Image caption Tripoli residents want to get back to work and play

The authorities are now telling people to return to work and there has clearly been a response.

Tripoli's traffic is becoming steadily heavier and more chaotic, as people begin to resume their normal routines.

At one of the city's main hospitals a senior doctor told me that medical staff were returning to work in large numbers.

"Even people who supported Gaddafi are coming back," he said. "But we have enormous problems from the past. The last regime affected everything - even punctuality.

"When Libyans turn up for meetings or appointments on time, we say they're keeping 'British time'. It's become foreign to us."

At an international investment bank a short distance away we found people returning to their desks. Although it would be too much to say we found them returning to work.

"The air conditioning isn't working," one young man told me.

"In this high-rise building the windows don't open so you can't really work. I met my boss in the elevator when I came in. He told me he was going home until they got the AC running again."

These are teething troubles though, and at least it seems to show there is a huge appetite to get things back to normal.

There are even signs that food prices - which rocketed during the conflict because it was hard to get food into Tripoli from the surrounding countryside - may at last be stabilising, and even beginning to fall.

There remain enormous questions for the future - everything from the holding of free elections to the drafting of a constitution. And of course, there is the urgent need to find Col Gaddafi.

Those issues, though, are for the longer term.

Tripolitanians are beginning to feel that the more pressing problems - the ones affecting the quality of daily life - are in hand, even if the transitional government is still settling into a role for which it has little experience.