Libya Gaddafi death anniversary: Unfinished business

Children play on an old  Gaddafi tank in Misrata Today children play on Gaddafi's tanks in Misrata

The checkpoint outside Misrata on the Tripoli road is more like an international border than the boundary of a city.

Armed, mostly bearded men regulate who comes in and who does not. They were friendly and even made a few jokes as they held up the BBC team for about half an hour as they checked our credentials. The man who ran the cafe refused to take any money for teas, coffees and a couple of Snickers bars.

In Misrata they argue that the checkpoint is a sensible precaution in a country as unpredictable as Libya.

But those Libyans who worry about the future of their country are queasy about the way that some towns, especially those like Misrata which played a prominent role in the revolution, are turning themselves into entities that feel more like city states than regional centres.

Start Quote

Everyone knows the weapons are there. It helps keep the peace”

End Quote Unnamed man in Misrata

The new Libya still does not have an effective central government to replace the dictatorship. If anything, it has gone to the opposite extreme.

For 42 years, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi did not just centralise power, he made himself into the embodiment of the state. The colonel's extensive and vicious security services made sure that rivals, real and imagined, were neutralised or eliminated.

Gaddafi hollowed out institutions that could potentially become a power base for a rival as zealously as he jailed and killed individuals.

That meant that when he fell, he took the strange, quixotic state he had created with him. His huge, sprawling leadership compound in Tripoli has been colonised by the homeless. Lawns that used to be pristine are now rubbish dumps.

Total revolution

The end of the colonel, captured and killed a year ago this weekend, and the downfall of his family, meant that Libya had the most complete Arab revolution.

Unlike the Tunisians or the Egyptians, Libyans did not inherit much from the years of dictatorship that would help them rebuild their country.

Libyans have had to start from the bottom up, and it has not been easy. An election this summer went more smoothly and peacefully than anyone dared to expect.

Mourners at the funeral of Omran Shabaan in Misrata, Libya, 25 September  Omran Shabaan, who helped capture Muammar Gaddafi, was later abducted and mortally wounded

But since then, Libya's fledgling politicians have struggled to get to grips with the deal-making that is necessary to create a functioning central government. It is not surprising. Col Gaddafi allowed no civil society to function. The politicians are having to learn as they go along.

While they argue, Libyans are dealing with Gaddafi's legacy. One man in Misrata told me that the country was like a bottle of cola that had been shaken for 42 years. As soon as the top came off, a lot of grievances, old and new, came pouring out.

Col Gaddafi used classic tactics of divide-and-rule to play off towns, regions and tribes against each other. His death did not end the bad feeling that he encouraged.

It could have been much worse. A country-wide civil war has not restarted, although there have been armed clashes, and people have died.

The absence of effective central government has left a vacuum. It has been filled by local militias and brigades, some independent, some controlled by self-confident cities like Misrata, and by tribal notables.

A typically excellent recent report from the International Crisis Group showed how, between them, they have managed to make local deals to defuse disputes. But the deals are sticking-plasters that do not deal with Libya's fundamental issues.

'Armed peace'
Abdul Aziz al-Harous shows the scars on his back Abdul Aziz al-Harous showed the scars on his back

The most serious is security. This last week, fighters from Misrata, in the name of the Libyan government, have been the driving force behind attacks on the neighbouring town of Bani Walid.

It has been sheltering remnants of Gaddafi's faithful. Some of them captured and tortured Misratans. One of those captured was Omran Shabaan, who died of his wounds after a deal to release him.

Shabaan was the revolutionary fighter who found Col Gaddafi hiding in a drainage pipe a year ago. The video of the deposed leader's last, savage hours show Omran Shabaan holding on hard to his bloodstained prisoner as he was beaten.

Another young man from Misrata, a journalist called Abdul Aziz al-Harous, showed me the wounds inflicted by his captors in Bani Walid before his release last month. He was whipped with cables, given electric shocks and burnt with charcoal and lighters.

His doctors have told him that the circulation in his legs may have been damaged permanently because his tormentors hung him upside down for hours every day. His ankles were horribly swollen, lacerated and infected when he was released. Abdel Aziz said female nurses had cut his ankles with scalpels, and told him it was the flesh of a rat from Misrata.

BBC map

Col Gaddafi's arsenals were split open during the civil war. A common estimate is that there are more guns than people here now. In the main, the heavy weapons, Kalashnikov AK-47s and RPG rocket launchers, are gone from the streets. But they are never far away.

In Misrata, a man who was giving me a lift said cheerfully: "Everyone has an AK or an RPG in the boot of the car. But it's not cool to carry them openly these days.

"Everyone knows the weapons are there. It helps keep the peace."

But arming everyone as a form of civil deterrence is not a long-term solution. Libya has too many potential sources of conflict for that.

Plenty of people here still are marvelling at the freedom of a life without the Gaddafis.

But unless Libya's democrats can start governing, the divisions in the country will widen and more fires will start.

A year after Gaddafi's death, it is still easy to find hope in Libya, but time is not elastic.

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