Libyans yearn for order to replace gun
- 18 November 2013
- From the section Africa
As Col Muammar Gaddafi's regime was collapsing, I met Salah al-Marghani in the newly liberated Abu Salim prison.
He was a quiet, very determined human rights lawyer who was supervising a group of sweating, dusty, younger men - lawyers like him - who were salvaging the prison records. They were piling files, photographs, video and audio tapes into fruit boxes, and loading them on to a lorry.
They were working fast because supporters of Col Gaddafi had already been into the prison and torched some of the record store rooms. The ash was still smouldering, potential evidence for future criminal prosecutions gone forever.
Salah and his colleagues did not want that to happen to the paperwork and recordings that were left.
Salah al-Marghani is now Libya's justice minister. When he talks about how hard it had been to try to change Libya for the better he gets visibly emotional.
When he spoke out against the illegal - and often brutal - detention of prisoners by armed militias, gunmen occupied his ministry and kicked him out.
His big fear, which is shared by many people who were full of hope after the overthrow of Col Gaddafi, is that the old dictator's ways have not been eradicated from the country, and are alive and well in some of the militias.
"I still have hope," he told me. "I think we failed the Libyan people on realising how difficult it would be to deal with the fallout from the revolution that has caused thousands of killings, injuries, missing people, rape cases. My concern is that maybe we are not addressing the real issues courageously."
Power still comes from the barrels of the guns of rival militias. Libya still has no effective central government.
Armed militias are the real power in the land. They range from former revolutionaries to criminals to al-Qaeda affiliates. Some have taken over key Libyan oilfields. Others are providing muscle to those who want to set up a breakaway autonomous entity in the east of the country.
In the past 10 days Tripoli has suffered its worst violence since the fall of Col Gaddafi. Militias shot at each other, and then at civilians when they protested. Many people have been killed.
The Libya Prime Minister Ali Zeidan called for international help to disarm the militias if they did not voluntarily give up their weapons.
He said that if Libyans wanted to establish a civil state, they would have to ask those who carried arms to hand them in.
'Living under the gun'
The trouble is that the militias do not respond to polite requests. A variety of schemes to absorb militiamen into the new Libyan armed forces have either failed or had limited success. A few weeks ago Mr Zeidan was kidnapped by a militia. He was released after a few hours. Other people, without influence, are not so lucky.
A man, who did not want to give his name because he was scared of reprisals, talked about the abduction of his son by a militia.
"The problems we've got now weren't there in Gaddafi's time. The militias, the spread of weapons, the lack of respect. We live under the gun now.
"You walk around scared. You leave the house scared, and you come home scared. You're not safe on the streets.
"There aren't any courts, instead there's the rule of the militias. They implement their own laws - they are the judge and jury and everything."
Frequent reports of bombings, abductions and assassinations come from Libya's second city, Benghazi. Tripoli is quieter, most of the time, but it's a brittle kind of calm.
What's happening to Libya alarms Ali Alekermi, who spent 30 years as political prisoner. He showed me the cell in Abu Salim where he spent 11 years. He said rats came from the lavatory pipes; it was bakingly hot in summer and freezing in winter and every day they feared they could be killed.
Even though he lost what he calls the best years of his life in prison (he was locked up at 22 and released three decades later) Mr Alekermi is calling for national reconciliation.
He is the chairman of the Libyan Association of Prisoners of Opinion and says many of old cellmates feel the same. They want justice but fear that a thirst for revenge is destroying Libya's chances of building a state of laws.
Mr Alekermi said he was very badly tortured.
"I am the victim. I should be the first one to take revenge from those who tortured us. But torture will engender torture, revenge will engender revenge."
His eyes filled with tears.
"Of course," he said, "it's because I'm thinking about my sons, my daughters. They have to live in a state of rule, they have to live peacefully."
But many Libyans do want revenge.
Perhaps if Col Gaddafi had been captured and put on trial instead of being stabbed, beaten and shot dead on a dusty road, the last two years would have been different. Libyans would have had an example of how the rule of law can deliver justice.
Some of the Western countries that helped overthrow the colonel are training Libya's new armed forces.
At a passing out parade for new trained recruits there were energetic displays of martial arts, of extreme gymnastics, of abseiling and other military skills. The question, though, is whether this brave attempt to create a cohesive armed force is going to survive its first contact with the confusion that can flare up very fast outside the walls of this barracks.
If the new army ends up as just one weak player in a country full of competing armed groups, Libya's unhappy, unstable, violent present will be its future too.
Justice Minister Marghani put it like this: "The economy depends on security, education depends on security, justice depends on security."
All Libyans feel insecure about the future. Reconciliation after revolutions and civil war can take generations. Without security for all, lives will go on being blighted. Libya still can't escape Gaddafi's poisonous legacy.