Tripoli Spring

How Libya's behind-the-scenes reformer is actually, well, reforming.

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty ImagesOut of a feudal past: Qaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, might be just the sort of modernizer Libya needs.
The story making headlines this week is the death of Libya's foremost dissident, Fathi al-Jahmi, in a hospital in Jordan. A former provincial governor whose campaign for free speech and democracy landed him in prison in 2002, Jahmi's death resurrects concerns about the police state in Libya today. Yet if his untimely death brings the struggle for democracy to the forefront of conversation, there is much to update from the situation that first condemned Jahmi to spend his final days under police guard. What Fathi al-Jahmi died for is starting to spread in the country. For the first time in memory, change is in the air in Libya.

The brittle atmosphere of repression has started to fracture, giving way to expanded space for discussion and debate, proposals for legislative reform, and even financial compensation for families of the hundreds of men killed in a prison riot a decade ago. And while the reform initiatives, if we dare call them that, are fragile and tenuous (skirmishes are common between the would-be reformers and a security establishment quite comfortable using its untrammeled authority), political dynamism and vibrancy are appearing in a country that was closed in every way for decades.

I first visited Libya four years ago, just as it was gearing up for its self-rehabilitation in the international community, and I returned the following year, working on Human Rights Watch's first official investigation in the country. The government was making all the right foreign-policy moves -- agreeing to give up its weapons of mass destruction program and to compensate victims of the 1988 Libyan-backed bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Soon after, Libya even settled the case of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who were imprisoned for eight years, accused of infecting Libyan children with HIV. They had remained in detention despite overwhelming evidence that the infections were caused by the poor hygiene that characterizes Libya's public hospitals.

But internally, the repression of Libyan citizens was as suffocating as ever. President Muammar al-Qaddafi's Green Book, analogous in state-sponsored hallowedness to Mao's red one, was repeated and rephrased in every meeting -- by officials and citizens alike. Libya was a state of perfect direct democracy, I was told. Every citizen participated in making the country's decisions -- so no need for a private press. Vague promises for reform were uttered here or there, but during our visit, we heard no critical voices inside the country, public or private.

When I visited that same Libya this April, I was unprepared for the change. I left more than one meeting stunned at the sudden openness of ordinary citizens, who criticized the government and challenged the status quo with newfound frankness. A group of journalists we met with in Tripoli complained about censorship and the ease with which public officials could sue them for slander. But that hadn't stopped their newspapers from exposing unsanitary hospitals or contaminated food supplies. One journalist said that, while he was wary of being prosecuted, he found delight in testing the boundaries. Quryna, one of two new semi private newspapers in Tripoli, features page after page of editorials criticizing bureaucratic misconduct and corruption, despite countless pending lawsuits against it.

Even more boldly, families of victims of the Abu Sleem prison killings, in which an estimated 1,200 inmates died on June 28 and 29, 1998, at the hands of state security forces, are organizing -- forming their own association -- after a decade of relative silence. Back in 2004, the government said it had established a commission to investigate the episode; no one is sure if such an investigation took place or what it may have found. Instead, the state has started to issue death certificates and offered up to 120,000 dinars (approximately $88,000) in compensation. Refusing the money, some victims' families are instead demanding a real public accounting and justice for their relatives' killers. The association has held a number of demonstrations despite threats of arrest and ostracism. And while members of the group spoke to us with great apprehension, the very presence of a public debate on abuses by the government's internal police is breathtaking for Libya.

The spirit of reform, however slowly, has spread to the bureaucracy as well. A new draft penal code restricts the death penalty to murder convictions (previously, being convicted of a whole host of crimes could get one killed), even as it continues broad restrictions on speech and organizations. The critically important separation of the Justice and Internal Security ministries in 2004 is producing results. The Justice Ministry is now playing more of an oversight role, calling on Internal Security to obey court decisions and pursue cases involving alleged abuse by police officers. Judges are traveling abroad for training. International groups are working to improve prison conditions (the admission that Libyans might have something to learn from the rest of the world is a breakthrough in and of itself). Even the Interior Ministry is now headed by a more modern minister, Gen. Abdelfattah al-Obeidi, who has reportedly been tasked with overhauling Libya's sclerotic police, who had grown accustomed to operating with impunity.

It all sounds tentative yet promising -- and indeed, a group of about 20 lawyers to whom we spoke were debating that very question: Was Libya's expansion of freedom just temporary, or the start of something permanent?

Many Libyans say the changes were unavoidable in the face of the open satellite and Internet access of the past decade, revealing to Libyans just how poorly their Great Jamahiriyaa, the formal name for their government, compares with the rest of the world.

But the real impetus for the transformation rests squarely with a quasi-governmental organization, the Qaddafi Foundation for International Charities and Development. With Saif al-Islam, one of Qaddafi's sons, as its chairman, and university professor Yousef Sawani as its director, the organization has been outspoken on the need to improve the country's human rights record. It has had a number of showdowns with the Internal Security Ministry, with whom relations remain frosty. Saif al-Islam is also responsible for the establishment of the country's two semi private newspapers, Oea and Quryna.

Some say that Saif al-Islam's efforts are nothing more than a bid to enhance his popularity before moving to inherit rule from his father. No surprise then, that he is pushing a softer image of Libya on the international stage. Even if that's the case, it is impossible to underestimate the importance of the efforts made so far. Let's hope this spring will last.

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