Hours after Muammar al-Qaddafi met a bloody end 350 miles to the west in Sirte, three Libyans walk into a Benghazi café: an Islamist, a liberal, and a former Qaddafi loyalist. They had agreed to meet me there virtually, via Skype, to discuss Qaddafi's death and the future of Libya, where I had gone in March and April to report on the war and investigate the roots of the uprising. One of the three men -- the liberal -- is the friend of a friend I met in Benghazi. The other two are his co-workers at a survey-research firm; they've known one another for a few weeks.
Convening this get-together from my home in Oakland, California is less than ideal; Internet failures interrupt our conversation every ten minutes or so over the course of a couple hours, and the loud crack of rasaas al-farah -- celebratory gunfire, literally "bullets of joy" -- periodically barges into our conversation. Benghazi, Libya's second city and the birthplace of the uprising against Qaddafi, is no longer a city at war, but it is not yet a city at peace: Civilians still wield automatic weapons, a legacy of the war's chaotic early days, and the city's new government seems to be struggling in its efforts to claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force (to use the German sociologist Max Weber's famous definition of a state).
The Islamist, Abdul Salaam, is 30 years old. He is very tall with a big ready smile, and likes to dress simply, in loose collared shirts and capris with sandals.
And a long beard.
He began growing his beard for the first time in February, days after the Qaddafi regime was thrown out of Benghazi. For years, he had wanted to grow one, but he had waited. "I saw what happened to people who had long beards under Qaddafi," he explains. "Someone would write a secret report about you, and you'd go to jail." Some of Abdul Salaam's cousins and neighbors, he reports, went to jail for growing beards, or for other signs of "excessive" piety. "Their ideas weren't what Qaddafi wanted," Abdul Salaam explains matter-of-factly. Even frequent mosque attendance could bring a knock on the door in the middle of the night from members of Qaddafi's security apparatus, the feared Internal Security forces and the Revolutionary Committees. The price of being religious? "Some went to jail for 15 years," Abdul Salaam says. "Others died there."
A few of Abdul Salaam's acquaintances went beyond growing beards and took up arms against the regime in the 1990s. They were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which formed in eastern Libya in the early 1990s and included Libyans recently returned from fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The LIFG tried to assassinate Qaddafi three times in the 1990s. The colonel's revenge was vicious and indiscriminate: Many people merely suspected of association with the LIFG landed in Tripoli's notorious Abu Salim prison, site of a 1996 massacre that may have killed as many as 1,200 inmates. (Two months ago, Abu Salim fell to opposition forces.) By 1998, Qaddafi had quashed the LIFG as a domestic force. Some of the group's members joined al Qaeda from exile, and after 9/11, the LIFG's links to al Qaeda landed the organization on terrorist lists in the West. But between 2007 and 2009, LIFG leaders publicly renounced al Qaeda and its violent methods, apparently splitting with Osama bin Laden's group; when revolution broke out this year in Libya, they endorsed the rebels' National Transitional Council (NTC).
With relatives and friends who endured so much under Qaddafi, you might expect Abdul Salaam to be jubilant today. But he speaks with a circumspect air. "When I first heard the news, I didn't believe it," he says. "And even after I'd seen the photos and knew he was really dead, I wasn't as happy as I'd expected to be." For many Libyans, the reality of life without the only leader they have ever known is still sinking in. Even after loyalist troops had lost control of Tripoli and most of the rest of Libya, Qaddafi himself retained an air of slippery invincibility. "I figured he'd either be outside Libya by now, or somewhere he could escape from easily," Abdul Salaam muses. It's hard for him to believe that the man who ruled Libya for almost 42 years couldn't find a way to cheat death.