Libya’s Sexual Revolution

How the uprising turned young Libyan men from hopeless layabouts into marriageable heroes.

JANZOUR, Libya – When it comes to love, Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya was unlucky for unmarried 33-year-old truck driver Ahmed Nori Faqiar. His looks would have benefited if his parents could ever have sprung for a dentist. Lack of means forced him to live unhappily at his childhood home well into adulthood. Marriage, a home of his own, kids -- all are dreams that the wiry Libyan had long ago steeled himself to stop hoping for.

"Before, I was not even daring to look at girls as wife material, because I knew I could not afford" to get married, say Faqiar now.

These days, though, Faqiar wears the mismatched camouflage of Libya's rebels and a dashing bandana on his head, pirate-style. He carries a gun. He is a veteran of battles for Libyans' freedom from Qaddafi's regime -- and it's the women who are talking to him.

"Girls around the area come up to you and say, ‘Thank you! You made us proud, you made us happy,'" Faqiar told me one night recently. He spoke on the sidelines of a camel and couscous feast that the people in this Tripoli suburb threw for several thousand young rebels, after slaughtering 10 camels.

From a specially raised dais, speakers praised the young rebel fighters late into the evening.  Hundreds of excited young women and girls in head scarves mingled near rifle-toting young men, a novelty in this conservative country that was overwhelming to members of both genders in the crowd that night. "It's like a wedding!" Faqiar exclaimed, shaking his head in surprise.

Relations between Libyan men and women -- deeply distorted by the eccentric Libyan leader's refusal to provide normal opportunities for Libya's young people -- have changed "100 percent" in the days since Qaddafi fell, the young rebel said. His comrades listening around him voiced agreement.

"Thank God," Faqiar added.

Nearby, young women -- a group of cousins and neighbors, clustered together, in long skirts and shirts and head coverings -- said the same, and laughed about taking their pick of a husband from among the rebels when the war was done.

Before the revolution, young men her age "were just lazing around in the streets, no future. I didn't care about them at all," said Esra'a el-Gadi, 20. "Now I look at them in a totally new light -- they stood up against Qaddafi. It's something."

"We saw them as lost youth, unemployed," Rahana el-Gadi, 19, said of men of her generation. "Now we were surprised, so surprised to see what they're capable of," she added.

"We dream of the day they come back, and we welcome them."

Jokes passed by cell phone text messages across Libya confirm the newfound eligibility of the young civilians turned fighters.

"Forget doctors and engineers: We want to marry a rebel," one of the widely circulated text messages goes. "Looking for a rebel to wed?" another SMS asks: "Press 'M' for a husband from Misrata, 'B' for a husband from Benghazi..."

But Libya is still a deeply observant Islamic country, and very few -- if any -- of those unacquainted young men and women were actually talking to each other during the night of rallying that followed the camel feast. Only once in my visit last month, in Tripoli's Martyrs Square, packed with celebrating crowds each night since Qaddafi's overthrow, did I see a tall, armed rebel and a young woman in headscarf with their cell phones out, exchanging numbers. The young male Libyan activist I was with watched as the rebel and young woman appeared to head out of the square together, a discreet 10 feet apart. "This has never happened before," my Libyan colleague said, shocked.

But the budding of wartime romance means a lot more in Libya than merely giddiness at overthrowing a four-decade old dictatorship.

With dictators falling in much of the Middle East and North Africa, Arab men and women in newly liberated nations hope to redress one of the most profound and damaging iniquities wrought by rulers like Qaddafi -- the lack of economic opportunity that stunted every aspect of the lives of the region's youth.

The Arab region has the second-largest percentage of young people in the world. Almost two out of every three Arabs are under 30, a level exceeded only in sub-Saharan Africa. And the Middle East and North Africa boast both the highest youth unemployment and unemployment overall on the planet.

Years ago, political scientists, including Diane Singerman, began using the term "waithood" to describe the crippled outlook for the young generations of the Arab world. Unable to find jobs, or jobs that paid a living wage, millions of young Arabs were fated to live unhappily at home, unable to afford marriage. And in conservative Islamic societies, marriage for many is the only launch there is into independence, dignity, and a life of one's own.

In effect, for young Arabs of ordinary means, "If they're unemployed, they have no hope of becoming adult," Singerman, an associate professor at American University in Washington, D.C. told me earlier this year.

Around the region, the average age of marriage has edged up -- and not, for most, because millions of young Arab men and women were enjoying their single years.

Young Libyans had it especially bad. Qaddafi didn't just fail to develop well-paying jobs for the young -- he destroyed jobs with erratic socialist schemes that warped Libya's economy. So much so, in fact, that the Libyan government officially estimated unemployment in recent years at 20 percent, twice that of the already high regional rate.

As U.S. diplomats in Libya noted in a 2009 WikiLeaked cable that looked closely at the country's high rate of waithood, that more than 60 percent of those Libyans lucky enough to have jobs worked for the state. Qaddafi, quixotically, had blocked wage increases in most of those jobs for decades. Most employed Libyans I spoke with said they made only a few hundred dollars each month. Despite Libya's vast oil wealth, gross domestic product per capita is less than $10,000.

A single wedding can cost almost that much in Libya, young Libyan men told me. Marriage in Libya is particularly expensive, with days of celebration and gold-laden dowries expected. Housing is in short supply, but suitors are expected to line up an apartment before the wedding.

The result was countless hard-luck stories. On a 2007 visit, I met a Tripoli family of six educated brothers and sisters in their 20s and 30s -- all of whom, male and female, had already bought outfits for their future weddings, which none had any hope of actually affording. The stories of most Libyan young men I met, then and again this year, were variations on the same theme.

"What he's saying, it's all of us," said the Libyan man in his 20s who translated for me as I talked to Faqiar, the rebel fighter, about his lack of prospects before the revolution.

No one in Libya's regime seems to have bothered to have tracked precise figures. Libyan women have a perception that there is a shortage of marriageable young men, both because of the death tolls of Qaddafi's military adventures in Chad and elsewhere and because of the lack of jobs.

"If you tried to count the number of spinsters among us, you couldn't, you'd make mistakes -- there are too many," said Rahana el-Gadi, the 19-year-old young woman at Janzour's rally for the young rebels.

The unease over the lack of opportunity for marriage was reflected in the unexpected declaration last weekend, in a victory speech by the head of Libya's opposition national council, that the new Libya would reinstate polygamy, which Qaddafi had limited. But because, according to Islam, only those with the means to support all wives equally can take more than one, easing the way for polygamy would seem likely to make it worse for Libya's unmarried young men of modest means.

So did all this frustration really have an impact on the course of the revolution in Libya?

In 2009, an Economist article mentioned the Arab world's "waithood" problem but shrugged off any possible political impact. "Hardly the stuff of which political revolutions are generally made," the magazine wrote.

Young Arabs, post-revolution, told me differently. In Janzour, I asked Faqiar how much his lack of hope for a normal life -- a job, marriage, a home, kids -- played into his decision to take up arms. "100 percent," he said, not smiling.

Around the region this year -- in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen -- many, though not all, young protesters and fighters told me the same. "All of them, they had nothing to lose. They saw their life wasting away," Israa Khalil, a 25-year-old woman in Tripoli, said of her male friends and relatives. "So they all went to fight."

For years, Arab leaders and others treated the youth bulge and delayed marriage as "kind of like a funny thing," Singerman told me. The attitude was, "This is a cultural thing so we shouldn't pay attention to it. They're not laughing anymore."

With the tyrant now out of the way, transitional leaders have pledged to raise the artificially low Qaddafi-era wages. Young Libyans -- whether fighters, activists, or onlookers -- say they have new hope of their lives getting better as their country shakes off four decades of Qaddafi's weirdness and isolation.

Already, Khalil and a group of young women in Tripoli told me, men and women have shed the Qaddafi-era notion of the other sex as representing dangerous, impossible entanglements, since all knew few suitors could afford marriage.

In the "family" section of a Tripoli café, Khalil told me a story of one evening in the revolution, in August. At sunset, with gunfire blasting around their homes, she and other women and girls burst out of their houses, sprinting with water and sandwiches to young fighters who had been observing the daytime fast of Ramadan.

The women trilled their tongues as they ran, trying to lift the spirits of this unknown band of rebels on their way to a front. Moved, the fighters had tears in their eyes as they accepted the food, Khalil said.

Before, "there was a barrier," and Libya's hapless young men were to be pitied, Khalil said. "Now, he's the man who protected me," Khalil said. "Since the revolution I have the confidence to go up and tell them 'Thank you," and that in turn gives them confidence in themselves. And we know we were part of this. And they know we were part of this."

Chris Hondros/Getty Images


The Dance of Daggers

A deadly, personal civil war between Yemen's president and his former friend, now archrival, threatens to tear apart a peaceful protest movement.

The dance of daggers is Yemen's most deceptive martial tradition. Partners unsheathe their weapons and surge forth at each other with a kick, feinting and shrinking back. Just when you might expect one to plunge his knife into the other's heart, suddenly, they clasp arms, smile, and swirl in unison, only to break away and bristle again.

In happier times, President Ali Abdullah Saleh and top general Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar treated camera crews to the spectacle at a public celebration in Sanaa, the capital.

Today, and for almost a month running, their daggers are heavy artillery, their audience Yemen's abortive protest movement, and their dance floor a prone country whose future depends on the outcome of their duel.

Nine months into a nationwide popular uprising, the reality facing this impoverished southern Arabian nation is bleaker than ever. As Libyans celebrated the demise of Muammar al-Qaddafi and Tunisians headed to the polls, Yemenis were caught in the throes of the bloody power struggle between the two friends-turned-foes, a deadly standoff that drowns out their calls for democracy and drags the country closer to civil war.

Not without cause, last Friday's U.N. Security Council resolution urging a political transition assigned blame to both sides of the country's political divide for a recent spike in violence, as dozens of protestors and civilians were caught in crossfires across Sanaa between government snipers and al-Ahmar's soldiers.

The newest strategy of al-Ahmar' renegade First Armored Division, which defected in March, is to accompany unarmed marches on their perilous route from "Change Square," the vast area on the west side of town where the mostly youthful protesters have set up camp, to new strategic areas of the capital, expanding his sphere of influence over the divided city and dragging whole neighborhoods into fierce clashes. The protesters have become, in effect, human shields.


How did the partnership between president and general, once the scourge of countless rebel and secessionist movements throughout the restive nation, collapse so violently? Can their country-sized ambitions be reconciled in a way that will spare Yemen total destruction?

The pair traces their roots to the same tribe and clan, and harks from Bayt al-Ahmar, a poor village outside the capital clinging to life on a parched massif -- now a scattering of muddy farms beneath their imposing castles.

Close friends, they rose up through the ranks of Yemen's military together, parrying repeated coups until al-Ahmar helped Saleh seize the presidency in 1978.

In gratitude, the young president granted his deputy economic concessions that would in time encompass much of the nation's economy. The general's eagerness for land earned him the nickname "the proprietor."

Those who know al-Ahmar say he is charming and gregarious. "He is a manly man, very charming and soft spoken ... he loves collecting unique handguns and knives and spoiling his officers with land," says a Yemeni official close to the general.

Precise data on the assets he has amassed remains unknown and unknowable, but his mini-fiefdoms and estates across the country roll on for tens of thousands of acres, in addition to real estate in the Gulf and significant foreign deposits in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Further buttressing his position are millions of petrodollars wielded by his son, Mohsin Ali Mohsin, who owns one of the country's largest oil companies.

After helping North Yemen win a decisive victory in a 1994 civil war against the formerly independent south, al-Ahmar was unleashed upon the insurgent province of Saada. There, he again raised tribal militias and armed jihadi radicals on behalf of the government's six-year scrap with Shia rebels, aptly code-named operation Scorched Earth, which roundly devastated much of the north.

As the campaign ground on, with the besieged Shiites using landmines and local knowledge of the wild mountainous terrain to expand into new areas, al-Ahmar became convinced that the president had deliberately mired him in an unwinnable war to ruin his political career. At the same time, rumors abounded that Saleh had started grooming his eldest son Ahmed Ali, also an army general, for the presidency -- a post which al-Ahmar had coveted in return for decades of services rendered to the regime.

The breaking point came in the summer of 2009, leaked U.S. diplomatic cables allege, when the president tried and failed to have Mohsin killed. A WikiLeaks document describes how Yemeni generals instructed their Saudi counterparts, who had joined the chaotic fight in the north against Houthi rebels, to bomb a site that turned out to be al-Ahmar's base. The Saudis demurred, and the general was left to nurse a lethal grudge.

Then came the Arab Spring and the uprising in Yemen. "According to what I'm feeling, and according to the feelings of my partner commanders and soldiers," al-Ahmar intoned somberly in a message broadcast on opposition TV channels on March 21, 2011. "I announce our support and our peaceful backing to the youth revolution. We are going to fulfill our duties in preserving security and stability."

The die was cast. Days after pro-government snipers launched a coordinated sniper attack on a peaceful protest in the capital, slaughtering almost 60 unarmed demonstrators, al-Ahmar committed his war-weary division to envelop Sanaa's protest camp and put its idealistic shine to work on his badly tarnished reputation.

Scenes of jubilation greeted Mohsin's troops as they paraded into Change Square, flashing victory signs and tipping their Che Guevara-style red berets at the ecstatic crowds. Demonstrators planted kisses on their foreheads and smeared dollops of cherry-red paint across the soldiers' cheeks.

Within days, Mohsin had completed a deft transformation from a disgraced warlord on the brink of being purged to the savior of Yemen's revolutionary millions.

To hear government officials tell it, the general's "defection" was in fact an attempted coup d'état, scuppered when a number of senior generals whom he had counted on to join ranks balked at the last minute, sticking with the regime and leaving al-Ahmar dangerously exposed. Had he succeeded, the officials say, he would have become the de facto leader of the country, likely heading a military council like the one currently botching Egypt's transition.

"Their thinking was very close to the Egyptian model," says a Sana'a-based political analyst. "With Saleh gone, Mohsin would play kingmaker, eventually ushering in a new government that chimed with his own personal interests."

Whatever his intentions, the growing profile of al-Ahmar's mutinying fighters in and amongst the protesters is leading to the gradual militarization of a civilian uprising whose chief maxim had been -- astonishingly for a country famously awash in guns -- "peaceful, peaceful."

Down the long lines of ramshackle tents in the square, al-Ahmar's soldiers race by in pickups mounted with machine guns. When the muezzin's call to prayer sounds, the soldiers, some of them just children swimming in oversized combat fatigues, lay their weapons on mats and pray alongside the protesters.

Throngs of protesters find themselves ducking bullets from both directions as the general's men bring up the rear, returning fire at the government troops with rusty Kalashnikovs and shoulder-mounted RPGs. Errant shells lobbed by pro-Saleh forces aimed at the First Division base, a short distance from the sit-in colony, have repeatedly sent demonstrators fleeing in terror.

As Yemen's agony continues, the line between protester and renegade soldier has grown increasingly blurred. A clip, widely circulated on Yemen state TV last week, shows one of al-Ahmar's soldiers slip seamlessly into a sea of protesters after exchanging his khaki uniform for civilian dress during a mass rally in the capital.

In spite of the rising bloodshed, the prevailing sentiment amongst the pro-democracy activists of Change Square remains the same: the entrance of the soldiers, if not ideal, is a necessary shield against the bullets of government troops and plain-clothed government snipers prowling the nearby rooftops.

Many, however, harbor doubts but are too scared to speak out for fear of being accused of promoting disunity. "We had no say in this; Ali Mohsin and his solders are giving them more of a justification for the crackdown," said a 24-year-old medical student and activist who did not wish to be named. "He needs us more than we need him."

Shockingly, al-Ahmar and his troops still receive a monthly stipend to the tune of several billion Yemeni riyals -- a not-so-subtle enticement from Saleh to coax him back into the fold. But the Catch-22 of Yemeni politics remains: Neither man will leave without a guarantee that the other will do the same.

Shortly after al-Ahmar's announcement, senior Yemeni officials and the U.S. ambassador orchestrated a tense parlay between the two at the vice president's house. Both agreed that all-out war must be avoided at all costs, and that any final solution must involve both leaving their posts. Within five minutes, President Saleh left in a huff.

The results have hardly been convincing. The general accused the president of an assassination attempt during a mediation effort by tribal elders that left four dead in March. The president blamed the general for planting powerful bombs that rocked his palace in June and left him mangled and yearning for revenge.

The knotty relationship between Saleh and al-Ahmar is at once the cause of the current problems and the key to any solution that could stave off state death in Yemen. As one Yemeni official noted, "What's going on is not a fight between the head and the body of the regime, it's a fight within the functions of its brain."