TRIPOLI, Libya — In the Libyan capital, the constant hum of construction and traffic, along with open shops and restaurants, suggests a thriving country. Few visible traces of war scar the city, aside from the hulk of wrecked concrete and rebar that was Muammar al-Qaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya complex. In what now ranks as one of the world's most heavily armed countries, armed clashes have become quite rare, and the sound of gunfire is almost never heard.
But there's another side of Libya's story. It's a country where fighters outside the control of the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) are embedded in the heart of the capital, journalists are imprisoned for weeks without charge by militias, and Amnesty International has detailed multiple instances of prisoners being fatally tortured by the country's erstwhile liberators.
In the Arab country where revolution has come closest to obliterating the old order, Libyans have embarked on a long process of resurrecting their state. Without their hatred of Qaddafi to unite them, Libya's new ruling class is having a series of difficult conversations about what they want their new government to look like.
Perhaps the most daunting project for the new Libya is fostering civil society and democratic principles in a society controlled for so long by an egomaniacal dictator. One player is Mahmoud Jibril, the former chair of the NTC's executive board, who is organizing a new political coalition from an office building in a nondescript area of Tripoli. He changes headquarters frequently for security reasons, and indeed, his current office bore no personal traces. While a large staff bustled in the outer offices, he sat in a spacious but austere office, its windows facing the Mediterranean Sea, and put his calls on hold for our interview.
"We need either a strong leader or a strong legitimacy in the system," Jibril told me. "If we go for the strong leader it's more swift, but there is no guarantee that we don't slip again into dictatorship. We have to establish a strong system. It will take more time, but it's the better goal."
Regarding reports of widespread abuse of prisoners, Jibril observed that "rehabilitating the winners is much more difficult than rehabilitating the losers."
Jibril's political coalition, one of dozens that has sprung up ahead of Libya's first post-Qaddafi elections in June, is called the Alliance of Libya's Patriots. It is made up of parties, powerful local personalities, sports clubs, and other social groups from across Libya. Each has pledged to educate those in their community about the democratic process via leaflets and brochures that detail what elections are, what institutions are, and what parties are.
Jibril insisted that his coalition's primary goal is to teach people about democracy rather than push a specific political platform. "I have no ideology," he said at a news conference in February. "We need better health care, better education, better communications. We have some moderate Islamic presence in the coalition, some liberals, some secularists. Whether you are liberal or Islamist, I say with all respect, what matters to me is visible results."
The problems Libya inherited from Qaddafi's regime are not just a lack of knowledge about democracy, however. Corruption is widespread. The interim government is opaque and distant. And many argue that anyone who served under Qaddafi -- including Jibril, who was a reformist aide to Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi -- is too tainted to be trusted with governing the new Libya.
A rival political coalition, calling itself the Union for the Homeland, insists that "a new Libya needs new faces." Founded by Abdul Rahman al-Swehli, a dissident imprisoned by the Qaddafi regime at the beginning of the uprising, the movement consists of people who were on the outside looking in under the old regime.
"In Mr. Jibril's meetings for his alliance, everybody who was there before is there now, except for Qaddafi," said Salah El-Bakkoush, a co-founder of the union. He pointed to projects such as the Great Man-Made River, which cost the country millions in the 1980s, as examples of how the old government squandered the funds of the people and yet enriched themselves. "People should get the idea that they have some responsibility for the loss of our money."