Dispatch

Libya's Year Zero

Life without Qaddafi's Green Book.

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."

As in Egypt and Tunisia, the toppling of a dictator has also opened a door long shut to political Islamists. On March 3, Libya's branch of the Muslim Brotherhood announced the formation of its political party, the Justice and Development Party. Lacking the wide grassroots support that the Brotherhood enjoys in Egypt and Tunisia, the party nonetheless declared itself heartened by interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil's statement in October that Islamic law should be the basis of the future Libyan legal system.

Islamist parties, however, are not the only ones announcing themselves into Libya's burgeoning political scene. Ali Tarhouni, the NTC's former finance minister who had previously taught economics at the University of Washington, launched his National Centrist Party on Feb. 27. "We are a moderate Islamic country," Tarhouni told me over the phone. "This is a grassroots political party, and we look to have serious political force in this country."

As if those competing political currents were not enough, some Libyans in the east are looking to radically curtail the control Tripoli exerts over their affairs. On March 6, NTC member Ahmed Zubair al-Senussi, a scion of the old monarchy, unilaterally declared a federal state in the eastern part of the country, with its capital in Benghazi.

Others, however, criticized the move as too much, too soon for the nascent Libyan state. "We made the revolution against individual decisions and dictatorship," said Hana el-Gallal, a Benghazi native who holds a Ph.D. in international law and has been active in the revolution from the beginning. "We will not accept federalism unless it comes from a government elected by the people. It is an idea we want to put on the table, but it has to be put before the entire people."

The most pressing political issue facing the new Libya is what to do about the thuwar -- the revolutionary fighters who toppled Qaddafi but are now running amok across the country, much to the dismay of many Libyans.

"Mohammed," a well-educated, soft-spoken native of Tripoli, tells a grim story that exemplifies the complete helplessness of some citizens of the new Libya. His family is from the Warfalla tribe, historically among Qaddafi's most loyal supporters. At the end of January, a brother of his was "kidnapped by a militia" on suspicions of being a Qaddafi loyalist, he said.

Mohammed himself sounded an ambivalent note about the uprising, blaming international forces for civilian casualties and making the case that the thuwar were employing the same tactics as Qaddafi did, only worse. "I supported this revolution from before it started," he said. "But at the end of March [2011], I changed my mind because I support Libya. Not Muammar, but not the rebels either. If it's about brothers fighting each other, OK. But I cannot support NATO."

The militiamen claim they found weapons in Mohammed's brother's home, as well as a list of names on the brother's computer -- men whom he allegedly planned to kill. The brother is being held in an unknown location, off the grid of the NTC prisons.

Mohammed's legs shook under the table of the hotel cafe where we spoke as he recounted his own recent kidnapping. He was lured into a trap by a phone call that promised him an opportunity to visit his brother. When he arrived, he was taken by the same group of thuwar; they interrogated and beat him until he passed out several times. He was let go after less than a day. He showed a cell-phone video of bruises sustained on his leg during the attack and said there were more in "sensitive areas."

Any time he makes a move toward meeting with a human rights group, he told me, he receives phone calls from militiamen ordering him to stop. When I asked whether he had gone to the authorities for help, he replied, "There is no government. Are you kidding?"

The dominance of the militias is even worse outside Tripoli. In the town of Gharyan, only 30 miles outside Tripoli, Imad Sager -- a harried chain-smoker who quit his job as an English teacher to fight in the revolution last year -- manages a makeshift prison crammed with nearly 1,000 sub-Saharan Africans, mainly from Niger. "The government doesn't give me any money," he said. "If the police want to do something to me, they have to ask -- I have more men and more guns."

The new Libyan government has made halting progress in bringing the militias under its control. Deputy Interior Minister Omar al-Khadrawi oversees the operations of the High Security Committee, a newly formed council designed to integrate the disparate fighting groups into the national police and military forces. As his phone rang nonstop during our interview in his richly appointed office, he told me that more than 15,000 thuwar are working with the committee. They will receive three months of training in Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, or the United Arab Emirates, which is intended to equip them to halt drug trafficking and other criminal acts.

After a few weeks, Khadrawi said, any thuwar not signed up for training through this committee will be illegal. But I asked whether the national security forces were strong enough to force them to disarm, he answered immediately. "No, they are not."

The challenge facing the new Libyan government is not only integrating the new fighters, but getting some of the old security forces back on their feet. During the revolution, protesters viewed the police as Qaddafi's front-line enforcers and burned their stations to the ground across the country. "Police forces feel like defeated army, feel themselves unwanted ones, and we need to support them," Khadrawi said.

Not all of Libya's policemen were irreconcilable Qaddafi loyalists, though. Khadrawi said that hundreds of pro-Qaddafi police personnel were removed from the force in recent months, and others left of their own accord. "Once Tripoli was liberated we called the police to return, and 70 percent returned to their posts," Khadrawi claimed.

On the surface, everything in Libya is in a state of flux. Ministry offices bustle with fast and furious phone calls, meetings, announcements of new political coalitions and committees. But this constant motion is also coupled with a sense that not nearly as much is being accomplished as Libyans had hoped. Perhaps that's Qaddafi's lingering legacy: Libya's new leaders form political "coalitions" rather than parties, chose to name an "executive board" of the NTC rather than specific leaders, and constantly form committees charged with making decisions. The steady insistence on consensus brings to mind the Qaddafi-era "popular committees," which were supposed to be local committees where people power ruled supreme -- but were in fact smokescreens behind which the Leader enforced his will. Now there is no Leader and the people are free to claim their power, but many seem reluctant to do so.

In Tripoli, as in many other cities throughout Libya, the hated word "jamahiriya" -- Qaddafi's term for his system of government, which translates as "republics" but was really just a cover for his autocratic rule -- has been painted over, scraped off, or covered with a tricolor flag sticker on most cars' license plates. Likewise politics in the new Libya: Even as authorities seek to replace the old system with modern democracy, the rate of change is uneven, and the clouded incoherence of Jamahiriya thinking, along with the lawless brutality of the Qaddafi regime, still lurks somewhere beneath the tricolor flag.

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Misreading Tehran

Iranians realize that the world is lined up against them, but don't expect them to beg for mercy.

Iran's parliamentary election this month may not have provided the political earthquake that attracts blanket coverage on the cable news networks, but it did provide several dozen Western correspondents with an increasingly rare window into a country that is much discussed, but poorly understood.

Western pundits and politicians' obsession with Iran's nuclear program and the fading domestic opposition movement has blinded them to some of the most telling signs of shifting attitudes inside Iran. Had they been looking closely, what they might have seen is a proud nation painfully aware of its international isolation, but unwilling to back down in its increasingly dangerous game of chicken with the West.

Of course, most of the journalists who made the long trip to Tehran spent much of their time jumping through hoops. Two days before the election, for example, visiting reporters and representatives of the foreign media were invited to visit Iran's fledgling space program. A trip to the Alborz Space Center, an industrial suburb an hour's drive outside of Tehran, was not why most of these reporters had come -- but passing up the invitation did not seem to be an option.

As the project manager began to describe the successes of Iran's Navid satellite, a domestically produced observer satellite put into orbit last month, there was one problem: No official translator was present. There was supposed to be one, the scientist told us, but he hadn't shown up yet.

After a bit of jostling, one of the English-speaking fixers for a visiting North American reporter made his way to the podium. "I am not a member of Iran's space program, so please do not put that in your reports," he announced. "That would be wrong information that could get me in a lot of trouble with the CIA. I really don't want to be the next Iranian scientist to be assassinated."

After a brief and awkward pause, and once the ensuing laughter had died down, the project manager answered several questions.

"Was this a joint effort with other countries?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"We asked all other nations with space programs if they'd like to work with us, and none accepted, so we did it ourselves."

"Does this satellite have any military uses?"

"No, as I told you, it's designed to gather weather and other environmental information."

That seemed a little harder for reporters to believe, but, given the high premium Iranians put on scientific advancement, it should come as no surprise.

In the 20-minute press conference, Iran's growing cynicism and pride in its accomplishments were equally on display. Those points were re-enforced later that evening, at a press conference with Iran's dry but no-nonsense Interior Minister Mostafa-Mohammad Najjar.

Several foreign journalists boldly pointed out that "reformist" and "Green Movement" candidates were missing from the ballots. Not missing a beat, the minister responded that those people, "based on their behavior, had separated themselves from the nation." This election represented a national festival for Iranians, celebrating the "season of harvesting truth from the tree of religious democracy."

If that message wasn't clear, it became even more so the next morning. Guardian Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaie, at a press conference, described the prospect of allowing independent international monitors to oversee the election as "insulting to the common sense of Iranian people." That sort of assistance, he said, was only needed "by countries and people who don't own their own destiny" -- unlike Iranians have for the past 33 years. Instead, he offered the Guardian Council's services to any country that needed help overseeing its elections.

While the international media has spilled a great deal of ink debating the legitimacy of Iran's electoral process, the argument within the country appears to have largely been settled. Two of the 2009 Green Movement's most prominent leaders -- former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami -- cast ballots in the parliamentary election, apparently to show their confidence in the system.

Rafsanjani and Khatami's decision won them no fans in Iran's increasingly marginalized world of opposition politics. Khatami in particular has been branded a traitor by many reformists, and his decision to vote has been the subject of several biting political cartoons. What their votes did accomplish, however, was to ensure that both maintained their political heartbeats within the Islamic Republic establishment, which is currently the only show in town.

As some Western and Israeli leaders hold out hope for a domestic uprising that rearranges Iran's political system, they seem unable to grasp this essential fact. Even in the face of severe economic and political isolation, no existential domestic threat is worrying the Islamic Republic's leadership as it did in the months following the 2009 presidential election. Air attacks on Iran's nuclear program, meanwhile, are viewed as a manageable inconvenience.

Given Iranian leaders' calculations, their recent hard line toward negotiations with international powers should come as no surprise. We've got money, sanctions on our oil don't hurt us much as they'll hurt you -- and we're not shutting down our enrichment program, the logic goes.

That's not to say Iranians wouldn't be open to compromise under the right circumstances.  Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, kept the door open to talks in a recent letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. "If major powers adopt a positive approach toward Iran's nuclear program, we will consider it a step forward in the negotiation process," he wrote.

The views of average Iranians reflect slightly different priorities. There is no doubt that citizens' daily lives are deeply affected by international sanctions -- Iran's import-dependent economy is struggling, and the riyal has lost half its buying power since the beginning of the year. What's more, the progress of Iran's nuclear program isn't a top priority for many of the country's citizens. Nevertheless, it is increasingly difficult to find people who believe the leadership should concede on this issue.

While complaints are rampant about the soaring prices of consumer goods, and Iranians lay plenty of the blame at the feet of the government for economic mismanagement and long-standing corruption, shutting down Iran's nuclear program -- which, incidentally was originally started with the help of the United States in the 1970s -- is out of the question. The essence of the not-so-sophisticated argument employed by Iranians at all levels of society is: "If other countries can have enrichment programs, why can't we?"

With sanctions biting, ever-industrious Iranians have found ways to do business under the table -- and, as usual in these situations, the wrong people are benefitting. Crooked politicians, the greedy Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps elite, smugglers, and low-level middle men have all gotten rich by preying on the misfortunes of others -- while average Iranians suffer.

Iran's sanctions profiteers also have their choice of luxury goods to choose from in Tehran. An insane proliferation of European luxury cars has been building in the capital for several months -- a Maserati dealership is set to open any day now, just off one of central Tehran's main squares. Some Iranians see their country's capacity for unchecked consumption as progress, but it's also a reminder that the economy is still functioning, even if top White House officials insist that sanctions are "working."

What is really at stake is Iran's relatively high standard of living, not something so grave as starvation. Iranians asked about their country's economic struggles resent comparisons with any countries other than those of the developed world.

"You can't compare us to Africa," they say, with the understanding being what they mean is that "we're better than that." They don't even accept comparisons with Arab countries and their uprisings. Turkey and the United Arab Emirates -- relative success stories in the region, which Iranians believe have thrived due in large part to Iranian investment -- are topics better left alone.

Iranians are unsatisfied with many aspects of their leadership, but certainly aren't eager for a war or even a revolution. They are proud of their accomplishments, old and new, and want to be acknowledged for both. From Tehran, it's hard to see how Washington's strategy -- which seems to hold no incentives for the Iranian state or its people -- can ever fulfill these aims. Iranians feel as if their arms are being twisted, and one thing that should be crystal clear by now is that they are not known for saying "uncle."