Libya’s new leaders losing old followers

TRIPOLI — When the uprising against Moammar Gaddafi began in eastern Libya eight months ago, Nezar Ali Abdelsalam poured his soul into it, digging graves, cleaning city streets and helping the fledgling rebel leadership with Internet technology as it worked to overthrow the dictator.

That mission has been accomplished — Gaddafi fled Tripoli in August and was killed Thursday as the last loyalist holdout fell — and the Transitional National Council is set to form a new government. But Abdelsalam, a 27-year-old engineering school graduate, no longer has much faith in the council, and even as he celebrated Gaddafi’s demise Thursday night, he said he wants to leave the country.

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He is part of a growing number of revolutionaries who feel let down by their new government, so much that some are ready to give up on Libya. They say the TNC’s processes are opaque, its members are tainted by associations with the past regime and its leaders have been making decisions without communicating with the public.

“We wanted them to take us to the other side of the river,” said Abdelsalam, who moved from Benghazi to Tripoli in August to help run a charity. “But when we got here to Tripoli, we see the TNC is very weak — we see their clashes in decision making, their delays; they don’t have transparency in anything.”

To some, the TNC’s approach is disturbingly reminiscent of Gaddafi’s. “They killed Gaddafi’s regime, but Gaddafi’s culture, Gaddafi’s mentality, is still in their mind,” said Emad Almbsoot, 31, an engineer in Benghazi who belongs to a non-governmental organization that does training on democracy and constitution-building. “We’re monitoring the TNC, we write them letters, we write in magazines . . . but they don’t listen. If they keep doing like this, ignoring the people’s demands, I think they will lead Libya into civil war.”

Whoever governs Libya next must balance carefully between granting the freedoms Gaddafi denied and avoiding the chaos he warned would ensue if he left. Now that the holdout city of Sirte has fallen, the TNC will be replaced by an interim government, but in the meantime it has been hobbled by internal power struggles and an inability to control the revolutionaries it purportedly governs.

Many of the complaints about the ruling council are from citizens of the east, where the revolution had a six-month head start. Since the fall of Tripoli, Westerners have been busy celebrating or making sure their cities were secure.

Abdullah Gilani, 30, an architect in Benghazi who did volunteer work for the revolution, remembers that heady phase, when the east was first liberated. “We felt if we got rid of the regime, the worst case would be better than what we had before,” he said.

Eight months later, Gilani is shocked to see how little has changed. “The executive committee has not declared any plan yet, in any field; this gives us the feeling that they are trying to do things away from the eye of society.”

If this continues, he said, Libyans might stage a second revolution. But he might not be around. “If I get the opportunity to work outside of Libya, I will go out immediately, because I don’t want to waste this period of my life.”

TNC spokesmen have routinely deflected criticism by pointing out that Libya was still at war — only last week revolutionaries clashed with Gaddafi supporters in Tripoli. But with the war over, the pressure on the council is likely to increase.

TNC spokesman Mohammed Elkish said in an e-mail that the council “takes its communication with the Libyan people very seriously. In addition to the numerous press conferences and interviews that are conducted each week we engage online and through town hall events.”

This month, in response to criticism, TNC leaders held news conferences, vowing transparency and giving some broad statistics on finances. But critics say the information put out by the council is vague. They say they would like a breakdown of the money coming to Libya from oil revenue, international aid and overseas assets, and plans for how it will be spent.

In the absence of concrete information, rumors have begun to circulate about the TNC’s activities. For example, the TNC has reportedly awarded scholarships for study abroad, but would-be applicants say there were no announcements on how to apply.

TNC Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril has accused the council’s critics of being Gaddafi supporters. But although Gaddafi supporters remain in Libya, many of the critics are fervently anti-Gaddafi. Some were unable to find work or educational opportunities under the old regime; others were well-off but chafed at having no political rights.

Some say that TNC members’ hearts are in the right place but that they don’t know how to be different from the system that produced them. Many say their mistrust has been amplified by the mystery that still shrouds the three-month-old killing of the rebel army’s commander.

“This event, from my point of view, decreased the honesty and transparency of [TNC chairman] Mustafa Abdel Jalil,” said Monssif Hamzellow, 24, who edits Berenice, a magazine that started in Benghazi in March. This month, it published an open letter to Abdel Jalil, complaining that the TNC had appointed Gaddafi insiders to the leadership while ignoring Libyans who had resisted the old regime.

The criticism of Abdel Jalil, long considered a consensus builder who was above reproach, could be a sign of larger fissures to come as Libyans decide whether to put their faith in a centralized government or cast their loyalties with tribes or militias.

The TNC could have avoided some of this by not waiting until the fall of Sirte to start building a new government, said Dirk Vandewalle, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. “They’ve not really moved forward very quickly with building these state institutions, and that’s going to come back to haunt them.”

The increasing distrust is a bad sign, he said. “It looks very worrisome; that these rumors have started to fly tells me that a lot of these old patterns of the Gaddafi government — no transparency and especially as the oil money started to flow in — that we may very well see a repeat of the patronage system. . . . And Libya especially, being a non-state, is particularly vulnerable.”

Youssif al-Bruki, a 23-year-old rapper from Benghazi who calls himself MC Swat, is trying to give a wider voice to the critics. In the spring, his songs lionizing the rebels and blasting Gaddafi could be heard on local radio in eastern Libya. But songs released this month criticize the TNC and warn that Libya could become like Kabul or Baghdad.

“The revolution has been stolen from the public,” he said. “I want to show them that we know everything, so if they are making bad resolutions, we are not going to be silent again.”

This time, his songs are not being played on the radio. But they are being passed around, on flash drives and home computers, by young Libyans.

 
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