TRIPOLI, LIBYA — At the entrance to Tripoli’s main landfill, Mustafa al-Sepany stands in combat fatigues, wearing an expression that says no trash trucks will get past him. For four months, none has, leaving the country’s capital city wallowing in uncollected garbage.
Sepany is one of thousands of still-armed rebel fighters who ousted Libyan despot Moammar Gaddafi in last year’s bloody uprising. Now he is one of the residents near the landfill who are exercising their newfound freedoms by declaring they don’t want Tripoli’s trash. Anywhere but here, they say. And in post-revolution Libya, not-in-my-backyard fights come with automatic weapons.
“We will die before we let them open it again,” said Sepany, who was a notary before the revolution.
Libya, awash in cheery yellow wildflowers a year after the Arab Spring, is learning a bleak lesson: Unity does not bloom easily in a region where decision-making has long been concentrated in the hands of the few and where iron-fisted autocrats for decades papered over deep cultural, religious and ethnic differences.
In neighboring Egypt, the year since President Hosni Mubarak’s fall has been marked by breakdowns in law and order and by tensions between hard-line Islamists and secular liberals. In Syria, religious affiliation has emerged as an important dividing line as the army does battle with rebel forces, stoking fears of a broader war.
And in Libya, five months after the death of the man who managed to hold this country together by brute force, people are beginning to wonder whether there is any other way to do it. Clashes this past week between rival tribes in the southern oasis city of Sabha killed 147 people, officials said. Such has been the chaos that no one in Libya would be surprised if a trash spat ends in a gunfight.
With the dump closed since December, Tripoli residents have taken to tossing their trash bags on the grounds of Gaddafi’s former palace. But at least another million tons of garbage is piled along city streets, creating a looming environmental crisis, according to Adnan El-Gherwi, the volunteer head of Tripoli’s Executive Council, which is attempting to run the city.
The old landfill — built by Gaddafi 11 years ago — generated complaints among residents that it polluted waterways and bred disease. The city has promised to build a new, sanitary landfill as soon as possible and to pay for clean water, a health clinic and other aid to families near the old one. But El-Gherwi insists the old dump must reopen, at least temporarily. And he won’t rule out the use of force.
“You gave Gaddafi 11 years, and you don’t want to give even one year to your new government?” El-Gherwi said in frustration over the go-it-alone attitude at the center of this and many other standoffs. “We have got to learn to work as one people.”
Instead, rival militiamen, some of them intoxicated and most of them unemployed, battle over turf in the capital. In the western town of Tawergha, an entire population of black Libyans was evicted by fighters from a neighboring city. And calls by the oil-rich eastern part of the country for greater autonomy from the central government led to an armed clash in Benghazi, raising, for some, the specter of partition.
“Everything here is screwed up, we know that,” said Sadat El-Badri, deputy chairman of the Tripoli Local Council. “We went from complete dictatorship to complete freedom in one step, and everyone is doing just exactly what they want.”
Unlike Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddafi left behind no scaffolding of working ministries to build on, no effective civil servants to repurpose for an age of accountability.
“There were no laws, no rules. It was just the word of one man,” said Almabruk Sultan, a computer science professor in the eastern city of Benghazi who is a popular blogger and commentator. “In government terms, Libya was a farm. And the farmer is dead.”
But not forgotten. A common refrain among Libyans: “Gaddafi is still in our heads.”
Protesters are in the streets daily, demanding services and accusing council members of being as corrupt as their Gaddafi predecessors. Officials are similarly quick to describe protesters as puppets of pro-Gaddafi elements.
The Transitional National Council, hastily formed during the early days of the revolt by tribal elders and local leaders, is struggling to replace itself with a representative government. Its flowchart of reforms describes a 20-month process from the drafting of a new constitution to the election of a national legislature.
But Libyans are not in a methodical mood. In Misurata, which saw some of the war’s most intense fighting, the local militia booted the Transitional National Council and held its own election months ahead of schedule.
In Tripoli, the traffic lights work, but are universally ignored.
“Why do you need an AK-47 to tame the traffic?” Sabri Issa, a petroleum services company owner, asked while watching four young militia fighters gruffly directing the clots of cars around Martyrs Square, their automatic rifles waving at windshield height. Two police officers sat in their car a few yards away. “They do nothing to control these guys,” Issa said. “We have a government in name only.”
Militia members from Tripoli have taken over the towering Grand Hotel. Others guard the airport. And although fewer dead bodies from revenge killings are discovered each morning, gunfire still echoes nightly.
Interior Ministry officials acknowledge they have no power over the looting and shooting. Criminal courts are paralyzed. When fighters are arrested, their comrades break them out of prison. With unemployment near 30 percent — and higher among young men — the Transitional National Council has scratched together a one-time payment of about $1,600 to each fighter, in the hope of drawing some of them off the street.
The money was being handed out recently at the seaside Mahmoud Nashnoush Military Base, where rebels in a blend of combat wear and soccer jerseys crowded around the gate to collect their cash. Some of their pickup trucks still had heavy machine guns mounted in the back; most had cardboard revolutionary flags in place of the required license plates.
“This is the first money we have gotten for our fighting,” said Mohamed Calef, a member of a Tripoli militia, as he thumbed the thick stack of dinar notes. “Some people now will go home.”
The chaos in and around Tripoli may have hastened calls for regional autonomy that have begun to sound in the eastern half of the country.
“The capital is hijacked by gangs. They can’t clean their streets. Who are they to tell us what to do?” said Sultan, the Benghazi professor.
Benghazi, the palm-lined eastern capital, doesn’t look like a breakaway city. Posters of fighters killed in the war fill the old quarter, along with graffiti hailing the 17th of February, the day the uprising began last year in these streets.
The new national flag hangs everywhere, including outside a fish market by the Mediterranean. The red, green and black banner is displayed on one side of the door, a freshly caught shark dangles on the other.
“Finally, I feel Libyan,” said Adel Mansouri, sitting with his wife and three children at a table loaded with fried squid and fish. A Benghazi-born air-traffic controller, he was targeted for assassination because of his early work in the rebellion. Now he supports greater autonomy for the east while also experiencing a newfound sense of national identity.
In the past, he recalled, he would quietly root against the Libyan national soccer team, a pet project of Gaddafi’s son Saadi. But that changed when the first post-revolution squad took the field in the African Cup of Nations.
“I cried,” he said. “Everyone did.”
Beneath the patriotism is a simmering resentment in Benghazi at being dismissed for four decades as a second-class outpost while Tripoli got its roads paved and hogged the scholarships.
When the Transitional National Council recently announced outlines of a legislature that would include 111 members from the populous western region and 60 from the east, easterners, sensitive to sleights, pushed back.
On March 6, a group of tribal leaders called for a return to the federal structure that governed Libya’s three regions in the 1950s: Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the south and Barqa in the east. The leaders say that foreign affairs and national defense should remain the domain of Tripoli but that the regions should have greater powers over budget and domestic policy.
The proposal was greeted with expressions of horror in Tripoli, where many saw it as a step toward Libya’s dismemberment and the loss of oil wealth. Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who, as chairman of the Transitional National Council, heads the interim government, denounced the idea and said he would keep the country together by force if necessary.
On March 16, attackers disrupted a pro-federalism rally in Benghazi with rocks and guns, injuring five. Easterners say the backlash smacks of Gaddafi-era tactics.
The leader of the federalism faction is Ahmed al-Senussi, a revered opposition figure who spent 31 years in prison under Gaddafi, nine of them in solitary confinement.
Speaking at his home outside Benghazi, Senussi insisted that federalists are not seeking independence from Libya, nor are they trying to seize the revenue from vast eastern oil fields.
“We are not for splitting up the country,” Senussi said. “The passport will be the same, the anthem will be the same. Tripoli will be the capital.”
He leaned forward for emphasis: “I am a Libyan first, a Barqan second. We are not calling for separation. We are calling for our rights. And that is not a crime.”