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Libya's Revolution, Seen from Tunis

Ann Marlowe

Here in Tunis, the war in Libya is ever-present, in the rumored 100,000 Libyans temporarily relocated to the city. You can’t drive for ten minutes without spotting Libyan license plates. The five-star beach hotels, like the Barcelo Carthage that I stayed at, and the El Mouradi, are filled with wealthy Libyan families. This has been a boon at a time when tourism to Tunis has crashed due to lingering fears of unrest—and with hotel rooms running just $100 or so, its a boon to the Libyans as well. Some are rich indeed; I heard of a young man living for two months at the Sheraton, which is not discounting much. “Half my friends from Tripoli are living in Tunis now,” 19-year-old Shadda told me from Benghazi. Of course, there are those too poor to leave, those engaged in underground activities against Qaddafi, and also substantial numbers of Qaddafi loyalists.

I hung out with young Libyan men in Tunis several nights last week, listening to the endless and circular talk. The men I met included two who had fought in the Western Mountains, one who reported the arrival of Qaddafi’s mercenaries at the Tripoli VIP airport where he worked, and several who were not much involved in the revolution at all. One helped take care of a sick relative, but fretted over the need to return to Tripoli to help out with the family business. “But it’s a prison there!” I said. “And why am I better than the people there?” he replied in the near-perfect English most of them shared.

It’s not much reported, but Libyans without revolutionary connections or recent travel to Benghazi can often cross the Libyan-Tunisian border in both ways.

Even the wives and children of “wanted” men can sometimes leave; I met an activist in Djerba whose wife and kids had just been brought across the border for a less than $200 bribe. This strange war-yet-not-war situation is characteristic of the Libyan revolution. Fighters can drive right out of their camps in the Western Mountains and be on the beach in Djerba the same day. They are unpaid volunteers, after all, and if the promised action is delayed they sometimes take a break. Others, like two very serious young men from the Tripoli Brigade, left feeling that the progress was too slow and their commanders pursuing what is usually called a “strategy of tactics” (not their words). Tunis and Djerba are full of Libyan men plotting alternate strategies, and there is so much talk about various ideas—a maritime assault or infiltration of Tripoli being the latest—that plans sometimes have to be abandoned because everyone knows them.

The young men I hang out with late at night—I go home at 2:45, when they start to think about having their last pre-fast snack—are all from rich families, some clearly more nouveau than others. Many were educated in the US or UK, most often in a branch of engineering or medicine. They all exhibit some degree of anguish over the struggle of their homeland—it’s hard not to when you have jailed relatives or friends or relatives who have been killed in the war. But some are waiting and others are acting. All share the trademark Libyan impatience. As a people, Libyans are as impatient as Italians, though less volatile in their ups and downs. When I point out that the American Revolution took years, they look incredulous.
When talk turns to strategy, I point out that almost all successful insurgencies have used terror tactics. The Libyan revolutionaries have pledged not to use landmines (though Qaddafi does). Fighters tell me that they try to take prisoners rather than kill Qaddafi soldiers, because they are all Libyans. (Feelings are less tender to the mercenaries, widely charged with rapes and atrocities.)

These young men are originally from all over Libya—and three I meet are Amazigh (or Berber) from the Western Mountains—but all were living in Tripoli until the revolution. From their account, it seems that the remaining Libyans in Tripoli are still not fed up enough to take to the streets and demand the departure of Qaddafi. They are pouring out across the border daily, it is true, but there are still a lot who cannot or will not leave, and too few willing to organize an insurrection.

The combination of the porous Tunisian border, the lack of radical action within Tripoli, and the fighters’ distinctive combination of impatience and humanitarian feeling all add up to a slow end to the conflict. But they also augur well that there won’t be a bloodbath in Tripoli once Qaddafi falls. None of the men who contemplate returning to Tripoli fear being caught inside Tripoli by revolutionary forces if they take the city. While the recent murder of Abdel Fatah Younis and the uprising by a “fifth column” Qaddafi brigade in Benghazi represent a loss of innocence for the revolution, the basic decency of the young Libyans in Tunis gives hope.

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