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Libya: Hopeful Signs

Ann Marlowe

Zwara, Libya — In nearly a month spent in western Libya, much of it with freedom fighters, I’ve seen good augurs for the country’s future — as I did in earlier weeks spent in and around the rebel capital of Benghazi.

Here in Zwara, just a week after Libya’s “Berber capital” was being shelled by Moammar Khadafy’s forces from three sides, the local 13-man Crisis Management Group is already planning to transfer power to a civilian council that has been operating for several months from Djerba. Last Friday, the CMG organized a citywide cleanup day, member Hafid ben Sesi said. Zwara’s 50,000 citizens removed war debris and ordinary trash and repaired houses and shops damaged in the war.

Although many of Zwara’s schools now house revolutionary fighters or Khadafy prisoners, they will be cleared so that school can reopen Sept. 17. Perhaps most important for future security, the CMG is moving to disarm its own rebel forces and prohibit the carrying of the rebels’ ubiquitous assault rifles within the city.

Libyans are a resilient lot, not given to complaint or malingering. The contrast to post-invasion Iraq is dramatic. In May 2003, Iraqi shopkeepers asked me why America didn’t pick up the trash accumulated outside their shops. But in Libya, the do-it-yourself ethic prevails. “I cleaned outside my shop,” explained computer-repair-store owner Khellid ElFathily in Sabratha. A burnt-out Khadafy militia car opposite his Attar Street shop was being removed by a bulldozer that day, just a week after the fierce battle that liberated Sabratha.

All agree that the country faces huge tasks. The Libya that Khadafy left is a strange mixture of Third World and First World infrastructure — and culture. In Zwara and Sabratha, the hospitals are antiquated — and unfinished replacements have stood as shells for 20 years. Yet Libyan doctors working there include sophisticated specialists trained in Britain.

In Sabratha, a music teacher told me that “50 to 70 percent” of the population views music as contrary to Islamic law. But she insists she is comfortable living there as a single woman. She even goes to a woman-only gym.

Libya’s culture includes toxic elements, especially visible in the smaller cities. About 15 men in Sabratha had fought in Afghanistan in the ’80s against the Soviets; two brought home Afghan wives. And two well-educated young Sabratha men insisted to me that Masons control America; one thought they were a Jewish organization.

Finally, as the lack of women on Zwara’s governing body — and the presence of just two on the national transition council — suggests, powerful taboos restrain their participation in Libyan civic life. Many work outside the home, with equal pay for equal work, but Libya has a ways to go before it benefits fully from the talents of its whole population. In six days in and around Zinttan, in the Nafusa mountains, I saw just four women in public, three with their faces fully covered. That phenomenon is all too common in Sabratha, as well.

It is also true that some Western towns held much support for Khadafy. But in small cities, where families are tightly linked and the population is homogenous, fellowship is likely to prevail over political rancor. Tripoli may be another story — only time will tell.

Standing against these Arab malignancies is a powerful yearning on the part of both young and older Libyans for freedoms denied them for 42 years. I didn’t hear a single Libyan express a desire for a strongman or forsharialaw. Libyans are, for the most part, practical and moderate — and as complex and resistant to stereotype as Americans. The Afghan wife of Youssef, a Sabratha man who lived in Afghanistan for 10 years, drives the family car. Youssef, who spent 11 years in Abu Saleem prison for his activities in Afghanistan, now plans to finish his BA in public health, interrupted 20 years ago.

In Zwara on Aug. 30 at sunset, young men in pickup trucks along the corniche were still firing off the occasional celebratory round. But a lone windsurfer had also appeared in the crystalline waters.

“Our people love life,” said Gen. Senussi Mahrez, a 35-year Libyan army veteran who defected to the rebels and led Zwara’s fighters.

Then he took off his fatigues and, for the first time since last summer, ran into the water of his hometown.

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