I first visited Zwara on August 23 of last year, just as the local revolutionaries were liberating their city from the now deposed regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. Today, the yellow, blue, and green Berber flag, forbidden under Qaddafi, flies alongside the new Libyan flag, and there’s a local radio station broadcasting in Tamazight, the Berber language. One year after the revolution, things are looking up in Zwara—but it’s clear that both the local understanding of democracy and the national government are very much works in progress.
Though non-Arab, Zwara is experiencing some of the same ugly growth pains as the rest of Libya, including the destruction of important Sufi sites in the center of Tripoli and Zlitan by Islamic extremists prefigured by similar vandalism at a Zwara tomb. (At least in Zwara, the activities were confined to furtive acts at night in an area distant from the town itself.) Here, as elsewhere, these Salafis also defaced the photographs of female candidates for elected office.
Zwara is still a rundown beach town of ochre houses and a modest shopping district. Construction cranes, idle for more than a year, hover over an unfinished beach hotel. While only ten of the town’s 50 police are likely to be at work on any given day, the sense of lawlessness and ubiquitous heavy weapons that characterized Zwara in the fall of 2011 has largely vanished.
The youths who were thrilled to ride around on pickup trucks mounted with 14.5 mm. machine guns last August are buying motorcycles now (and, as in much of the developing world, riding them recklessly fast and without helmets). The most frequent question I’m asked by young men is the cost of an American motorcycle. The second most frequent question is about the cost of an iPhone. Stores here are filled with a much better variety of goods than last fall, though government salaries have not risen along with prices. Senussi Mahrez, 55, a general in the Libyan air defense, notes that his salary is still just 1,000 dinars, or $800, monthly. “But it costs that just to change the tires on my car,” he complains.
Zwara’s primary schools are up and running, and shortened the summer break to help students catch up for time missed during the revolution. However, most secondary schools are short of teachers, many of whom were foreigners from Arab countries who fled when the revolution began.
Politics is still a matter of urgency, as it has been ever since the revolution that erupted in February 2011. Turnout was very high here for the July 7 elections that chose the 200-person National Assembly that will supervise the writing of the new Constitution. In Zwara, 16,000 citizens voted and almost 50 percent of them were women though there were no female independent candidates. But for the local council elections, fewer than 7,000 registered and about half that number voted. About 700 women voted, although there were 3 female candidates among the 31 vying for 7 local council seats.
There are various explanations for the low turnout including a possible change in government structure that may mean the new local councils won’t serve very long. Dr. Tariq Alatoshi, the top vote-getter in the local council election and hence the council head, explained that Libyans are an impatient people and that because the first elected council proved disappointing, voters couldn’t be bothered to involve themselves with its replacement.
Zwara’s new representative to the Assembly is Nouri Abu Sahmin, who won 58 percent of the local vote. Nouri, as he’s called locally, is a businessman formerly in charge of buying and selling the PVC produced at the Bu Kamesh chemical complex nearby. Imprisoned for Islamic activism in his youth, Nouri is now a self-described moderate. Still, his detractors contend that he’s tainted by his reputation for cronyism, even as he was acquitted on corruption charges.
If it’s still too early to see the future here or elsewhere in Libya very clearly, it seems fair to say that it is more likely to be decided by the ballot box rather than the gun.