Every revolution has its losers. Libya’s new rulers, who swept to power three months ago in a revolt against Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule, have promised the country a brighter future. In the biggest cities, celebratory gunfire and the war-cry “God is great” can still be heard daily.
In Bani Walid, long a stronghold for Gaddafi loyalists and one of their last bastions to fall during this year’s civil war, the mood is entirely different.
On a quiet Friday morning — the day of rest in this almost entirely Muslim country — a middle-aged man drew the metal shutters of his shop closed to speak freely about how Libya’s new leaders have brought this town nothing but empty promises, Reuters reports.
“Under Gaddafi everything was great. And now there’s nothing,” he says, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by forces loyal to the National Transitional Council (NTC), which led the revolt against Gaddafi.
“They will find me,” he says, adding angrily: “Anyone who tells the truth in Libya gets slaughtered.”
Bani Walid, which sits on a rocky perch above a lush valley dotted with olive trees, is a town divided.
“Before the liberation, half the people were Gaddafi loyalists, half were with the revolution,” said Tariq Faqi, a 28-year-old doctor who works at the town’s hospital, after Friday prayers at the Abdel Nabbi bil Kheir Mosque.
“Now they accept reality and they’re waiting to see what happens … People feel they can’t trust the new government until they see improvement.”
After the fall of Tripoli three months ago, Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam hid among the town’s 100,000 or so inhabitants. He says Western warplanes fired on his convoy as he fled, and their missiles blew off part of his thumb and index finger.
Bani Walid is also home to the Warfalla tribe, the biggest in this vast, oil-rich country of roughly six million people, and one upon which Gaddafi often relied to stay in power.
Here as all over Libya, security remains one of the top concerns. A militia from Tripoli, a good two hours’ drive away, conducted a raid in Bani Walid this week, sparking a firefight in which several people were killed on each side.
Talks between tribal elders have eased tensions, and most people interviewed felt life had since returned to normal, but residents disagreed over how much faith to place in a central government they said had yet to deliver concrete results.
A provisional national government was sworn in on Thursday with the aim of steering the country towards democracy and dealing with the most pressing problems, with elections to a constituent assembly due in the middle of next year.
The new government was put in place by the unelected NTC, which still wields significant influence over all government matters and had the final say in each of Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib’s cabinet appointments.
The country is still teeming with weapons, and Libya’s new rulers have yet to disarm and make an army out of the patchwork of militias that roam the country, often far from their homes, occasionally clashing with each other, settling old scores.
Keib says his top priorities are improving security and looking after former rebel fighters and their families, but if he is to convince all of Bani Walid of the benefits of democracy, he will have to tackle a far wider range of issues.
“The situation now is good,” school administrator Abdullah Mohammed, 36, said when asked about security, standing next to the mosque which, unusually, was damaged in the war, a testament to the intensity of the fighting that took place here.
“There was an incident two days ago but now it’s getting better,” he added as he left Friday prayers, echoing the sentiment of many who described the raid by men from Tripoli’s Souq al-Juma neighbourhood as an isolated case.
While many residents said they did not want any more armed “outsiders” coming to their town after a war in which many local homes were destroyed and looted, most said they were happy for a national army to come and help secure the town.
“We want Libya to be united. We don’t want any problems between us,” bank employee Garera Salem Mohammed, 52, said in a largely empty square bearing the scars of war.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
Bani Walid’s position on a hilltop made it virtually impregnable by ground forces alone. To take it, warplanes from Western countries in the NATO alliance pounded Gaddafi’s forces while NTC troops battered the town with artillery.
At the fruit and vegetable market, the most common complaint was that banks had not reopened yet, as they have in Libya’s cities, even though there is a nationwide restriction on monthly cash withdrawals.
“The market is dead. No one has any money with which to buy anything,” said Munir Ali Muftah, 24, who was finding no takers for his dates and took shelter from the still-warm winter sun under his neighbour’s tarpaulin roof.
“The people whose homes have been destroyed are not back yet,” he added.
Of the market’s few customers, most said they hoped the central government would bring an improvement in daily life but did not want to go so far as to predict it, replying simply with “insh’Allah” — God willing — when asked about the future.
Others were already growing impatient.
“We haven’t seen anything from the new government. There’s no money, there are no funds available for anything,” said Moussa Juma Maymoun, 46, who was selling cigarettes, lighters and snuff stacked on the trunk of his car.
“In the former system, our situation was good. Everything was fine. But now everything is different. When you talk about elections and democracy, where is the democracy?” said Maymoun, who used to water olive trees for the agriculture ministry.
As the government begins to tackle all the problems of a country emerging from decades of dictatorship, it should think of the victims of this eight-month war as much as of the NTC fighters who emerged victorious, the local doctor said.
“Many of the civilians evacuated (during the war). They returned to find their homes destroyed, their belongings stolen. The government must take this into consideration and do something for them,” Faqi said outside the mosque.
“Their priority should be the civilians, at least as much as the rebels. Civilians suffered a great deal in this country.”
With national security still fragile and myriad factions continuing to compete for power ahead of next year’s elections, the government would only achieve national unity by helping the war’s losers as well as its winners.
“Educated people realise things can improve over time and are willing to be patient but here there are all levels of education,” Faqi said.