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Libya: The Losers

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Marco Salustro/Corbis
Supporters of Muammar Qaddafi protesting in Tripoli, Libya, March 2, 2011
The truly strange thing in your lives is that you not only fail, but fail to learn your lesson…. No matter how much your beliefs betray you, this is never accepted by you. You are distinguished by your inability to recognize the truth, no matter how irrefutable.
—Muammar Qaddafi, Escape to Hell, and Other Stories*

Compared to the office of his intelligence counterpart in Cairo, a luxury suite featuring plasma screens, crystal vases, and a jacuzzi, Tuhami Khaled’s was modest. For protection from aerial bombing, the head of Colonel Qaddafi’s internal security service did his business on the ground floor of its headquarters, an ungainly, antenna-studded tower on busy Sikka Street in central Tripoli. But like the chief of Egypt’s Mukhabarat, Khaled enjoyed a separate entrance and an attached bedroom where he was reputed to cavort with women seeking favors from the regime.

The bedroom’s occupants one day recently were two elderly men shuffling about in slippers and house robes, taking their meals seated on the tiled floor. Hadi Mbairish and Muhammad Abdu were being kept in custody here by revolutionary Libya’s new rulers. The captives were both generals, comrades of Qaddafi since before the 1969 coup that brought him to power. As members of a six-man operations control room for state security, they ranked among the top commanders of the fallen regime, responsible for seeing the Brother Leader’s orders executed on the ground.

Frail and ashen in complexion, General Mbairish chaired the group. During Libya’s revolution he is known to have issued handwritten instructions to “burn the vermin,” meaning the rebels. General Abdu, his ebony face chinless and spectrally gaunt like an African mask, headed Qaddafi’s military police. This was the force formally in charge of Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, notorious for the 1996 massacre by machine gun of some 1,200 inmates, and more recently a holding pen for thousands of Tripoli’s ordinary citizens suspected of rebel sympathies. The massacre was covered up for years; members of the victims’ families traveled monthly to the prison from the far corners of the country in order to deposit gifts they assumed would reach the men inside. The arrest of the Benghazi lawyer who bravely championed these families proved the immediate spark for the revolution.

The generals insist that their captors have treated them kindly, and think they will be vindicated in court. “They will understand that we only followed orders,” says Mbairish hopefully. “This is just a summer cloud.” His colleague mumbles that whenever any prisoner in his charge was sick, it was he who made sure they went to the hospital. The generals give no sign of contrition or even awareness of the magnitude of the crimes for which they certainly bear some responsibility. They tried to resign, they say, but were refused. They could have slipped away abroad, as some others did to escape capture. But why should they, as Libyan patriots?

The generals complain that for the final months of fighting they never saw their families, since the operations room moved from one site to another to escape NATO bombs, ending on the twenty-sixth floor of Tripoli’s plush new Marriott Hotel.

As for Qaddafi himself, the generals say they rarely met with him in recent years. Their instructions were delivered by phone. Seif al-Islam, the second of Qaddafi’s seven sons and the most media-hungry, did make an appearance at the Marriott HQ in the last weeks before Tripoli’s fall on August 21. Overriding the generals’ warnings, he assured them that Libya’s masses would defend the Brother Leader to the end.

General Mbairish turns stone-faced when asked what Qaddafi’s intentions are today. “My opinion is that Qaddafi will never stop. He will accept that thousands die. He will fire rockets on cities if he gets any chance.” The general pauses and toys with his Rolex watch before adding softly, “He’s gotten used to killing.”

The contrast between the sallow, whispering prisoners and their ebullient captors could scarcely be more striking. Behind the desk in Tuhami Khaled’s former office, with a trim black beard and a pistol holstered over desert combat fatigues, sits thirty-six-year-old Khaled Garabulli. The fellow revolutionaries who saunter nonchalantly in and out, sporting motley bandanas, shades, and firearms, treat him with jovial deference. When the call to prayer sounds it is Garabulli who leads the fighters who choose to pray. No one seems to mind that some of them don’t.

Garabulli is one of Libya’s new heroes. He joined the revolution soon after it began on February 17, returning from Morocco, where he had moved to get away from Qaddafi, back to his family seat in a fishing village east of Tripoli. From there he and his brothers smuggled thousands of guns and rocket-propelled grenades to rebels in the capital, sending divers to locate where they had been dropped offshore by NATO planes, then lifting the crates by pumping air into flotation parachutes.

Just two weeks before Tripoli’s fall, only minutes after loading and dispatching a truck with a final consignment of two thousand FAL rifles, Garabulli himself was arrested by Qaddafi’s police. The three satellite phones and thirty SIM cards he was carrying made it clear what he was up to, and the purple crisscross of welts that still marks his back leaves no doubt what Qaddafi’s men thought of it. Garabulli was freed from Abu Salim prison on August 21 to find that his was one of a thousand names on a list of prisoners scheduled to be executed on the first of September, the anniversary of Qaddafi’s coup.

Other veterans of Abu Salim man the Mukhabarat chief’s office, now the temporary base for an ad hoc squad in revolutionary Libya’s fledgling national army that is charged with hunting fugitive officials suspected of crimes. They have caught several dozen so far. Aside from the pair of generals, these include such big fish as Bashir Saleh, the slick, Nigerian-born adviser who managed Qaddafi’s money; Khaled Kaim, a former diplomat and chief propagandist; Fawzia Shalabi, an ex–minister of information notorious for cheerleading public hangings of Qaddafi’s enemies; and Ahmed bin Ramadan, for four decades the leader’s private secretary, the man who conveyed orders by phone. When trapped at a farmhouse outside Tripoli, Ramadan rushed to a bedroom and tried to shoot himself. The bullet only chipped his skull.

Smaller fry include several female recruiters, among them a Paris-trained professor of international law whose job was to pay needy women to spy on neighbors, chant at pro-regime marches, and shoot regime enemies. These agents were reputed for special viciousness: a female sniper in Tripoli is said to have shot a dozen people, while another is believed to have escaped to Tunisia after firing a gold-plated pistol into celebrating crowds in Martyr’s Square, as Tripoli’s main seaside plaza has been renamed, several days after the capital’s liberation. Also still at large are Mukhabarat chief Tuhami Khaled himself; his deputy and chief interrogator Abdul Hamid Sayeh; General Mansour Dao, who personally supervised the Abu Salim massacre and has fled to Niger; and Abdullah Sannusi, the overall security chief who ordered the killings.

The arrests have been of special satisfaction to another volunteer with the snatch squad, Fathy Sherif. He too was freed from prison on August 21 following a four-month-long ordeal. A chemical engineer trained in Ireland, Sherif was rounded up in March along with five brothers and several cousins. Charged with promoting a bloodily suppressed uprising in the well-to-do Tripoli district of Fashloum, he was kept for six days in a cupboard-sized box, and for thirteen more in a ten-by-ten-foot steel container that was tilted at an angle, with no food for those inside, who sometimes numbered scores, and a plastic bottle for a toilet.

When he was finally taken for questioning, Sherif would be asked a question but told to wait before answering and then left, naked, blindfolded, handcuffed, and kneeling, for twelve hours at a time. His interrogators played back tapes of phone calls with his wife from as far back as 2004, as well as recordings of recent calls. In all, they said, they had 20,000 hours of his taped conversations. A diabetic, Sherif was denied insulin for the length of his stay. The electric shocks were not so bad, he told me, after the first few times: you got used to them. Yet he says he was lucky. Prisoners who dared bang on cell doors at Ain Zara, another facility where he was held, were shot in both legs and left untreated, “until they started to smell.” Inmates took to banging on doors in unison when someone needed help.

Sherif can still scarcely contain his joy at surviving to see the revolution triumph. As with many in Libya, his grudge against Qaddafi extends much further back than a few months. The forty-nine-year-old engineer happens to be related to the royal family that Qaddafi toppled, whose roots go back to the eastern oasis of Jaghboub. Not only did he share the general Libyan trauma of four decades of brutal and capricious rule, under ridiculous laws applied by thuggish sycophants, for no particular reason the regime had also confiscated a business his father had built.

Still, Sherif says he bears no special animosity toward the “charming ladies and gentlemen” now passing through his care. The high-value prisoners are being transferred to Maitiga, the sprawling air base in Tripoli’s eastern suburbs that was leased to the US Air Force before Qaddafi’s coup, and now serves as the capital’s military headquarters. “It is precisely because of their cruelty that we will try them with absolute fairness,” says Sherif, adding with an undisguised wink that almost any court would be likely to hang most of them anyway.

Sherif’s humor infects the young fighters, who affectionately title him doctor, cackle at his jokes, and savor his refined invective. This, it must be said, has become something of a national sport. After forty-two years of being terrorized by Qaddafi, the urge to curse him in every possible way seems irresistible. Honking cars drag his effigy through Tripoli’s streets, cheered by passing groups of children. Touring families throng the smashed, looted, and torched ruins of the Brother Leader’s quarters in the sprawling Bab al-Azizia barracks, for the sheer pleasure of trampling across his fear-inspiring inner domain.

I come across an old man dragging a sack onto the busy seafront corniche and tossing from it copies of the Green Book, the Brother Leader’s meandering exposition of his Third Universal Theory of utopian governance. Such claptrap notions as his insistence that sport must be for participants only, since spectatorship is “undemocratic,” will be crushed into the asphalt by passing traffic.

Aside from political screeds, the fallen dictator also penned two volumes of what he took to be literary works. The rambling essays and stories in these collections, the better known of them titled Escape to Hell, may be comically turgid, but they are oddly revealing nonetheless. The relentlessly haughty, sarcastic tone suggests an almost sociopathic inability to feel empathy. The leitmotif of doom-laden alienation comes across as prophetically self-referential.

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AP Images
Rebels arresting one of Qaddafi’s fighters, Tripoli, Libya, August 26, 2011

Repeatedly, Qaddafi returns in his stories to the theme of the simple Bedouin wrenched from healthy, wide-open spaces and condemned to live in the dark, grim city, “a mill that grinds down its inhabitants, a nightmare to its builders,” a place where “houses are not homes—they are holes and caves.” Decrying “this mass of people, who poisoned Hannibal, burnt Savonarola, and smashed Robespierre,” he concludes, “So what can I—a poor bedouin—hope for in a modern city of insanity?”

Since his people erupted in revolt, Qaddafi’s speeches have seemed increasingly disconnected from reality but similarly telling about the man himself. Consistently he has blasted his enemies as drug addicts and rats. Yet as it turns out it is the Brother Leader who has spent much of the past decade living underground, in the elaborate maze of tunnels extending from Bab al-Azizia. It is Qaddafi’s own bloated face that shows telltale signs of self-loathing and abuse.

In Tripoli at night two weeks after the city’s fall, celebratory gunfire still rolls out in waves, thumping and cracking and chattering around the horizon like a wild electric storm. Spontaneous choruses of young men, or children with piping voices, burst into revolutionary anthems. The revolutionary flag and the V for victory are everywhere. It is all very corny, and the sustained enthusiasm suggests that whenever Qaddafi himself is caught or killed, this city of three million will erupt in a party the likes of which have never been seen.

Of course, many Libyans do share fears that even when Qaddafi is gone for good, their troubles will not be over. He leaves behind a country that is rich in cash and resources, but socially fragmented and intellectually impoverished. His long reign held in suspense the ordinary struggles that forge historical progress, such as between social classes, between competing regions, or between people of secular and religious bent. Libya’s rebirth has created new tensions, too, between those who feel they have earned a right to power by virtue of youth and sacrifice for the cause, and what they see as the gray, suit-clad men, many of them with technocratic pedigrees under the ousted regime, who presume to speak for the interim government.

The real battle is beginning now,” says Fathy Ben Issa, a journalist who resigned from Tripoli’s new, self-appointed town council because he felt the unelected body had fallen under the sway of Islamists aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. But for now, people such as the smuggler Khaled Garabulli, who says he waited for a fatwa from a senior Saudi preacher before casting his lot with the rebels, and his cohort Fathy Sherif, who wants Libyan passports to be respected again so he can travel freely to old haunts in the West, remain happy comrades.

Perhaps Qaddafi has already—as he seems to have wished for himself—“escaped to hell,” as the title of his book puts it. His people have certainly escaped from it.

September 15, 2011

  1. *

    Stanké, 1998, p. 18. 

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