Libya: How They Did It

Muammar Qaddafi
Muammar Qaddafi; drawing by Pancho

Only when I reached Suq al-Juma, Tripoli’s sprawling eastern suburb of 400,000, three days after the rebels entered the city on August 21, did I feel I was somewhere free of Muammar Qaddafi’s yoke. In contrast to the deserted, shuttered streets elsewhere in the capital, the alleyways behind its manned barricades were a hive of activity. Children played outside until after midnight. Women drove cars. The mosques broadcast takbir, the celebratory chants reserved for Eid, the end of Ramadan, that God is Great, greater even than the colonel. Replacing absent Egyptian laborers, volunteers harvested tomatoes and figs in the garden allotments. The grocer proudly told me that he was really an oil exploration technician, charged with running a store his neighborhood had opened the day of the uprising—August 20—to keep their community fed. Others had dug wells to ensure that water flowed, and used their connections with the local refinery to maintain supplies of gasoline. While its price elsewhere in Tripoli had risen a hundredfold to $7.50 a liter, in Suq al-Juma it was distributed for free.

While the barricades kept out Qaddafi’s regime, they offered its enemies a safe haven from the snipers and other remnants of Qaddafi’s rule; the residents fed rebels homemade Ramadan sweets and washed their clothes. A rebel brigade from Misrata pitched camp in a whitewashed branch of Mohammed Qaddafi’s Internet company, LTT, due to open this summer. A mosque sheltered dozens of pale and dazed inmates, rebels liberated from Tripoli’s complex of political prisons in Abu Salim. The people there helped them bridge their missing years by projecting Arabic satellite television on its wall. (When Qaddafi’s image appeared, a few flung stones at the mosque.) In a school turned makeshift prison, police officers back at work interrogated a motley assembly of suspected mercenaries, saboteurs, and regime militiamen.

Suq al-Juma claims to have been Tripoli’s first neighborhood to rally to Qaddafi’s revolution in 1969, and the first to turn against it thirty-nine years ago. (It is still punished with unpaved streets.) It prides itself on its cohesiveness. Unlike Tripoli’s other suburbs, which are magnets for urban migration, its residents claim descent from families who founded the neighborhood centuries ago. Several suburbs responded to the alarm the mosques sounded as the faithful broke their fast after sundown on August 20, but the organization and scale of Suq al-Juma’s uprising was unmatched. Within minutes, the entire district had cobbled together barricades out of old fridges, burned-out cars, and other war detritus, and stationed armed men at its gates. Trucks drove through the streets distributing homemade Molotov cocktails and grenades called gelatine, and, later that night, guns they had bought over the previous six months at 3,000 dinars apiece. Based on a precompiled blacklist, vigilantes broke into the homes of a thousand regime henchmen, or farment, Tripoli’s bastardized vernacular for “informant,” and disarmed them and hauled them away.

Across town, the…

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