English

Libya: a postponed hope

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After three years of the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Libya is facing new challenges in its struggle to build a nation with state institutions based on the rule of law and the principles of democracy. Since the fall of the dictatorship, Libya has been through many troubling and chaotic times, but the current crisis that began since the June 2014 elections seems to be the most challenging, which could lead to more crises in the country’s transition process.

The current Libyan crisis was the result of many factors, notwithstanding the legacy of despotism that the new state institutions inherited from the fallen regime, but it was combined by a polarised political atmosphere in a country that had absolutely no political experience before the revolution.

The political instability reflected the incompetent leadership in different governments leading to the weakness and the fragmentation of the official state security bodies, which could not confront the rise of local armed groups, some with political and ideological backing while others were pursuing a local, regional and often personal agendas to achieve more political power and possibly manage to control a stake in the countries oil and gas wealth, all of these factors led to a political atmosphere of distrust leading to an inevitable confrontation.

The roots of the current Libyan crisis can be traced back to the final months of the National Transitional Council (NTC) tenure in power in Libya, which due to its limited mandate couldn’t actively manage the country’s arms proliferation problem and postponing dealing with the major causes of conflicts, for the next elected parliament, namely the General National Congress (GNC) to deal with.

Due to the nature of the elections law, the General National Congress’ election outcome were inconclusive for a certain party or political faction to dominate, which paved the way for local, regional and tribal elements that were elected as independents to the proto-parliament to hold the sway of power in the country, which led to the formation of different blocs and alliances that reflected the economic and social and armed divisions.

The political divisions became more apparent after the GNC approved in June 2013, in a controversial vote, the political isolation law that was intended to prevent Gaddafi regime officials in different aspects of government and society form assuming official positions in the new state institutions, this led to more violent forms of political means to achieve goals and deepening the sense of distrust and animosity between the main political, regional, tribal and ideological factions.

By the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, it became apparent that the political factions began to coalesce into few camps. In the west of Libya, the Islamist political movement and its military arms forged an interest driven alliance with regional political players in Misrata and some smaller towns and local militias in and around Tripoli. While on the other side the anti-Islamist political bloc (sometimes is inaccurately described as liberal) forged an alliance with local and tribal armed groups in Zintan, Weshafana and other local militias.

In the eastern side of the country the picture is different, the regional political movement that used the years of marginalization and deprivation by the Gaddafi regime to mobilise the idea for federalism sometimes resorting to confrontational tactics to push its agenda. While the political Islamist movement lost lots of ground in the east, it was replaced by the rise of militant extremist groups that waged its own war, assassinating army and security personnel, journalists and rights activists, bombing and terrorising local populations mainly in Derna and Benghazi. This last element was countered by a rogue military campaign of the former army General Khalifa Haftar and other sections of the fragmented remains of the Libyan army, exacerbating the fragile security situations and aligning itself with the anti-Islamist political and military camp in Western Libya.

In the southern part of the country, where state authority is nearly non-existent, tribal and ethnic power dominates the political and social life, Arab, Tebu and Tuareg tribes fought each other to control borders and vast swaths of the desert which brought with it lucrative smuggling routes and trade, often blowing up after the loss of any authority in the region and flaring into full out armed confrontations without much resolve.

International and regional powers had also an influence in the current political crisis. The main western powers, US, UK and France didn’t follow their military campaign to overthrow Gaddafi with a coordinated, coherent and competent strategic plan to support and rebuild the new state institutions, which opened the door to regional powers like Egypt and some Gulf states to forge alliances with different factions and players inside the country, causing more harm than good and hampering efforts of the international community and UN to reach peaceful resolution to the current conflict.

The June 2014 elections, which resulted in a crushing loss for the Islamist political movement and its political and armed allies, caused the postponed confrontation to blow up in the Tripoli area, while the bloody, often pointless, confrontation between the quasi-army and extremist militants in the east complicated the security situation further.

But among the complex political and power structure in the country, the main driving force for most of the problems in Libya is the oil and gas wealth that in my view can be a source of stability and instability for millions of Libyans.

The political polarisation which led to violent local civil wars is bringing with it more challenges for transition in Libya. It’s yet to be seen if the current crisis will affect the constitutional challenge, when the Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA) presents its draft constitution to Libyans for approval possibly in early 2015. But even if Libyans manage to bring a new constitution into life, it will be hard to imagine a viable political life and state institutions if the current divisive and polarising political dynamics continue to persist, especially with the presence of rogue armed groups from various sides.

Libya has always proven to be hard to predict, and the post uprising years were rife with lost historical opportunities that could have realised people’s hopes and expectations. The current conflict could be one of Libya’s worst but it might not be the last, before the peace.

* An edited version of this article was published on Free Arabs. Libya’s 1001 Wars.

Short Story: Techno

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It was the first day of summer, the sun was high in the sky when he decided to walk to the near by bakery to get some bread and pastries. The street was empty, quietness dominated the the neighbourhood where he lived since his birth four decades ago. A stray cat was rummaging through the bin bags, thrown at the corner of the alley, it was devouring a piece of bone when it looked up at him then returned back to its meal. He can still remember when there was no pavement or tarmac in this part of the city, when they used to play in dusty roads, spraying water in the summer to bring some coolness in a warm evening and to settle the dust down. He can still remember those small holes they used to dig in the middle of the alley to play with glass marbles, all of this seemed to happen so long ago, the dusty alley has been tarmacked, and no one plays with marbles anymore.

Before reaching the top of the street, and just few metres from the intersection, he stopped to allow a speeding hatchback car to drive down the road, the driver blasted Techno music at full volume in an attempt to impress his rival music enthusiasts in the neighbourhood. On reaching the main road he noticed that few cars passed by, summer Friday afternoons were always quite, and although this part of the city sprawled in the last few years, it still maintained an idyllic character that it has been losing with time. He passed the pastry shop and noticed that it was open, the smell of fresh croissants reminded him of an old love that used to live in him. The near by butcher was cleaning his displaying fridges preparing them for another week of fresh meat, he almost laughed when he read the shop’s name, freedom butcher, with an illustration of what looked like a cleaver chopping a piece of red meat. On the other side of the road stood a building that used to be police station, now it was abandoned, stripped of its rank and status, while rotten vegetables from the nearby market was piling up on its doorsteps.

At the bakery a crowd of people gathered waiting for a new batch of freshly baked baguettes to come out from the innards of the shop, the smell of warm fresh bread dazed the crowd, keeping them quiet an sedated, and possibly triggering a tranquil childhood memory, of eating a sandwich of tuna and harissa during afternoon recess at school. A little boy stood beside a teenager and were talking about how they can’t wait to go back home to continue their game on their Play Station console, and how it was unfair that their mother sent them in this blazing afternoon to get some bread and insisting that they wait for the freshly baked batch although there was a basket full of good baguettes on display. He didn’t wait too long before the new hot bread came from inside the bakery in big baskets. He stood with the crowd waiting for his turn to pick one loaf and pay for it. The bread was very warm. He couldn’t resist the temptation to break a crusty piece at the end of the loaf. Warm steam rose from the broken end. He smelled the fresh bread before eating it in two bites. The crowd began to pick up the warm loaves, some got two or three while most were getting a bag load of baguettes, some even had two bags, in this frenzy of bread rage he seemed to be the odd one with his one loaf, that was in the process of being consumed as he went out of the bakery.

While heading back home he passed by a neighbouring house, he used to stand in his bedroom window facing an odd single window on the third floor in this house just across the street. He remembered how he witnessed for several years the relationship between a girl in that house and a boy living on the other side of the street, she used to throw a towel on the window’s ledge as a sign for her boyfriend that she is available for a chat, he on the other side stood for many hours under the blazing sun, leaning on a wooden utility pole smoking. She usually peaked from the window every few minutes to check if he was standing in his usual spot at the corner of the neighbourhood’s street. Rabia and Rashid developed a unique sign language to communicate in a time when mobile phones were a novelty. He used to watch those encounters especially in the long hot summer afternoons, although he only managed to follow Rabia’s gestures to Rashid which was standing on the further side of the crossroad. Rashid was killed by a stray bullet one afternoon, and was deemed a martyr by his family, and Rabia moved with her husband to a small town in the east, while the house was demolished to make way for two residential buildings which the events, as the uprising came to be known, delayed their completion.

A speeding car coming from the further end of the street was approaching from a distance. He could recognise that it was the same car that passed by him several minutes ago, the driver was still playing the same loud Techno music. He saw a cat jump from the pile of rotting rubbish few metres from where he stood holding his stale and crumbling baguette, it took him another moment to realise that he was standing in the rain, soaking, cold with a deep sense of loss and despair. The car passed slowly, then stopped momentarily while the driver lowered his window. He stared at him then pointed to the piece of bread, and without saying a word he gave it him, and saw the car speed away. He looked at the empty dark road and could barely recognise the crushed remains of a cat.

Chewing Gum: Absurdity in its Beautiful Form

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Chewing Gum
By: Mansour Bushnaf
Translated: Mona Zaki
Publisher: DARF Publishers 2014
Pages: 125

This is a book that I first read in Arabic, when it was published by a small independent publisher in Cairo in 2007, the novel which wasn’t allowed to be distributed by Libyan authorities inside the country, was handed over from one reader to another and became famous for its satirical criticism of the Qaddafi regime.

Now in its new resurrected form in English, “Chewing Gum” has proven to be one of the best novels in modern times to describe in a satirical, cynical style the Libyan society under tyranny. The novel’s absurd approach to many aspects of a society striving to live against political and social challenges, introduces us to the reality of despotism.

Reading “Chewing Gum” for the second time in this excellent English translation, and especially after three years of Qaddafi’s demise, I felt that this novel will continue to be a must read to understand an obscure country and an isolated society that are still in the process of forging a nation that was fragmented under decades of colonialism, war, and dictatorship.

Coeur d’or

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For L. …once more

A small window on the roof.
Darkness penetrates.
A lingering presence spreads some shadow and crimson light on her blossoming face.

The heart moans with every beat,
It overcomes her sighs and punctures a wound…
A fissuring wound in the chest.
Her hand caresses my ribs, counting their wishes,
And listens in the silence to the echo of the beat.

I whisper a word…
Two words in a tongue I borrowed from childhood but still sounds alien in my old dream.
“Golden heart” jumps,
Survives another death in her lips.

The light fades in the distance,
All is clouds and vermilion tongues.

I watch myself through the window,
Fading in the darkness,
Dissolving in her face.

Whisper

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By: Ahmed Yousef Aqila

1

In the classroom, he glances the teacher and his stick. He whispers without looking at me “give me a ruler, my ruler is broken”

2

In the army, he glances the officer that is parading us in the courtyard. He whispers without looking at me “my shoes are not shiny as they ought to be. Will he notice that?”

3

Before reaching the revolutionaries' checkpoint, he whispers in my ear “will the new revolutionaries stay for forty years under the pretext of revolutionary legitimacy like the General did? Or will the Islamists grab power under the pretext of establishing God’s law?”

4

In our desert excursion, we sip tea under a moon spreading its light equally on every corner. He whispers, while looking at me this time “Do you want me to put more sugar in your tea?”

2013

_______

* Ahmed Yousef Aqila: (b. 1958) is a renowned Libyan short storyteller, has several published short story collections and also published several books on Libyan folk tales and poetry. 

* To read the original short story in the original Arabic click here

A Question

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By: Giuma Bukleb

Roads tearing earth's body

East and West

North and South.

Long, short, twisted, plane, extremely steep,

Ascending, wide, foggy, tarmacked, sandy, muddy,

Flat, bending.

Roads that fool you and others you fool. Roads you love

And roads you hate. Roads you dream of and others nightmarish.

Beautiful roads lined with greenery and trees, and others

Regenerate tedium and boredom. Dangerous roads and others

Relaxing. Roads that know no meaning to comfort and others don't

Know the meaning of congestion.

Roads…

Roads…

Why

Do all roads

Lead

Only

Into exile?!

a cup brimful with sour days..

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In the middle of a long path
I regurgitate some leftovers from the night before
Pretend I am handsome in my self-deprecation
And nurse a cup brimful with sour days

He has the habit to smack his head protestingly
Recites his epic lamentation,
“They are”
“We are”
“Those people”
“Our problem is…”
“They, Them”
“We, I”
“They should”
And if only.

On the last turn,
I get a glimpse of home,
Staring back with indifference,
Smiling disapprovingly of the way I combed my hair 

They never fail you, those moments
Telling you how they:
“Told you so!”
“What to expect!”
“Alas!”
“All in vain”
And it’s useless 

Revenge isn't served in this café,
Someone got greedy and claimed it all,
Selling it for free,
If only one can afford it 

Running away from his tormentor,
Licking bitter words,
“Stay away!”
“Will join soon”
“You are lucky”
“Why you are here?!”
And I will flee 

I look at the bottom of the glass,
The last drop of loathing bubbles
Drowning slowly in mid-dream
Gliding towards the face…

 

Bitter Hope

 
In a short story I wrote long before the Libyan uprising, I imagined a man riding beside a reckless and erratic driver along with several other silent passengers in a very old car. 
 
Driving for an eternity on a long never ending hot baking road, the man kept asking the driver only one question, “Where are we going?!”

That scene and that question depicted the general sense of despair and helplessness towards the situation in Gaddafi’s Libya.

Two years ago Libya was on the verge of a tumultuous transformation. The capital Tripoli, was being taken by rebel forces and Gaddafi and his loyalists were on the run.

The Libyan people had never been as joyous and full of hope about the future of their country. 

They felt that they waited too long for closure and that their sacrifice and resilience had paid off. It was all, at last, worth it.

Libya today is a country suffering from serious problems: a weak central government that struggles to maintain basic services, law and order, different armed groups that are violently competing to maintain their gains, a new political clique that is working on isolating their rivals by all means, and a fragmented society that distrusts government but still relies on it heavily. 

But despite all these serious problems, Libyans maintain a modest level of hope and optimism, mixed with bitterness and disappointment that the country’s course isn’t living up to the sacrifices and expectations.

While it is true that the general image is of despair and frustration, I among other Libyans, believe that the revolution, ignited in mid February 2011, was and continues to be a generational turning point, and nothing can change the significance and importance of that event.  

Today many Libyans would like to claim ownership of the revolution and its relative and modest victories, but would distance themselves from the accumulating blunders and failures and the long list of missed opportunities that might, just might, have given them the country that they wished for.

The collective refusal to share and claim accountability is probably a way to escape confronting the difficult and existential question: “Was it all worth it?!”

Some would argue that the question of worthiness is the wrong one to ask with such a fluid and unpredictable force as revolution. And it could also trivialise this long and hard struggle, reducing it to a single definitive answer of “Yes!” or “No!”

We might be allowed to be angry, upset and frustrated, but we are not allowed in our loathsome disappointment, to lose hope. Without hope we wouldn't be able to lift ourselves from our legacy of despotism, social stagnation and the carcasses of lost opportunities.

In the end of the short story of the long car ride, the questioning passenger was kicked out of the car and left alone on the dark baking tarmac, the blurred sight of the old car driving away in the distant horizon. As he languished under the blazing sun he kept asking “Where are we going?!” 

After many years of being left alone in the middle of nowhere, I can imagine him being offered a ride by possibly the same old car, glad he is back on the road, accepting the fact that this will be a bumpy arduous ride, but moving towards somewhere, that might be, in the end, worth it.

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