An Islamist, a Liberal, and a Former Regime Loyalist Walk into a Cafe…

Three Libyans try to make sense of their country after Qaddafi.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Hours after Muammar al-Qaddafi met a bloody end 350 miles to the west in Sirte, three Libyans walk into a Benghazi café: an Islamist, a liberal, and a former Qaddafi loyalist. They had agreed to meet me there virtually, via Skype, to discuss Qaddafi’s death and the future of Libya, where I had gone in March and April to report on the war and investigate the roots of the uprising. One of the three men — the liberal — is the friend of a friend I met in Benghazi. The other two are his co-workers at a survey-research firm; they’ve known one another for a few weeks.

Convening this get-together from my home in Oakland, California is less than ideal; Internet failures interrupt our conversation every ten minutes or so over the course of a couple hours, and the loud crack of rasaas al-farah — celebratory gunfire, literally "bullets of joy" — periodically barges into our conversation. Benghazi, Libya’s second city and the birthplace of the uprising against Qaddafi, is no longer a city at war, but it is not yet a city at peace: Civilians still wield automatic weapons, a legacy of the war’s chaotic early days, and the city’s new government seems to be struggling in its efforts to claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force (to use the German sociologist Max Weber’s famous definition of a state).

The Islamist, Abdul Salaam, is 30 years old. He is very tall with a big ready smile, and likes to dress simply, in loose collared shirts and capris with sandals.

And a long beard.

He began growing his beard for the first time in February, days after the Qaddafi regime was thrown out of Benghazi. For years, he had wanted to grow one, but he had waited. "I saw what happened to people who had long beards under Qaddafi," he explains. "Someone would write a secret report about you, and you’d go to jail." Some of Abdul Salaam’s cousins and neighbors, he reports, went to jail for growing beards, or for other signs of "excessive" piety. "Their ideas weren’t what Qaddafi wanted," Abdul Salaam explains matter-of-factly. Even frequent mosque attendance could bring a knock on the door in the middle of the night from members of Qaddafi’s security apparatus, the feared Internal Security forces and the Revolutionary Committees. The price of being religious? "Some went to jail for 15 years," Abdul Salaam says. "Others died there."

A few of Abdul Salaam’s acquaintances went beyond growing beards and took up arms against the regime in the 1990s. They were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which formed in eastern Libya in the early 1990s and included Libyans recently returned from fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The LIFG tried to assassinate Qaddafi three times in the 1990s. The colonel’s revenge was vicious and indiscriminate: Many people merely suspected of association with the LIFG landed in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison, site of a 1996 massacre that may have killed as many as 1,200 inmates. (Two months ago, Abu Salim fell to opposition forces.) By 1998, Qaddafi had quashed the LIFG as a domestic force. Some of the group’s members joined al Qaeda from exile, and after 9/11, the LIFG’s links to al Qaeda landed the organization on terrorist lists in the West. But between 2007 and 2009, LIFG leaders publicly renounced al Qaeda and its violent methods, apparently splitting with Osama bin Laden’s group; when revolution broke out this year in Libya, they endorsed the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC).

With relatives and friends who endured so much under Qaddafi, you might expect Abdul Salaam to be jubilant today. But he speaks with a circumspect air. "When I first heard the news, I didn’t believe it," he says. "And even after I’d seen the photos and knew he was really dead, I wasn’t as happy as I’d expected to be." For many Libyans, the reality of life without the only leader they have ever known is still sinking in. Even after loyalist troops had lost control of Tripoli and most of the rest of Libya, Qaddafi himself retained an air of slippery invincibility. "I figured he’d either be outside Libya by now, or somewhere he could escape from easily," Abdul Salaam muses. It’s hard for him to believe that the man who ruled Libya for almost 42 years couldn’t find a way to cheat death.

It may also be hard to savor the dictator’s demise because of the challenges that lie ahead. Abdul Salaam says he’s "optimistic" about Libya’s future, "but not 100 percent." He thinks conflict could arise among cities and among tribes. Moreover, he feels his own political goals may be out of reach. As an Islamist, he supports making sharia Libya’s primary legal framework — but he doubts this will come to pass, at least not anytime soon. "It’s not impossible," he says, but he expects resistance — not least from the Western powers that supported the National Transitional Council. "The developed countries won’t like it," he quips. Like many Libyans, he is aware of many Westerners’ dim view of the idea of an Islamic state. "I support sharia — but not bin Laden’s kind of sharia," he is quick to point out.

Abdul Salaam also senses occasional discrimination from other Libyans. Now that his beard identifies him as a man of faith, people look at him differently, even with Qaddafi gone. "Some people absorbed Qaddafi’s view [of pious Muslims]," he sighs.


The rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire outside the café interrupts our conversation. It’s those bullets of joy again — young men have been firing Kalashnikovs into the air all day, celebrating Qaddafi’s death.

Libya today is awash in weapons. As the eastern part of the country fell to the rebels in February, defeated loyalist militias fled, leaving behind machine guns, grenade launchers, and anti-aircraft guns that the everyman rebels picked up and took home. In the absence of a clear military command structure for the first two months of the revolution, ordinary people — many of whom had never held a gun before — grabbed these weapons and drove westward to fight, teaching themselves in their backyards how to shoot Kalashnikovs and mounting anti-aircraft guns on their pickup trucks.

Throughout the summer and fall, the NTC established a command structure and announced programs to bring Libya’s scattered weaponry under its control. But opposition fighters around the country continued to gather up what small arms they could, stripping them from dead loyalist soldiers, picking them up as enemy militias fled, and buying them on the black market. Weapons found their way back to cities like Benghazi that were no longer on the front lines. Today, it is often unclear who exactly is carrying weapons and what form of state imprimatur, if any, they have.

In the major cities, a dizzying array of groups assert responsibility for keeping the peace and resolving disputes: neighborhood militias, police, local councils, tribal forces, and special units that report directly to the National Transitional Council. The neighborhood militias defend their home turf and sometimes also take on the task of hunting out suspected criminals or Qaddafi loyalists who might be causing trouble. But there are other layers of "security" too. "If a fight breaks out, the first people to arrive are the neighborhood militias, and then it’s the police officers," says Alixe Turner, a Benghazi-based analyst with the Shabakat Corporation, an international research firm. "But the NTC sometimes doesn’t even know who the police officers are, and whether they’re legitimate police officers. And if someone dies, tribal figures will get involved as well." Tribal leaders regularly adjudicate disputes and negotiate settlements between victims and accused perpetrators.

The lack of clear state authority worries Osama Mustafa Drese, the liberal who has gathered his two co-workers for the Skype call. Osama is also 30, a lean, energetic man with high cheekbones and long eyelashes that accentuate his big eyes. "The NTC isn’t a real government yet," he says. "When Libya has a constitution, recognized ministries, a prime minister, clear laws, and a proper system of government — whether a monarchy, a federal republic, whatever — then I’ll say we have a government. But what we have now isn’t a government."

Osama is frustrated, and with reason. Yesterday, masked gunmen entered his cousin’s home in the middle of the night. "They took him away in front of his children," he explains. For 24 hours, Osama’s family tried to figure out what had happened, suspecting that the cousin had been kidnapped by the February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade, a citizens’ militia turned opposition paramilitary already accused of having killed a senior military leader in July to settle an old score.

But after his family spent the night worrying, Osama’s cousin was released — by the police, who turned out to have been the ones who "kidnapped" him. According to Osama, the police apprehended his cousin based on an informant’s report that he was a secretly active member of the pro-Qaddafi Revolutionary Committees. But quickly, Osama says, the police realized that the informant was lying. "So today, the police let my cousin go, and arrested the informant instead." This Keystone Kops moment might be funny if it hadn’t been so terrifying — and if it didn’t reflect the chaotic state of Libya’s security apparatus, which seems to have the structural consistency of hummus.

Despite the chaos, Osama manages a sense of humor. He was a master’s student in economics and finance until the revolution broke out, and he still thinks like a businessman. When asked what he would have said to Qaddafi if he had encountered the colonel before his death, he laughs. "I would have offered to cut him a deal," he says: "’You pay me lots of money, and I’ll get you out of Libya.’" Joking aside, Osama has little sympathy for Qaddafi. Like many Libyans, he remembers the ruler for running a regime that seemed to reward only loyalty. "You could have nothing but an elementary education, and yet be appointed mayor of a city — as long as you were loyal to Qaddafi," he recalls. Those who pledged themselves to the regime earned material rewards. "By selling yourself, you could buy the things you wanted: houses, cars, and jobs."

There was also Qaddafi’s capriciousness. "The regime was like a storm," Osama continues, "and Qaddafi was its eye. The man in the middle always stayed the same, but he constantly changed everything around him: commercial regulations, political relations, everything." Osama recalls applying to become a teacher’s assistant before he reached the maximum age for applicants, which was 28 — only to have someone change it to 26 just after he applied, rendering him ineligible. Such quotidian whims of state, often issued by unqualified functionaries who had secured their government jobs by informing on their neighbors and otherwise "paying their dues" to the regime, infuriated Osama.


"I’m relieved that Qaddafi is dead," says Khalid (not his real name), "but I wouldn’t say I’m happy." The round-faced, kind-looking 27-year-old’s ambivalence is understandable: He used to work for Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, the erstwhile ruler’s most prominent son and onetime heir apparent, who as of this writing may be dead, hiding in the desert, or lying wounded in a Tripoli hospital, depending on which report you believe.

In 2007, while he was a university student majoring in management, Khalid applied to join a volunteer militia that reported to Saif al-Islam, one of his personal "guard" units. The application process was competitive: Khalid reports that out of 1,000 applicants, only 300 were chosen. "Of those 300, I was one of only seven from Benghazi," he notes. "The rest were from the west [of Libya]." The bias against Benghazi reflected the Qaddafi regime’s longstanding policy of preferring the west, and especially Tripoli, to Benghazi and the east, where development was slower and state investment in infrastructure only trickled in.

Khalid was proud to be chosen. "We had two months of weapons training before starting work," he recalls. Why did he volunteer to join? Khalid lowers his voice a bit. "I wanted to protect Qaddafi, his sons, the al-Fateh Revolution" — Qaddafi’s 1969 overthrow of King Idris — "and the country of Libya," he says. His tone is measured, but not without pride.

Since the uprising began, the world has come to know Saif al-Islam as his father’s vigorous defender. He earned international notoriety for the finger-wagging speech he delivered on Feb. 20, promising to unleash "rivers of blood" if the uprising in Benghazi continued and blaming it on groups trying to set up Islamic emirates in Libya’s east. But when Khalid was applying to join Saif al-Islam’s volunteer guard, the ruler’s son was viewed both at home and abroad as Libya’s great hope for reform. Domestically, Libyans viewed him as the antidote to vested interests and corruption, and as the hope for change after three decades of his father’s rule had sunk the country into decrepitude and international isolation.

"Saif al-Islam was loved in Libya," Khalid says simply. "I protected him for free because I loved him. He was a moderate and a reformer. He was a defender of Libya. And he tried to fix a lot of the country’s problems." Khalid was not part of Saif’s inner circle; "I talked with him, but not much," he admits. The trouble, he believes, was that others were always getting in the way of the heir apparent’s common touch. "The officials who were around Saif always insulated him and didn’t want ordinary people to speak with him," Khalid says.

Khalid is not the only Libyan I have heard speak of Saif al-Islam with a mixture of fondness and sympathy, even among those who support the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime. "He’s not a bad kid, really," said one Libyan I spoke with in Tubruq in April. "But he got everything he ever wanted growing up. Anyone who grows up like that will have problems. And you know, in the end, he just wanted too much to be like his dad." Even to some Libyans who supported the revolution against him, Saif al-Islam was just a spoiled kid who needed some therapy. To others, of course, he was a monster — and the International Criminal Court, which indicted him in June for crimes against humanity, agreed.

When the uprising broke out in Benghazi in February, Khalid says he and his volunteer guard unit refused to obey government orders to clear protesters out of government-owned apartments they were occupying. "As Saif al-Islam’s guard unit, it wasn’t our duty to do that kind of thing anyway," he says. "It was the police’s job." The regime was swept out of Benghazi days later. Still, Khalid has a few good things to say about Qaddafi père, though he concedes that "under the present circumstances, it’s hard to talk about the positive things that al-Qaddafi did. But after all, he built the country up. And he built the military." But Khalid also points to the corruption that infested the Qaddafi regime — and he wonders if perhaps he was wrong about Saif al-Islam, after all. "On the outside, he was cultured and a moderate," he says. "But on the inside… I don’t know."

Turning his attention to Libya’s post-Qaddafi situation, Khalid is rueful. "There is chaos. There is no government, no security, no police. Everybody has guns and weapons." As if to make his point, more celebratory gunfire erupts outside the cafe. When I ask about Libya’s future, Khalid immediately identifies three challenges to political stability. "First of all," he says, "there could be civil war in the west, especially around Misrata. Second, you have the ongoing presence of many Qaddafi supporters. And third, there is the desire for revenge."


Later, as our discussion comes to a close, I ask how these three men — an Islamist, a liberal economist, and a recent volunteer for the regime — manage to get along. Do they just avoid talking politics? Osama smiles at the question. "No way," he says. "We talk politics all the time." But they have a system: "When we get together, each of us gives his opinion. We talk it over. Sometimes the conversation ends with a laugh, and sometimes it just ends with us saying, ‘Well, let’s quit talking about it and all go out together.’" Perhaps Libya could use such a system, too.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola