Published: February 2013
New Old Libya
For decades Libyans lived under a dictator who twisted their past. Now they must imagine their future.
By Robert Draper

The bronze likeness of Muammar Qaddafi’s nemesis was lying on his back in a wooden crate shrouded in the darkness of a museum warehouse. His name was Septimius Severus. Like Qaddafi, he was from what is now Libya, and for 18 years bridging the second and third centuries A.D. he ruled the Roman Empire. His birthplace, Leptis Magna—a commercial city 80 miles east of what the Phoenicians once called Oea, or present-day Tripoli—became, in every meaningful way, a second Rome. More than 1,700 years after the emperor’s death, Libya’s Italian colonizers honored him by erecting a statue of the imposing, bearded leader with a torch aloft in his right hand. They installed the statue in Tripoli’s main square (now Martyrs’ Square) in 1933—where it remained for a half century, until another Libyan ruler took umbrage.

“The statue became the mouthpiece of the opposition, because he was the only thing Qaddafi couldn’t punish,” says Hafed Walda, a native Libyan and professor of archaeology at King’s College London. “Every day people would ask, ‘What did Septimius Severus say today?’ He became a figure of annoyance to the regime. So Qaddafi banished him to a rubbish heap. The people of Leptis Magna rescued him and brought him back home.” And that is where I found him, reposing in a wooden box amid gardening tools and discarded window frames, awaiting whatever destination the new Libya might have in store for him.

Qaddafi correctly viewed the statue as a threat. For Septimius Severus stood as a wistful reminder of what Libya had once been: a Mediterranean region of immense cultural and economic wealth, anything but isolated from the world beyond the sea. Spreading over 1,100 miles of coastline, bracketed by highlands that recede into semiarid wadis and finally into the copper vacuum of the desert, Libya had long been a corridor for commerce and art and irrepressible social aspiration. The tri-city region of Tripolitania—Leptis Magna, Sabratah, and Oea—had once provided wheat and olives to the Romans.

Yet Qaddafi squandered the country’s advantages: its location just south of Italy and Greece, which made it one of Africa’s gateways to Europe; its manageable population (fewer than seven million inhabiting a landmass six times the size of Italy); its vast oil reserves. He quashed innovation and free expression. To schoolchildren, who memorized Qaddafi’s tangled philosophy as inscribed in his Green Book, the story of their country consisted of two chapters: the dark days under the West’s imperialist bootheel, and then the glory days of the Brother Leader.

Today the dictator and his warped vision for Libya are dead, and the nation is undergoing the spasmlike throes of reinvention. As Walda says, “The journey of discovery has just begun. In many ways this moment is more dangerous than wartime.” Temporary prisons are overstuffed with thousands of Qaddafi loyalists awaiting their fate as laws and court procedures are reformed. Militias control whole swaths of the country. Guns are less visible than they were during the war, but that only means the hundreds of thousands who possess them have learned to keep them out of sight. Highways in rural areas remain thoroughly unpoliced (not counting the checkpoints manned by former rebels, or thuwwar). Immigrants pour into Libya from its western and southern borders. Key Qaddafi associates, as well as his wife and some of his children, remain at large. Several new ministers are already on the take.

Last September’s terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi left the unmistakable impression of a country teetering on a knife-edge. Yet despite its struggles, Libya is hardly on the brink of anarchy. The democratically elected General National Congress is commissioning a new constitution. Tripoli is for the most part calm. In its nerve center of Martyrs’ Square—a jungle land of gunfire during the revolution—a couple of motorcyclists zigzag loudly around newly installed children’s rides. The city center is alive with purpose. On the south end of the square, vendors sell many of the new publications that have sprung up since the uprising began. To the east, dozens of Libyans congregate on the patio of a jazzy café beneath an Ottoman-era clock tower, chattering over lattes and croissants. Banners and graffiti depicting the red-black-and-green Libyan flag, banned by Qaddafi for 42 years because of its association with the deposed King Idris, now adorn every building in sight. Billboards and posters bear the images of Libya’s many fallen rebels, with inscriptions like: “We died for a free Libya—please keep it free!” “Collect all the weapons!” On the street passersby exclaim in English, “Welcome to new Libya!”

Beneath the roiling uncertainties is a nation possessed by an almost adolescent eagerness to rejoin the free world. Salaheddin Sury, a professor at the Centre for National Archives and Historical Studies in his 80s, told me, “When we got our independence in 1951, it was something we got almost for free. This time the young people paid for it in blood. I didn’t bother with the national anthem back then. Now for the first time,” he declared with a proud grin, “I’ve memorized it by heart.”

Yet on the desert slog to rediscovery, flag-waving offers only the mirage of a shortcut. As Sury acknowledged, Libya’s rebuilding “starts at zero.” The terrorist attack last September casts a dark shadow over Libya’s attempts to increase stability and rebuild its government. Whether the 30,000 Libyans who protested against militias ten days later constitute a better predictor of Libya’s future, it is too early to say. In ways both obvious and insidious, Libya remains half-blinded by its former dictator’s heavy hand. Now, like the statue in the wooden box, it awaits its future in an unforgiving light.

When the revolution came to the commercial hub of Misratah in February of 2011, Omar Albera went to his family and declared, “I’m going to take off my uniform and fight Qaddafi.”

“You are one of Qaddafi’s policemen,” his wife exclaimed. “The others will be suspicious of you. And what if the revolution fails? What then?”

His younger son also voiced fears. Only the police colonel’s eldest son praised his decision—subsequently fighting by his father’s side and dying in battle at the age of 23. The young rebels the police colonel helped command were newcomers to warfare. Having no weapons at their disposal early on, they threw stones and Molotov cocktails. Once the rebels had begun to amass the firearms of dead soldiers, the police colonel taught some how to shoot. A few were criminals he’d once locked up. They were tougher than the others; he was glad to have them in his ranks, and they in turn came to view him as a fellow rebel.

After Misratah at last beat back a ferocious three-month siege by Qaddafi’s troops—a small-scale Battle of Leningrad that would prove decisive in the revolution, though at a terrible cost to Libya’s third largest city—Albera again put on the police uniform he had worn through 34 years of the Qaddafi regime. He is now Misratah’s chief of police. His goal is to introduce the people of his city to a different concept of police work—namely, that a man who wears his uniform is not a thief or a thug but a protector, that boys should one day aspire to wear such a uniform, to regard it as an emblem of dignity rather than of criminality. The new chief is no sunny idealist. He is 58, with the pensive equanimity of a much older man. He suffers no illusion that credibility can be won overnight when historically as many as three-quarters of Libya’s policemen have been corrupt.

Further compounding the chief’s challenge is that he is not, in the final analysis, the head law enforcement authority in Misratah. “The thuwwar are the real power in the city,” he admits. The police department’s equipment was destroyed during the war; the young men he helped train to fight in the revolution are now the ones with the weapons. “Even though they were brave, they were not trained to be leaders,” he says. “Many are honest. Some are impressionable. This makes for a very delicate situation.”

The delicate situation has vast implications. The Davids who felled Goliath with slingshots now run the kingdom and are not about to give it back to some new giant. Nor do they intend to hand over all of the giant’s weaponry. Nor, for that matter, are they eager to forgive and forget. Qaddafi’s supporters remain in their midst. Some are neighbors. In Misratah’s case that neighbor is Tawurgha, a working-class town 25 miles away, from which government forces launched a ferocious assault on Misratah.

Central to Qaddafi’s vision for Libya was a bellicose populism designed to undermine the urban centers that threatened his power base. Toward that end, he lavished the Tawurghans—almost exclusively dark-skinned Africans of sub-Saharan descent—with jobs and housing in return for their unswerving loyalty. This divide-and-conquer strategy pitted towns and ethnic and tribal groups against each other all over Libya. The revolution turned those divisions into battle lines. Overnight, towns like Riqdalin and Al Jumayl became bases for loyalist attacks on their bigger neighbor Zuwarah. The city of Az Zintan was suddenly besieged by the neighboring tribal Mashashiya town of Al Awaniya. A Qaddafi-backed Tuareg militia suppressed a rebel uprising in Ghadames. And Tawurgha volunteers joined Qaddafi’s soldiers, marched on Misratah, killed their neighbors, and in some cases raped their neighbors’ women.

The reports of assaults on women have left the Misratans blind with rage. Wild exaggerations (was it 50 rapes? 400? 1,080? 8,600?) are countered in turn by Tawurgha sympathizers (no rapes at all occurred, hostility toward Tawurghans is racially motivated). One fact is inarguable: Tawurgha is now a ghost town. The Misratans evacuated the town by force and razed most of its buildings. Nearly all 30,000 Tawurghans now live in displacement camps, mainly in Benghazi and Tripoli. When I visited the bullet-riddled carcass that was once Tawurgha, its streets were empty except for artillery shells, a few ragged garments, and a half-starved cat. The roads to the town were heavily guarded by Misratan militia. No one may return to Tawurgha.

The Misratans stubbornly refuse to make peace. As one prominent local merchant, Mabrouk Misurati, told me in a loud and trembling voice, “You cannot accept those who have raped and killed our sisters living among us again! This is not easy! Reconciliation is what we are asking the new government to do—to take those who committed those crimes to justice. Then we’ll talk about letting them come back.”

This appetite for vengeance worries Misratah’s new police chief. “We can’t put all of the people of Tawurgha on the same playing field,” Albera says. “We can’t do mass punishments the way Qaddafi did. We must act according to the law. This is what we’re trying to achieve in a new Libya.”

For now, achievements come in increments. The chief has succeeded in forming a security council of the more levelheaded militia members and persuading them to inventory their weapons. “We need to get everything back under control,” he says. Too many shootings are taking place—some by accident, like two horsemen killed by celebratory gunfire at a wedding, and some the result of macho vendettas. Too many cars on the streets lack license plates. Too many criminals freed in the chaos of the revolution remain on the streets. Then again, the chief says, they fought valiantly beside him. So what should he do with them?

And too many young people are taking drugs. This, at least, he can understand. “Keeping in mind what they’ve recently been through, many of them need psychological treatment,” the chief says. “Maybe we all do, to be honest. My 17-year-old son—he watched his older brother fall to the ground right next to him.”

But how does a nation go about cleansing its soul? Today in Misratah schoolchildren who once were made to recite The Green Book are expected to completely forget its author, the man who killed their fathers and sisters. “All of the Qaddafi period has been erased from the textbooks,” a local teacher told me. “We do not mention his name. He has been buried.”

The ghosts of Libya’s greatness past remain plainly visible by the grace of a dry climate, a paucity of urban sprawl, tribal beliefs against tampering with the ruins of the dead, and an abundance of sand as an optimal preservative. On the western coast stands Leptis Magna, among the world’s most spectacular Roman archaeological sites, its triumphal arch and sprawling forum and colonnaded streets evoking a pinnacle of urban dynamism. Its splendor becomes even more evident when imagining the marble later stripped by the French for use at Versailles and when viewing the monumental imperial sculptures—of Claudius, Germanicus, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius—that once graced the city and now reside in Tripoli’s museum.

Farther west lies the former seaside mercantile center of Sabratah, dominated by a majestic sandstone theater erected at the close of the second century A.D. Directly behind the Corinthian pillars looming over the theater’s elevated stage shimmers the curtain of the sea. Seeing Sabratah as an exquisite representation of Roman might, Mussolini ordered that the theater, which had lain in ruins since the earthquake of A.D. 365, be restored. Il Duce attended its reopening in 1937, when Oedipus Rex was performed and, it is said, the locals were ordered by Italian soldiers to applaud with such vigor that their hands bled.

To the east resides Libya’s most enduring archaeological rival to the Roman sites: the ancient Greek stronghold of Cyrene, a crucial breadbasket where the ruins of an amphitheater and a brawny 2,500-year-old Temple of Zeus suggest an era of fecundity and wealth. Following centuries of foreign rule, Bedouin tribes invaded Libya in the seventh century. With them came Islam, a spiritual culture that persisted through each and every subsequent external force: the Ottomans, the Italian occupiers, the British and American military, the foreign oil companies, and a monarchy supported by the West. After the military overthrow of King Idris in 1969, Qaddafi immediately set to work rewriting Libya’s history. He spurned North Africa’s indigenous Berber, or Amazigh, people and held up Arabs as the true Libyans. In doing so he thrust himself, the son of an Arab Bedouin nomad, into the center of Libyan identity.

The ancient Greek and Roman sites of Libya meant nothing to him. He equated the ruins with the Italian occupiers. Although the archaeology at Leptis Magna and Sabratah and Cyrene went largely untended, Tripoli’s museum featured whole exhibits devoted to the Brother Leader, including his Jeep and Volkswagen Beetle.

Famous for sleeping in a tent even on state visits to Paris and other European capitals, Qaddafi espoused an outmoded version of the Bedouin ethic, says Mohammed Jerary, the director of Libya’s national archives. “Being a Bedouin, his goal was to emphasize Bedouin values over settled values, the tent conquering the palace. He wanted us to forget about organized cities and highly sophisticated things—even culture and the economy. But the Bedouin themselves didn’t remain primitive. They learned that it wasn’t proper to invade someplace every time their camels ran out of food. They learned to believe in systems and government. Qaddafi insisted on accentuating only the bad values of Bedouin life.”

His rule was one of orchestrated chaos. “There was no routine—things could change in a minute, destabilizing everything,” Walda told me. “Suddenly you cannot own a second house. You cannot travel overseas. You cannot play for a sports team. You cannot study a foreign language.” Many of the country’s most prominent thinkers were carted off to the dreaded Abu Salim prison, where some 1,200 were massacred by their jailers in 1996. Muslim clerics found themselves imprisoned for the offense of seeming more loyal to Islam than to their leader. Qaddafi loyalists belonging to the revolutionary committees kept watch in classrooms and workplaces. Government payrolls swelled with hundreds of thousands of workers who were paid subsistence wages to do nothing. Flunkies reaped lavish lifestyles, while the regime’s mildest critics were, as some Libyans would lyrically put it, “taken behind the sun.”

Even Libya’s geography was not spared. “He pushed back the sea from Tripoli, filling the floor with sand and planting palm trees there—to show that Libya had turned her face away from the Mediterranean,” says Mustafa Turjman, an archaeological specialist at the Department of Antiquities since 1979. “He was the god of ugliness!”

In a single practical gesture to the outside world, Qaddafi in 2004 completed a new lifeline: an undersea pipeline to deliver natural gas to Sicily. All other connections the god of ugliness severed.

Shortly after the first gunshot-wound cases were carted into the emergency room of Benghazi’s Al Jala Hospital on the afternoon of February 17, 2011, the surgeon began shouting out directions. Then she stopped herself. Her ex-husband had always told her, “Maryam, the woman shouldn’t be the decision-maker. Let the man speak his opinion first.” Was he right?

But civilians were being gunned down in the streets of Benghazi by the government’s soldiers. Qaddafi’s men had ordered the hospital director not to treat the rebels. When the director defied their edict, government thugs began roaming the hospital, taking down the names of doctors who were continuing their work. But 31-year-old Maryam Eshtiwy did not take off her white coat and go home—not until the third day, and then only to breast-feed her six-month-old daughter, who was staying with her grandparents. After that the surgeon returned to the hundreds of wounded young men stretched across every available inch of the hospital.

In a single day the social order dictating that Libyan women should defer to men had undergone a jolting tectonic shift. Or had it? Libya has long been a moderate Islamic nation. Qaddafi had encouraged women’s participation in education and the workplace. It remains to be seen, however, whether a country seeking to reconnect with its European neighbors across the Mediterranean will further embrace women’s rights—or lose out on the talents of half its population.

It may well be that years of battling ingrained Arab traditions helped steel Eshtiwy for those gory first days of the Libyan revolution. “Let’s be honest. I’m working in a man’s medium,” she says. Her parents wished for her the stress-free life of a pharmacist or ophthalmologist. The head of surgery—a man, of course—was hard on her. She could not help but notice that during the rounds the males were never criticized, but whenever she presented a case to him, he argued every single point, as if pushing her to leave. Eshtiwy made it clear that she had no intention of doing so.

She had made it equally clear to her ex-husband, a chemist, before their wedding: “I’m a surgeon, and I’m working in the hospital, and I’m driving my own car.” He professed to be fine with that. Theirs was a semi-arranged marriage: an introduction by his sister, followed by two months of courtship, engagement, and then a traditional three-day wedding attended by 700, culminating in vows in front of an all-female audience while every man except the groom killed time somewhere outside the wedding hall.

Overnight his attitude toward her profession seemed to change. “Forgive me for saying this, but men don’t like their wives to be better than them,” Eshtiwy says. He telephoned her one morning to say he was divorcing her. Under Libya’s Islamic law, the woman has no recourse—not even a woman three months pregnant, as she was at the time. When war broke out nearly a year later, some of her family and friends urged her, “Go back to him—maybe he’s learned his lesson. If you are killed in the hospital, your daughter will have no mother.”

The injured rebels, for their part, did not recoil at the surgeon’s gender. Some seemed to prefer her bedside manner, her emotional accessibility. And today at Al Jala Hospital many husbands express relief that she, rather than a man, will be examining their wives. Eshtiwy feels relatively secure in her place. She points to other Benghazi women—professors, lawyers, judges, engineers, politicians—and says, “The Libyan women are very strong, very clever. We’re managing by ourselves without any external help.”

If only she could say the same about the country as a whole. “I’m worried about everything,” she confesses. She prefers to see Libya as one fully unified country, but others in her city, mindful of the east’s disproportionately minor political influence under Qaddafi despite providing most of the nation’s oil revenues, have demanded that the new Libya yield far more autonomy to the regions south and east of Tripoli. The airwaves and streets are alight with edgy rhetoric—“a war now, a war of words,” Eshtiwy says, and she does not know whom or what to believe. Her dismay over the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in her city was matched only by her outrage at accusations that the Ansar al-Sharia brigade guarding her hospital was responsible. “They are peaceful and respectful people,” she maintains. “They are just rumors from outsiders who are trying to destroy the relationship that we’ve just restored with the U.S.”

Eshtiwy remains a devout Muslim who embraces arranged marriages and who has never traveled outside Benghazi. Yet her straitjacketed but steady world has been thrown into tumult. “The picture,” she says, “is distorted to me.”

She believes there is cause for hope. The experience in the hospital during the revolution—everyone working as a team, round the clock, treating rebels and Qaddafi loyalists alike without discrimination, while fellow citizens brought the staff food and blankets—has told her something about Libyans. “During the time of Qaddafi we thought that we were bad people, that no one could love us,” she says. “We see now the beauty of our country.”

But Eshtiwy also senses a gnawing post-traumatic stress pervading the city. It grips her as well. There are videos of her hospital heroics. She cannot watch them. “No way.” She can’t even watch the news. “It’s depressing, you see,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like, why did all these people die? Did we have to be paid with their precious blood for all this chaos?”

The worst is this: There is still more blood. Too much of it. Before the revolution Al Jala Hospital saw maybe three or four gunshot-wound cases every year. With firearms widespread throughout the new Libya, she treats three or four such cases every day.

“Now we are so expert at dealing with these,” the surgeon says, sighing.

When I consider the future of Libya, a flailing man-child of a nation, my mind returns to a 61-year-old man I met in one of Benghazi’s old souks. His name was Mustafa Gargoum, and he made a small living by selling vintage photographs of the city. Since 1996 he had occupied a street corner just a few hundred yards from the Mediterranean coast, where he used to fish as a child. The photo collector’s makeshift exhibit was the first of its kind in Benghazi and possibly in all of Libya. Small crowds would gather to ponder the images from a banished yesteryear: mules clattering down alleys bearing jugs of olive oil; the luminous Ottoman-era Hadada Square, currently overtaken by jewelry vendors; the Italianate parliament building, destroyed at Qaddafi’s orders and now a parking lot. Old men crouched in front of Gargoum’s photographs and stared for a very long time. Their eyes said what their mouths could not. Some of the photos included forbidden visuals, such as the old Libyan flag, which is the new Libyan flag.

Gargoum’s streetside gallery also included posters on which he would write deliberately provocative passages such as: “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” “Free minds of America and Europe, you have always disappointed us.” “The Libyan people are more important.” Unsurprisingly, these dissident musings earned Gargoum ongoing harassment. Every September, coinciding with the anniversary of the Brother Leader’s ascension to power, Ministry of Interior officials would escort Gargoum to a police station and make him stay overnight. “We know what you’re trying to do,” they would tell him, though they always let him go. He continued to display his images and his messages. But the photographs he had collected of Qaddafi’s sworn enemies he kept hidden in his home office, where he wrote on the walls sentiments that he did not dare display on the streets of Benghazi—bitter laments like, “The ceiling of the regime is too low for me to stand!”

When the first peaceful protests began in mid-February, Gargoum closed his gallery and joined the demonstrations, but soon retreated to his house. Eight months later, on the day that Qaddafi was killed, he returned to the souk with his photographs—not just the usual images, but also those of artists and intellectuals and soldiers who had once defied the dictator and been executed as a result. Included in this more expansive exhibit was a painting he had made in 1996, the first year that he had offered up his photographs and sly slogans to the jittery public of Benghazi. The painting consisted of a single monumental figure engulfed by darkness—his back turned, his hand holding a torch aloft. Though Gargoum had intended it to be a self-portrait, he had unconsciously reproduced the exiled statue of Septimius Severus.

On this new day of freedom Gargoum placed the painting on an easel and took out his paintbrush. With careful strokes he added a crowd of wispy figures to the background. He then nodded with satisfaction at the finished product, a portrait of an unfinished nation, its people standing together the evening after the revolution—momentarily blinded by torchlight, waiting for a new vision to pierce the darkness.

Robert Draper is a contributing writer for the magazine who reports often from Africa. George Steinmetz is an expedition photographer who has documented remote corners of the world for 25 years.