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In Libya, euphoria mixes with uncertainty

Trash piles up on the streets, grocery shelves are nearly bare, water is in short supply and major battles loom before the war is won.

But a prevalent mood of optimism and a sense of new possibilities seem to prevail in Libya’s battered capital almost two weeks after its liberation from Moammar Kadafi’s longtime rule.

“Now we have a chance to do something right,” said Shaban Fituri, 54, an engineer who was buying fresh fish near the port on Monday. “For too long, we were all slaves on Kadafi’s farm.”

Despite the ongoing hardships, there remains a kind of euphoria in the air, a feeling that it can’t be true. The liberation of Tripoli removed a weight that was both physical and psychological.

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People seem improbably confident that the long gas lines will go away, the running water will come back, the trash will get picked up — and the war will end. Life is very far from normal here, but the expectation of a brighter future is infectious, especially as security has increased in the capital.

“This is the best feeling for me,” said Ahmed Amri, 21, a West London native born of Libyan parents who came to fight and was standing in awe in Green Square, now renamed Martyrs’ Square, as volley after volley of celebratory gunfire streaked across the evening skies. “I don’t know what’s happening back home in football [soccer]. I haven’t seen Facebook in months. I don’t know how my friends are back in London. But I don’t care.”

Asked in recent days what kind of nation they want, Libyans seem to answer in terms of the mercurial vision that shaped Kadafi’s governance. Many definitely want no more of it: The lack of free speech, the ubiquitous secret police, the “revolutionary” foreign policy and the politicized education that was heavy on Kadafi’s Green Book nostrums, light on English-language and other useful skills. An atmosphere of enforced thinking sent many intellectuals into exile.

“Our educational system was destroyed,” said Fituri, the engineer buying fish, who studied at Oregon State University. “Look at Tripoli: Everything became second rate,” he added, citing the shabby state of the capital of this oil-rich nation. “Even the best beaches were reserved for people from the regime.”

Indeed, the unmasking of the lavish villas and privileges of Kadafi, his family and high officials has been quite a revelation here. Kadafi liked to portray his life as that of a simple Bedouin, living humbly in a tent, a man of the people who overthrew the king in the name of all Libyans. Many now laugh at the fiction they were force-fed for decades.

“Kadafi used to say we [rebels] were American agents because we wanted freedom, we wanted elections,” said Emhammed Sherwi , a former army officer turned colonel in the rebel forces that swept down from the Nafusa Mountains and helped take the capital. “Yes, we want liberty. All Libyans do.”

As he spoke Monday at a neighborhood base here, other commanders — all Berbers from the highlands — nodded in agreement. They spoke of bright futures for the mountains, long an impoverished region where their native culture and language were repressed.

For many there is a rush to embrace the opposite of the peculiar philosophy that Kadafi espoused during his more than four decades in power. While Kadafi looked to Africa, many Libyans now seem openly eager for better relations with the West — and thankful for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombings that were decisive in ousting the longtime leader, despite the damage and civilian casualties. But it will take a while, everyone acknowledges, to reach Western levels of well-being and liberty.

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“This country has no institutions,” lamented Yusuf Mrayed, a 65-year-old office manager. “But I am sure Libya will be the first democratic country in the Arab world.”

Merchants spoke of the regime’s seeming distrust of business — except when in the hands of Kadafi’s sons or cronies, who controlled much of the nation’s wealth. Many stores here remain shuttered, but shop owners expressed confidence that a new, pro-entrepreneur era is on the horizon. Kadafi, many believe, preferred a kind of welfare state where most everyone depended on his largesse.

“Just to sell my product was always a problem,” said Ahmed Halabiya, a fishmonger near the port, who recounted harassment from minor officials, some of whom demanded payoffs in fresh fish to allow him to do business in a nation where private trade was suspect. “I hope I can do my work in peace now.”

Amid the euphoria there is also a feeling of uncertainty. Libya has no functioning government. Rumors abound of divisions among its interim rulers and the various rebel factions. Kadafi is still out there, and several of his strongholds — including his birthplace, Surt — remain loyal to him. Some worry about Islamist tendencies in the new Libya. But, for now, such concerns still remain the minor chord.

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“It’s late for us, but our children can enjoy freedom,” said Leila Omar, a teacher and mother of three who was among those celebrating Monday in Martyrs’ Square.

The high spirits are especially evident in returning exiles, some of whom left as young people and have come back as graybeards, albeit joyful ones.

“The sense of exhilaration: It is something hard to describe,” said Ashur Shamis, 63, a well-known opposition activist and journalist who returned this week after more than 40 years in exile.

At one point, Shamis said, he was targeted by Kadafi assassination squads who were under orders to kill dissidents abroad. British police advised him to lie low, he said.

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On Monday, Shamis embraced old friends, many of them former exiles themselves, in a Tripoli hotel where opposition leaders are gathered. The mood was akin to a family reunion. They spoke of possibilities, and of the responsibility to do it right.

“We have this chance now to do something good for our country, a chance we have dreamed of for so long,” said Shamis, who has plans to set up a website and possibly even a newspaper in his native land. “It’s a very special moment.”

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com


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