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As first election looms, Libyans count blessings

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2012-07-04

As the country heads for its first free elections after the rise and fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is once more in the news - and it’s not good news. Yet behind the scenes, countless lives have changed - mostly for the better.

Before the uprising against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi broke out in eastern Libya and engulfed the country, Wafa al-Maki al-Mushri was, as she put it, “just sitting at home.”

The vivacious 28-year-old Tripoli native had finished her studies and earned a bachelor’s degree. But when she couldn’t find a job, al-Mushri joined the ranks of Libya’s unemployed, who constitute a whopping 30 percent of the oil-rich country’s 6 million-strong population.

It has been a momentous 15 months since an uprising erupted against the former dictator, Gaddafi. And not just for the country and the region, but also for millions of ordinary Libyans like al-Mushri, many of whom have spent the better part of their lives under international isolation and UN sanctions brought on by one man’s disastrous machinations on the world stage.

Today, al-Mushri is a government employee -- an extraordinary feat, as she is at pains to note.

“Can you imagine I work for the government?” she asks incredulously, tucking an errant fold of her veil. “Before the revolution, you could only work for the government if you knew the chairman, or your uncle or relative knew an important person. You couldn’t just get a job by giving your CV, even if you were qualified.”

Wafa al-Maki al-Mushri (right) works in the public relations department of the Libyan High National Election Commission (HNEC).

These days al-Mushri works in the public relations department of the Libyan High National Election Commission (HNEC), the body charged with conducting the July 7 constituent assembly elections.

Her job involves, among other things, explaining the baffling business of democracy to a population that has not experienced an election -- not even a sham one -- in almost half a century.

‘I smell the freedom’

Before the revolution, al-Mushri notes, she would never, not in her wildest dreams, have imagined she would be interacting with foreign journalists, who troop in by the dozens at the HNEC public relations office these days. “I would have run away. I would have run far away,” she laughs.

Yet, here she is, smiling behind her bright red laptop, expounding on her views on democracy, the security situation in Libya and her hopes for her country’s future.

“You know what, when I wake up in the morning and I go to work, I smell the freedom,” she says earnestly.

Nine months after Gaddafi was captured and killed, the headlines from Libya have been alarming: militias refusing to lay down their arms, fighting in some parts -- where longstanding regional, ethnic and economic disputes have erupted -- as well as attacks on polling stations.

But largely unseen and unheard of in the international press are the accounts of ordinary lives -- thousands, perhaps millions of them -- that have unimaginably, irreversibly improved.

Respect for a once-reviled police force

Osama al-Hadi exchanged his police uniform for civilian clothes during the 2011 uprising.

Osama al-Hadi is just one of them. A garrulous 24-year-old native of the mountainous western Jabal al-Gharbi district, al-Hadi joined the police force in 2009.

Under Gaddafi, al-Hadi served in the Libyan-Chadian border zone, a dangerous hotspot for smugglers and traffickers.

Today, he’s part of the newly-minted police force under the interim Interior Ministry -- and nothing seems the same.

“I’m more happy, much more happy now,” says al-Hadi. “We’re better paid, we get allowances, like a hardship allowance for dangerous postings, and, above all, we get more respect,” he says. “Before, the people hated us. They were afraid of us and we knew it. They wouldn’t talk to us. Now people stop and talk to us.”

Switching uniform for civvies

Under Gaddafi, al-Hadi may have been just another policeman, tackling crime and not the nasty business of dealing with political dissidents, as Gaddafi’s controversial Internal Security Agency did.

But in a police state, his comrades had a horrendous track record, with
Amnesty International implicating the service in a range of human rights violations, including a 2006 incident when officers opened fire on demonstrators in Benghazi, killing 12.

Not that the ever-suspicious Gaddafi cared much for his police force, according to al-Hadi.

“When the revolution happened, Gaddafi took all our weapons -- we were unarmed because he didn’t trust us,” he explains.

In late February 2011, shortly after the uprising broke out in the eastern city of Benghazi, al-Hadi says his unit, armed with just riot helmets and batons, was dispatched to the western city of Zawiya to tackle an anti-Gaddafi demonstration.

“When we arrived in Zawiya, we found the revolutionaries armed with weapons, and we fled,” explains al-Hadi. “I took off my uniform, wore civilian clothes and returned to my village in Jabal al-Gharbi.”

Al-Hadi waited out the uprising in his remote mountain village until Tripoli fell from Gaddafi’s control in August 2011. He then made his way to the Libyan capital and offered his services.

Today, he’s posted at a Tripoli police station -- a very different job from the one he had near the Chadian border.

But he insists that it’s not the geography that has improved his life. “Right now, I’m in Tripoli,” he says. “If they ask me to go back to the border, I will go. It’s not a problem. I am in the police and I will serve my country, wherever they want me to. I want to serve my people.”


Date created : 2012-07-04


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