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Gunfire Blends With Coffee as Libya Seeks Tripoli Control

Gunfire Blends With Coffee as Libya Seeks Control of Tripoli
More than a year after the downfall and death of dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Tripoli is as divided and fractured as the country itself. Photographer: Mahmud Turkia/AFP via Getty Images

The crackle of gunfire mixes with the burble of conversation in Cinnabon, Tripoli’s most popular cafe, where customers enjoy cappuccino and chocolate cakes even as Libyan militias battle for control of nearby streets.

“There’s gangster trouble over there, you get used to it,” says Majdi Nakua, a photographer, former rebel fighter and patron of the closely held Atlanta-based bakery chain. “But if it goes on for long, that’s not good. That’s not why we fought a revolution.”

More than a year after the downfall and death of dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Tripoli is as divided and fractured as the country itself. The central government has yet to establish order on a city that lacks an elected council and where militias, some loyal to the former regime, vie for control with police, the national army and the gendarmerie.

“It’s the capital of the country and if you can’t get Tripoli organized and functioning more smoothly, then it’s going to be harder to do outside of the capital,” Ronald Bruce St John, author of 14 books on Libya, said by telephone from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Parties and militias have cut “the country and the major cities into little spheres of interest.”

While Libya, home to Africa’s largest oil reserves, has seen crude production return to pre-war levels of 1.54 million barrels a day, roads in Tripoli are potholed, building projects dormant and laws to create a city council stalled.

Militia Patchwork

Libya has a prime minister, Ali Zaidan, and a Cabinet but there’s no government control because militias won’t accept orders and won’t disband 15 months after Qaddafi’s downfall. The former dictator’s reluctance to create institutions that could challenge central authority during his 40-year rule means there was “very little for the government to fall back on,” St John said.

In Tripoli late yesterday, British embassy officials said they were aware of a “potential threat” against the embassy and were liaising with the Libyan government, without providing details. There was no change in the U.K.’s travel advice, which recommends all but essential travel to the Libyan capital.

The power vacuum has left Tripoli a patchwork of militia fiefdoms.

The city’s east is largely controlled by former rebels with links to Misrata, a coastal city besieged by Qaddafi forces during most of the uprising. They fly the national tricolor, which has replaced the green flag of the previous regime, and cartoons showing the late ruler being crushed cover the walls of the Suq al Jumaa, Fashloum and Tajoura districts.

Abandoned Bunker

The sprawling southern district of Abu Salem, formerly home to Qaddafi’s most loyal supporters, was the last to fall to rebels in August 2011. National flags are rarer here, and trucks tip waste amid weeds and shattered concrete.

Living in an abandoned bunker that he turned into a home for his family, Al Hadi Shamrush, 53, a school janitor, said mounds of garbage in his neighborhood are a symptom of the malaise affecting his city.

“The authorities do nothing for Tripoli, nothing gets sorted out,” he said. “It is bad for the spirit to see all this.”

Cinnabon is in the western coastal Gargaresh district, a neutral area that attracted families who prospered under the old regime, and seek to profit from the new one. Next door is Palm City, a fortified oasis of villas on pristine Mediterranean beaches protected by armed British and European security guards. It’s home to the United Nations, diplomats and oil executives.

Salafist Protests

Salafists, ultraconservatives who adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam, are not bound to any neighborhood. While less visible than in the second-largest city of Benghazi, some attacked the mosques of the minority Sufi sect in the capital in August. Salafists have also protested against fashion shows and women wearing Western dress.

The center of Tripoli, the only zone that belongs to everyone, is an untidy mixture of government offices, hotels, shops and apartments in elegant buildings from the Italian colonial era of 1911-1942 gathered around the old walled city.

Crossing from one zone to another can be perilous.

“Moving around in the morning is OK, in the afternoon it’s OK, but at night it can be unsafe,” said Abu Baker Benaji, an unemployed chemical engineer, in an interview. “The problem in Tripoli is the same as in Libya -- there is no security” and little work because foreign companies have been scared off, he said.

Electoral Unity

Tripoli enjoyed a burst of unity during national elections in July, the first fully democratic vote in more than 50 years.

Both eastern and western Tripoli united to support the National Forces Alliance, led by University of Pittsburgh-educated Mahmoud Jibril, to defeat the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Freedom party.

With parliament yet to agree on the formation of a commission to write a constitution, the promised raft of administrative, regulatory and legal changes have not yet been approved. Tripoli’s future, like that of Libya, may depend on Zaidan’s success in giving the legislative process fresh impetus.

“I kind of like Zaidan, he seems to be serious,” said medical student Baha Naser, eating a chocolate bun in Cinnabon. “But there is so much to do to fix this city.”

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