Surprising civility among the victors in Libya

The situation in Libya seems to be taking on qualities most of us didn’t expect. I have supposed that the opposition that came together to fight Ghaddafi’s loyalist forces was a rag-tag collection of volunteers whose only commonality was a hatred of the Colonel. That they, or at least a number of them, had a fair sense of what they wanted the next society to look like was beyond our expectations. We didn’t expect that the opposition fighters would have much of a sense of what to do next – that is, how to establish and observe an organized social order. To the contrary, Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed today [NYTimes 9/8/11] suggests that at least some of the fighters have a reasonable sense of how a society should be operating in the absence of hostilities. He indicates that the people he encountered were already acting as if they were part of an ordered society. No looting – well, limited looting. That’s a surprise. Reasonable treatment of civilians connected with the losing side – this also is surprising. Compared to the way folks behaved in Iraq after Saddam was deposed these Libyan rebels have displayed exemplary courtesy to the losers in this war. Note especially the following statements:

• What’s particularly impressive is the paucity of revenge killings and looting in Tripoli, the capital. There have been a few incidents in which rebel soldiers apparently executed prisoners, and black Africans have been treated abysmally (they are accused of being mercenaries for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi). But the Libyans who served in that hated regime mostly have not been molested.

• I saw many Libyans fleeing for Tunisia, and, presumably, many of them were Qaddafi loyalists. But rebels did not hinder them at checkpoints or pilfer their belongings. And, as far as I could tell, the homes and luxury vehicles the loyalists left behind have been mostly untouched by neighbors and rebels alike.

• I went through dozens of armed rebel checkpoints and was never once asked for a “baksheesh,” meaning bribe or gift.

• Very few of the rebel leaders have been associated with Islamic fundamentalism. One exception is Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a military commander in Tripoli, who says he was tortured by the C.I.A. in 2004. Yet he told my Times colleague Rod Nordland that all is forgiven and that he appreciates the American role in the Libyan revolution.

• The mood in Tripoli seems largely tolerant and forgiving, and exuberant about the prospect of democracy. “We are free now,” an engineer named Belgassim Ali told me. “Make a newspaper to support Qaddafi; I don’t mind. But no dictatorship!”

• The rebels have coordinated disparate fighting units and have tried to arrange the surrender of holdout towns like Surt, Colonel Qaddafi’s hometown, rather than just marching in with guns blazing.

Of course the observations of one person are insufficient to draw generalizations from, but Kristof’s report suggests that these “rebels” are much more prepared to put together a working society than most of us had imagined.