As news of Gaddafi’s death spreads around the world via the mainstream media, twitter, facebook, word of mouth, by photo and by text, jubilation extends into the streets in Tunis.
On the Highway out to Les Berges du Lac II to attend the New Arab Debates organized by the British Counsel, my cab was swarmed by passing cars blinking their head and taillights in unison. The cab driver confirmed the cause of the pulsating beats of headlights and high beams. They were celebrating the confirmation of Gaddafi’s death and the hopeful denouement of the Libyan conflict.
Since arriving in Tunisia, on the streets of the Medina, along rue Habib Bourguiba, on T-shirts, car stickers, and pasted to walls, the NTC, The Libyan Interim National Council, flag has been a ubiquitous site. In fact this symbolic gesture and show of solidarity for Tunisia’s neighbor to the East has far outnumbered visual depictions of Tunisia’s own recent revolution. While “Degage” graffiti, French for “get out” and the chant of Tunisian protesters that echoed like an exorcism toward Ben Ali, can still be seen and elaborate street art is still being put up, the omnipresence of the red, black and green flag of the NTC government throughout the physical space of Tunis has been fascinating. But I don’t want to discount the images of the upcoming election; the political posters and campaign flags have captured the majority of visual space. But second to them has been the red, black, and green.
Furthermore, Gaddafi’s wild threat to hunt the rebels down like rats, alley by alley, or Zenga by Zenga, has been particularly memetic. Throughout souks DVDs and CDs, on T-shirts, and scrawled in cheap graffiti on the walls ‘Zenga Zenga’ has taken on a powerful signification. It has become a metaphor for tyrannical lunacy, a trope for re-articulating power through humor, that is, what Gaddafi had intended as a threat has been transformed by the targets of that threat, and spread through the channels of resistance, into a liberating symbol.
The overwhelming show of support for the NTC, for the people of Libya, makes sense in light of Tunisia and Libya’s history of emotional, political, economic, and social exchange. Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba and Muammar Gaddafi had even gone so far as to sign an agreement to merge the nations in 1974 but the plan stagnated when Bourguiba postponed the referendum over uncertainty of Gaddafi’s competency as a leader. Had the plan gone through Bourguiba would have served as president of the new country with Gaddafi as the Minister of Defense. After 1974 diplomatic relations between the two countries faced a number of erratic turns. After fighting broke out in Libya tens of thousands of Libyans fled across the border into Tunisia.
Despite the high presence of international humanitarian organizations in Libya, many relocated to Tunisia during the height of the conflict only to return to Libya a few weeks ago, and those already based in Tunisia, including many refugee camps set up by the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, most Libyans seemed to find safety and support simply among their Tunisian neighbors. A Libyan, former oil worker, who fled the fighting, moved into the floor above me just one month before I arrived in Tunis. It has been a commen sentiment among the Tunisians with whom I have spoken, that the revolution that ousted Ben Ali and spread throughout the region has been just that, a regional call for democracy. Many Tunisians have expressed sincere hope that the people of Libya will know the elation of liberation from dictatorship. The ubiquity of the NTC flag has therefore foreshadowed today’s elation at the news of Gaddafi’s death and the likely conclusion of months of violence and years of repression.
On my way back from the debate, mentioned above, my bus passed the Libyan Embassy. It was around nine pm and a chunk of the crowd had already gone home but the street in front of the embassy was still a mass of flag waving, chanting celebrators. As I approached from down the street, the bus had let me out at the British Council, I could already hear the chant of ‘Allah hu Akbar’ or God is Great, and Gaddafi is dead.
I arrived in the mass of people. The chanting of Allah’s name in praise for Gaddafi’s end would be punctuated by cacophonous cheering and imperceptible shouts. The crowds were diverse: men and women, old and young, women in hijab, niqab, and unveiled, old men with beards and taqiyah, the skull cap worn by observant Muslim men, boys in shiny fashionable jackets, some covered their faces with black bandanas and some older men were finely dressed in suits. A number of younger men stood on top of a car, the driver sitting and grinning behind the wheel as his small automobile was rocked back and forth by the undulations of the revelers above. The NTC flag was waved alongside the Tunisian flag, a few excited flag bearers also gripped Al Nadha‘s flag. The revelry overflowed into the smiles and handshakes that greeted us.
“Today is a great day for Libya,” said Alaeddin. The relative of a former opposition parliamentarian, Alaeddin explained that during the days of violence he had fled Tripoli to help protect his family in their hometown in the mountains. His speech was punctuated with exuberant laughter. He was excited when we explained that we were American. He told us that he had celebrated the Forth of July last year at the American Embassy in Tripoli, and that he was fond of Thanksgiving. “Today is a great day for Libya,” he repeated. “You know, Libya has oil but the people are poor. Libya is not a developed country. I came to Tunisia to get a change of perspective. I see this [gesturing at the broad, palm lined streets] and am ashamed. Have you seen Sidi Bou Said [The iconic blue and white coastal city a few miles outside of Tunis]? It is beautiful. We don’t have this kind of place in Libya. But now we can begin to build our country.” He explained that Americans are well liked in Libya but that Gaddafi made it all but impossible for Libyans to interact, or get scholarships abroad. He mentioned several cases of Gaddafi barring Libyan students from accepting the Fulbright scholarship after it had already been awarded by the US. Alaeddin said he will return to Libya in a few days and welcomed us to visit him. He faded back to observe the chanting crowd.
It was a powerful scene and eruption of relief. Here are a few images.