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For all of his support for international terrorism, it was Libya that bore the brunt of Qaddafi’s ruthlessness. Despite boasting Africa’s largest oil reserves, Libya’s population lived in poverty, with a lower standard of living than any other major oil producer. Oil revenue instead went to prop up Qaddafi’s massive police state and to finance a personal militia to enforce his power. With any and all opposition suppressed, prisons teemed with the ever-expanding ranks of Qaddafi’s enemies.
In one such prison were sown the seeds of Qaddafi’s downfall. In 1996, Qaddafi ordered the massacre of 1,200 inmates held in Tripoli’s Abu Salem prison. Like many of his other injustices, it was never forgotten. Last spring, the relatives of those killed in the 1996 massacre led some of the initial protests in the rebel city of Benghazi. As the anti-Qaddafi insurgency gained force, Benghazi became ground zero for the rebel resistance.
With Qaddafi now dead, the rebels have finally achieved their main objective. But while there is little to regret in the death of a coldblooded tyrant, it is not clear that Libya’s worst days are behind it. The power vacuum left by Qaddafi has been filled with ancient hatreds. Numerous reports have chronicled attacks by rebel fighters on Libya’s black African minority, including summary arrests and mass executions of black men. Although at least some of the attacks were driven by false rumors that black men were mercenaries for Qaddafi, racism appears to be the real motivation. One rebel militiaman quoted amidst the fighting put it bluntly: “Libyan people don’t like people with dark skins.” Racism existed during Qaddafi’s reign, of course, but with the collapse his police state what little protection black Africans may have enjoyed is now gone.
Anti-Semitism has also been prevalent among the rebels. Graffiti that has appeared in Libya in recent months has caricatured Qaddafi as a Jew, and anti-Jewish and anti-Israel motifs have been a staple of rebel propaganda. Those few Jewish exiles who have returned to Libya following Qaddafi’s ouster have found the country no more hospitable to their presence than when he still ruled.
The manifestation of these prejudices is all the more troubling because it has been accompanied by the rise of militant and extremist Islam that risks jeopardizing hard-won liberation. It is no longer news that many of the commanders who led the rebels had ties to Islamic terrorists, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a jihadist affiliate of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But with Qaddafi out of the way the Islamists have a real chance to assert their political power. Already Islamist clerics have branded the transitional government as “worse than Qaddafi” because they deem it insufficiently Islamic. Those are ominous signs. As the new political factions sort themselves out, the nightmare scenario for post-Qaddafi Libya is that the monstrous regime of the deceased dictator may still be replaced by something even worse.
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