By Nick Meo, Tripoli
1:44PM GMT 05 Nov 2011
Abdul Mojan’s moment of realisation came when the good guys threw him into the boot of their car, slammed it shut and drove off with him a prisoner inside.
When they finally stopped and hauled him out, he asked them: “What are you doing? I’m a revolutionary just like you! I’ve never supported Gaddafi.’”
But the former rebels didn’t care. They had taken a liking to the new office block in western Tripoli that Mr Mojan managed and they wanted the keys and ownership documents. He tried to reason with them, pointing out that there were plenty of government buildings standing empty.
To no avail, however. “We have sacrificed for this revolution and you haven’t, and now we will take what we want,” he was told by a cocky 18-year-old. “You can have the building back when the revolution is over.”
A week later Mr Mojan was still incredulous as he recounted his tale to The Sunday Telegraph, admitting that he felt lucky to escape without a beating although there was nothing he could do about the 5,000 dinar (£2,550) they stole from his car.
Many of Tripoli’s residents have had a similar moment of grim awakening in recent weeks. Their liberators, still swaggering around the city in Che Guevara-style berets and armed to the teeth, have not gone back to their home towns as they promised. Nor have they started handing in the guns they used to fight against Gaddafi, as they said they would.
“When they said Libya Free, they meant the cars, the refrigerators and the flat-screen television sets,” runs one joke doing the rounds in Tripoli’s cafes. Stories of gunmen taking expensive cars at checkpoints, giving receipts saying they will be returned after the revolution, are nervously swapped over cups of tea.
More alarming than the looting have been the armed clashes between militias. There have been three big fights in the capital alone in the past week; shoot-outs at a hospital, Martyr’s Square, and the military airport, which have left several dead and dozens wounded.
Then there are the detentions. With the fighting over, the revolutionaries have not been idle. They have kept busy rounding up hundreds of suspected Gaddafi supporters in a wide-scale witch-hunt, often on the basis of little more than rumour and accusation.
One man, a supporter of the revolution who was full of hope a month ago, described how his brother-in-law, Omar, had been grabbed by gunmen from Misurata. They were acting for a wealthy businessman from the city, with whom Omar had a dispute several years ago.
“They came to his house and Omar went with them because he believed in the revolution and thought it was a misunderstanding that would soon be sorted out,” the man said.
“But when they arrived in Misurata they threw him in their private prison and said they would beat the soles of his feet until he confessed. It is an old Turkish torture called the falakha. He was really scared, and he managed to escape by persuading one of them who felt uneasy about this to let him go.
“Next day they turned up at his house, and threatened his wife and children. Can you believe this? We have hundreds of little Gaddafis now.
“There is no one to stop them, and they are convinced that because they suffered in the war, they should be able to do what they like now. If it carries on like this I really fear for our revolution.”
Libya’s problems would not look so dangerous if there was a proper government in place to deal with them. Instead, more than two months since Gaddafi was driven from his capital, there is still a power vacuum. No government has been formed because former rebels cannot agree on how to share out power. The new prime minister, appointed last week, is a professor of electrical engineering originally from Tripoli who spent most of the last three decades at universities in Alabama and North Carolina – and was chosen because he offends nobody.
Abdul-Raheem al-Keeb has yet to prove that he isn’t more suited to running a university department than a former dictatorship awash with guns and riven with tribal and regional rivalries.
With expectations sky-high, his inbox is daunting: he has to get the economy going, head off separatists in the east who are talking about setting up their own oil rich mini-state, disarm the increasingly arrogant militias, and organise Libya’s first real elections.
He has been promised help from the West in building a democracy, yet so far there is little evidence of any. The United Nations presence has been kept deliberately small, at the request of the National Transitional Council. Only a trickle of aid workers have turned up, and experts in nation building with experience of Afghanistan and Iraq are notable by their absence.
“There is a deliberate effort to avoid the mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraq and not try to get foreigners in to micromanage everything,” said one European Union diplomat last week. “And the Libyans are proud people, they don’t want to look like a Third World nation needing a big foreign presence in here.”
A handful of enterprising foreign businessmen have arrived looking for opportunities, drawn by the prospect of lucrative reconstruction contracts. “We’ve come way too early, there is no one to talk to yet,” said a frustrated American who spent last week trying to set up meetings with representatives of a Libyan government which does not yet exist. “I will come back in the spring.”
Many Libyans remain hopeful about the future of their revolution. Omar Khalifa, of the charity Libya Hurra, was arranging the distribution of sheep and money to 2,500 needy families for the festival of Eid this weekend.
“Of course people have suffered a lot in the past year,” he said. “But the Libyans know they have to be patient, and that it will take a while to get back to normal.”
Getting the militias out of the capital would help, but the leader of one notorious brigade told The Sunday Telegraph his men will stay for the time being.
“We are here to help build democracy and protect the revolution”, said Mohammed al-Madhni, a commander in his fifties with a roguish grin.
His men, from the impoverished town of Zintan in the mountains south of Tripoli, were some of the most ferocious anti-Gaddafi fighters, but since the end of the war they have acquired a less savoury reputation for looting and starting fights.
The most colourful story told about them, not denied by Commander Madhni, is that Zintanis stole an elephant from Tripoli zoo as a trophy of war, taking the unfortunate beast back to their town in a truck.
They have taken up residence in the suburb of Regatta, a delightful district of palm trees and neat bungalows facing on to the blue Mediterranean. It was home to British and American oil workers and their families until they fled in February, as the revolution broke out.
Now the suburb has an eerie, deserted feeling. Doors and windows have been smashed so looters can get in, and the militias have spray-painted graffiti over walls. Only a few luxury cars are left, the ones with complicated security codes that make them difficult to steal and drive away. Several of those have had their wheels stolen.
“You could see them driving round in their pick-up trucks with big machine-guns going round the bungalows, picking up freezers and flat-screen televisions,” said one of the witnesses to the Zintan fighters’ looting spree.
People in Tripoli try to laugh about the mountain men – they are particularly amused that the Zintanis took jet-skis and fast boats back to their homes deep in the desert.
But there is also a fear that now the gunmen have a taste for power, and nobody to stop them, the post-Gaddafi future may be much more difficult than Libyans had hoped.
One formerly enthusiastic revolutionary, watching a group of young gunmen at a checkpoint, couldn’t help being gloomy.
“You have to wonder, is this how failed states start out?” he said.