Saturday 10 December 2016

Olé, olé as fear and gunfire give way to joy of football chants

Richard Spencer in Tripoli

Published 27/08/2011 | 05:00

Six months ago, the shouts of devotion on Algeria Square turned into political chants, then shooting, then death. Yesterday, they turned into a football song.

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Inside the mosque, the lines of men raised their hands in a dutiful and heartfelt "Allahu akbar" as Sheikh Ahmed Qadour, their 76-year-old imam, told them they had a new chance to build a just Libya, now that the dictator who had told him what to say every week for 40 years had gone.

Outside, they remembered those who had died, some right in front of where they stood. "Martyrs of Libya, for you we give everything," they sang.

But then their excitement got the better of them. Many slogans have been invented for the Arab Spring, but this one was universal. "Olé, olé, olé, olé," they repeated, until they could hold back their mirth no longer and returned to their homes laughing.

The Libyan revolution is not over, and Gaddafi still has the power to cause immense harm. No one underestimates the task ahead for ordinary Libyans and their rebel government, and the danger posed by a newly militarised, factionalised youth.

But it is hard to begrudge them their optimism. They had freedom, they said, a future, and above all a hope that the best years of their children's lives would not be wasted as theirs had been. "That night, people were marching down September Street over there," said Mohammed Ramadan, a 59-year-old civil engineer, of February 20, the day the revolution hit Tripoli. "Then the gangs came, shooting with anti-aircraft guns."

Algeria Square sits behind the open seafront expanse known until Sunday as Green Square, and now as Square of the Martyrs. It is an atmospheric place, redolent of an earlier dictatorship -- its grandiose marble columns date from its time as an Italian colony, under Benito Mussolini.

On that first day, protesters ran freely for several hours before the regime caught up with them. Over the coming weeks, order was forcefully restored, and by the time I first visited, on March 4, the mosque was the only safe gathering spot. If they lingered after prayers, the Gaddafi youths loitering outside would fire.

The relief yesterday could not have been further from the tension then, when a local teenager approached to tell me of the bloodstain on the pavement outside the square's cafe. A man had just been shot dead, his body quickly taken away.

The teenager was memorable, speaking strongly accented English, the accent being that of north London where he had spent four years at school. "It's just f***ing disgusting," he said. "I was shocked coming back here. There ain't no f***ing human rights, I tell you."

Our conversation ended when the secret policeman on the street corner clocked us, and the Libyan from Tottenham ran off.

Yesterday, despite the sound of gunfire in the distance, the mood could not have been more relaxed. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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