Feeling liberated, Libyans keen to build free society

TRIPOLI Thu Oct 20, 2011 1:39pm EDT

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - For Al-Jilani Shiha, the death of Muammar Gaddafi marks an end to dictatorship and the start of democracy and freedom that many Libyans dreamed of for four decades.

"We are free, that is what matters," 55-year-old Shiha said.

"We are not thinking about what or who comes next. The important thing is that the cruel inhuman leader called Gaddafi is gone," he said, raising his hands up toward the sky and shouting "Thank God."

After months of an armed rebellion backed by NATO, Gaddafi was shot while trying to flee his hometown of Sirte. He was the third Arab head of state to be forced out of office in what is known as the Arab Spring following revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

But, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, both of which had enjoyed some measure of freedom under their former rulers, there was no place for any opposition in Libya under Gaddafi.

"We would have never been able to have a chat like this in an open area if Gaddafi was still in power," Shiha said.

"I spent seven years in jail, from 1982 to 1988, just for being near the airport while Gaddafi's forces were detaining some young Libyans who had removed banners carrying pro-Gaddafi slogans."

Mohamed, a Libyan taxi driver, said Libyans were ready to listen to any political group, but would never tolerate another dictatorship.

"Libyans are like a white page, any political group or leader has an equal chance of introducing itself to the people and at the end the people will choose what they see suit them best," Mohamed said.

"But one thing I can tell you for sure, we will never accept that one person or group rule us for an indefinite number of years even if they did amazing things and turned our lives into a paradise. We want democracy and a president who stays in power for a certain number of years and only runs for two terms."

Libya's new interim leaders include many members who had previously served with Gaddafi but abandoned him shortly after the start of the revolt on February 17.

The council has repeatedly said that it would hold elections and build a democratic society, which, though based on Islamic law, or sharia, will respect the religious beliefs of others.

"The lack of experience in democracy is never a problem. Democracy is always learnt as people make their systems democratic. It is one of those things that the more you try to become democratic the more you actually make democracy," said Laleh Khalili, senior lecturer in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

"That said, I am very cautious about Libya. While NATO support has been crucial for toppling Gaddafi, the fact that NATO wants stability rather than a revolutionary regime means that they will support the men in the grey suits who are the old technocrats of the old regime," she added.

Islamists are expected to play a role in the future of the Arab states following their revolts but face different social and cultural challenges in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

In Egypt, a relatively conservative society, Islamists may be able to muster enough support if they, for instance, wanted to pass stricter laws on women -- an issue less likely to arise in Tunisia which has more liberal views and laws.

Tunisia votes on October 23 in its first election since the revolution. The vote is watched closely and will have an impact on further events on in Libya and elsewhere in the region.

In Tripoli, Libyans appeared keen to seize the opportunity to build a new society. "Islamists or no Islamists, I don't care," Shiha said. "The important thing is that Gaddafi is gone."

(Reporting and Writing by Yasmine Saleh)

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