After 42 years of repressive rule, Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi was removed from power in 2011 and Libyans were finally free of his oppressive regime. Although two years have already passed, remnants of Qaddafi’s reign will live on for many more. The city of Tripoli is in the process of taking a big step towards removing his presence from the city by converting his former military compound into a public park. This change is symbolic of the country’s struggle for rebirth as a democratic nation, and while problems with militias continue to bring this North African nation turmoil, Libya has made steps forward in the way of a successful General National Congress election in 2012.
There will be a number of difficulties in converting Bab al-Azizya, or “Sacred Gate”, into a large public park. The complex was originally built by King Idris, but was heavily fortified by Qaddafi and expanded to include tunnels under much of central Tripoli. Firstly, as it was used as the main base for Muammar Qaddafi’s military campaigns, the Splendid Gate compound was also a weapons cache. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan has said that in the area military specialists had “found some buried rockets and found some radioactive material that needed treatment“. Therefore the government has to first remove all potentially radioactive materials and stored weapons before even attempting to build a park.
In addition to radioactive material problems, the government also has to deal with the issue of local residents whose homes had been destroyed during the civil war and are currently squatting in the buildings of Bab al-Azizya. These residents claim they have rights that need to be recognized by the government – including cleaning up the compound. The government has taken measures to help their situation, allocating part of the budget to housing allowances or construction for these citizens.
As a symbol of Qaddafi’s power stretching throughout central Tripoli, the Splendid Gate’s takeover by rebels on August 23rd, 2011 was a pivotal moment in the Libyan civil war. It showed the world that this popular rebellion was driving the estranged dictator out of power and out of their country, as images of rebels kicking around a statue of Qaddafi’s head and posing atop the infamous fist clutching the US fighter jet flooded the press. The takeover of the compound was reported as the end of “the idea of Qaddafi as the Libyan ruler” and the beginning of the National Transition Council being recognized as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people.
Libya’s tourism minister Ikram Bash Imam has said that most of the area around the complex in the capital’s southern suburbs was parkland before Qaddafi expanded his fortress. Thus the current government seeks to return the area to its previous state by removing the rest of the compound – which was partially destroyed by NATO airstrikes – and converting the area into a wooded park to be enjoyed by “the people of Tripoli and guests”.
While the struggle towards stability has been and will continue to be a slow and difficult path, there is no denying the strides Libya has made with the removal of Qaddafi from power and begins of democracy. Bab al-Azizya’s turning into a park is an example of Tripoli’s gradual transformation in the post-Qaddafi era, and a nice metaphor of trading the arrow for the olive branch.