Published September 22, 2011
The men who lined the potholed road were so overjoyed that they cheered, sang, danced and wept as Libyan fighters from the country's new leadership for the first time rolled into this impoverished hamlet deep in the southern deserts.
But while Libya's new rulers focus on replacing Muammar Qaddafi's regime with a democratic government, many here hope the revolution will first bring amenities that have long been rare in this sun-baked inland region: Paved roads, medical care and flush toilets.
"We've been waiting for them for a long time," said Mohammed Saleh, 43, who flashed a V-for-victory sign as the fighters passed his simple concrete house late last week. "Now we expect the electricity and the water to come back on."
The uprising that toppled Qaddafi's regime last month was fueled in part by widespread frustration with how little the country's oil wealth has translated into better lives for Libya's 6.5 million people.
Aware of the potency of economic grievances, the leaders of the National Transitional Council, the closest thing the country has to a government, have vowed to use Libya's resources for the general good. Council head Mustafa Abdul-Jalil said recently he seeks to create a "state of prosperity" where even the unemployed would receive salaries.
The council's ability to fulfill such promises will largely determine its success at extending its control over the country, especially in areas where support for Qaddafi remains.
Libya boasts Africa's largest proven oil reserves and produced 1.6 million barrels daily before the anti-Qaddafi revolt erupted in mid-February. Last year, Libya raked in $40 billion from oil and gas exports -- a fortune from which many Libyans say they've seen little benefit.
Libya expert Ronald Bruce St John said Qaddafi's regime wasted money over the years in countless ways: Spending lavishly on ill-designed building projects; stocking unsustainable arsenals; and bankrolling the lavish lifestyles of Qaddafi's family members and associates.
At the same time, the regime failed to invest in education, develop the economy and build strong communications and transportation infrastructure.
"This is the major development failure of the Qaddafi regime," he said.
Before the uprising, Libya ranked 53 out of 169 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index, just behind Uruguay, Palau and Cuba, countries with no significant oil wealth. Most Gulf Arab nations ranked higher, with per capita incomes more than twice as high -- though Libya slipped in ahead of oil giant Saudi Arabia because of a longer life expectancy and longer schooling, despite the kingdom's higher per capita income.
Even in the relatively affluent coastal cities where most Libyans live, residents bemoan their bumpy roads, bad schools and poor infrastructure.
But the complaints ring louder further south in Libya's desert stretches, in areas like the parched Wadi al-Shati region some 440 miles (700 kilometers) south of Tripoli.
Over the past week, hundreds of fighters have been driving through the region's 22 villages in a preliminary attempt to spread the NTC's control.
Most of the fighters are young men from Tripoli who say the region's poverty shocks them. Some of the villages -- with names like "Cat," "Sons of Yellow" and "Burnt" -- consist of no more than simple, cinderblock houses surrounded by date palms and connected by dirt roads. Some homes lack running water, and few have central sewage. Jobs are lacking, with those not employed by the government raising goats and camels in the desert.
The war made matters worse by cutting the area's supply lines. Most villages haven't had regular electricity or phone service for months, leaving them unclear about what has happened in the rest of the country. Meanwhile, gas prices have skyrocketed and banks have run out of cash, leaving many unable to cross the large distances that separate their towns.
Despite the poverty, support for Qaddafi remains strong, a phenomenon locals who have joined the revolution blame on ignorance and government propaganda.
"All the messages these people have received for the last 42 years have trained them to think a certain way, and that will be very hard to change," said Col. Bashir Awidat, head of the region's new military council.
That has complicated the "liberation" of the area.
In the town of Mahrouqa, Arabic for "Burnt," crowds of cheering locals watched on a recent afternoon as fighters fired rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at an abandoned security building, blasting chunks of plaster off the facade. Locals then commandeered a cement mixer to topple a large statue of The Green Book, Qaddafi's largely unintelligible vision of the perfect government.
Soon after, however, locals in another neighborhood fired on the convoy, killing one fighter. Another was shot dead in a nearby village that night.
Elsewhere, the rebels fought among themselves about how to handle a family they heard was armed and flew a green flag on their home.
In the end, they didn't search the home, though a commander told the angry men standing at the door they'd have to give up their guns and not fly Qaddafi's flag.
"That flag has been there 20 years, so why should we take it down now?" one replied. "In this house, we still love Moammar."
Awidat, the military council head, said the fighters planned to chip away at the remaining support for Qaddafi by bringing aid. Once the villages are secure, he said, the fighters will truck in gasoline, food and medicine.
The aid is badly needed -- as is longer term development.
Abdel-Qadir Hussein, a high school teacher in the 3,000-person town of Tarut, said plumbing was only installed in part of the town last year and that the local clinic hadn't had a doctor in years, forcing locals to drive long distances for medical care.
Still he said, only about half the town supported the revolution -- something the arrival of services could change.
"Most of the people here are very simple," he said. "If they see that the gas and electricity come back and that they are treated well by the revolutionaries, they'll slowly start to support the revolution."