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Doug Saunders (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)
Doug Saunders (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)

Doug Saunders

The morning after will be the measure of Libya's freedom Add to ...

Six months ago, a typical week in Sadus Jahmi's life was defined by her high-school class in Green Book Studies, in which she spent three hours memorizing lessons from the baroque and solipsistic manifesto penned by Col. Moammar Gadhafi to justify his one-man rule. Large pictures of the man, in sunglasses and curls, hung in every room, including her parents' parlour. There was one permissible TV channel, controlled by The Leader. Her future was rigidly defined by a state that owned and controlled almost everything; promotion and success were matters of loyalty, not of talent or hard work.

That was in January. This week Ms. Jahmi, a sunny 14-year-old, began her mornings by heading to a crowded downtown building where she, as news editor, joined a dozen other teenagers putting out the second issue of a weekly newspaper, Youth Call, which they decided to publish simply because they could. Its pages are filled with damning critiques of Col. Gadhafi's regime, obituaries of classmates killed fighting his forces, and street-corner interviews. This week's question was, "If he is captured, do you think Gadhafi should be executed?" Eight out of 10 respondents argued for the affirmative.

Six months ago, Benghazi had five newspapers, all of them stultifying barrages of opaque propaganda. As of this week, it has 126. Most are zealous voices of anti-Gadhafi dissent; a few have made furtive steps into the more interesting and tricky field of criticizing the rebel National Transitional Council. This has been matched with an explosion of political proto-parties, voluntary groups and non-governmental organizations, hundreds of them.

There is still a totalitarian dictatorship in two-thirds of this country, and a particularly gruesome and slow-moving war taking place on its frontiers, but this corner of the country, the former Cyrenaica, is free - free in a way that it never has been, and may never again be. The mood of euphoria and optimism, especially among the literate and connected members of Ms. Jahmi's generation, is addictive. They have been waiting all their lives to speak this language, and even the more banal routines of civic life carry excitement and novelty. It is the most alive they have ever felt.

But for this very reason, there are dark historic clouds hanging over this moment. This year, for these Libyans, is what 1989 was for young Eastern Europeans. They, too, had seen the effects of four decades of unpopular totalitarianism, had been raised by parents who knew nothing else, had heard inviting electronic messages from the outside world, and had found extraordinary courage. In the months before the regimes fell, there was a profound mood of solidarity, volunteerism, determination and enlivening excitement in the face of danger.

It would be fatuous to draw a parallel between Eastern Europe and Libya: They are very different places facing very different circumstances. But two important lessons extend from that earlier moment of pure euphoria and risk.

1. The morning after the night before. The moment after Col. Gadhafi falls, or dies, or is exiled or imprisoned, will be a post-traumatic moment for young Libyans.

Post-traumatic stress is not a product of people trying to forget terrible moments: On the contrary, it is often a product of people finding themselves transfixed on those moments, which made them feel more alive, more powerful and more important than they ever will afterward. For the tens of thousands of 17-year-old guys shooting their way across the desert with the rebels, the experience of winning, and then becoming ordinary people with bland jobs in a desert petro-state, will be disheartening and may lead to extremism if things go wrong. For people like Ms. Jahmi, there will be a disillusioning period of reduced expectations, and possibly a growing sense of pessimism toward democracy, as we saw in Russia.

2. The breakup pains of solidarity. The feeling of unity and common purpose vanishes the day the tyrant is gone. In Europe, comrades in the anti-communist struggle fast became social democrats, liberals, conservatives or arch-nationalists, destined for lifelong struggles against one another; in Libya, these teenagers will divide into liberal democrats, authoritarian nationalists, and Islamists of several stripes (John Baird, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister, may be remembered as the Conservative who assisted the transformation of two countries from corrupt secularism to popular Islamism).

The Benghazi Republic, as it may be remembered, is a grand and noble accomplishment, a civil and well-organized community born in a place with no history of democracy. It is worthy of the international recognition it has received. But as we fight and negotiate our way to an end for Libya, we should remember that the people here will be most in need of help in the cold light of the morning after.

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