Regaining confiscated property next fight for many in Libya

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 16, 2011 

TRIPOLI, Libya — Fawzi Darnawi's fight to get back a house that belonged to his father is almost as old as he is.

"I was in court for 10 years," said Darnawi, who's in his 50s. "I went to prison twice for trying to take the house back by force. It was taken in 1981."

Under former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's Sultat al Shaab ("Power of the People") program in the 1970s and '80s, the government confiscated thousands of businesses and properties. Many of the confiscated houses then were sold to new owners or rented out by the government itself.

Now, with a new government in the offing, those old disputes are likely to come to the fore as former owners try to regain properties and current occupants battle to retain them. Added to the mix, no doubt, will be tensions between Libyans who lived much of Gadhafi's reign in exile and those who suffered here, between wealthy Libyans and those less fortunate, between those who fought for the revolution and those who sat it out.

All in a society, after 42 decades of Gadhafi's rule, with little recent history of independent judicial processes.

Since the rebels took Tripoli three weeks ago, 30 complaints already have been filed over houses in Tripoli's eastern Souk al Jumaa neighborhood, where Darnawi's father's house was, according to Darnawi's cousin, Shukri Darnawi, who happens to be the local police commander and the recipient of the complaints — to highlight another possible conflict.

The potential for complaints is huge, Shukri Darnawi said. As many as 10,000 dwellings in the neighborhood were seized under Gadhafi's edicts.

"As the situation calms down, there will be more," Shukri Darnawi said. "In 2000, the government tried to compensate some of the people who lost houses, but it wasn't enough. If a house was worth 100,000 dinars, they would only give 20,000."

Both former owners and current occupants are likely to feel aggrieved.

As Shukri Darnawi spoke, another complainant entered the police station: Said Abu Bakr, 65, had bought his house from Gadhafi's government in 1970, after it was taken from its owner. Carrying the deed to the house, Abu Bakr came to tell Darnawi that in the past week, the house's former owner had come to demand it back.

"He lives on our street," Abu Bakr said. "We were renting from his father before 1970. This guy wants to force us out; he threatened to kill us. He said he would put a bomb in the house. He owned another house in the neighborhood, and he told the women who live there that he would kill them."

"My father actually had 16 properties that were taken," Fawzi Darnawi said. "Most of them were destroyed between 1986 and 1990, when the government demolished them to widen a street."

His story seemed headed toward a peaceful resolution. Perhaps not a surprise, given that his cousin was now running the police station.

"I have a deal with the man who lives in the house," Fawzi Darnawi said. "In one month he will move back to Algeria."

He said the program had made Gadhafi popular with those who'd benefited.

"He had a lot of support; many people took houses," Darnawi said.

Others are being patient.

"Our revolution is not finished," said Hani Soufrakis, whose father and uncle owned an import business that Gadhafi's government confiscated in the 1970s.

"It will take some time. The laws need to be updated," said Soufrakis, who lives in Cairo and was planning to travel to Libya before the end of the month.

Soufrakis said the value of the properties taken from his family totaled more than $40 million.

"Some are plots of land, some are warehouses," Soufrakis said. "I know people are very interested in getting things back, and there are some people who took matters into their own hands. But we waited 42 years. We can wait a little longer."

Soufrakis said he was confident that the country's new government would work out an acceptable settlement for people who'd lost property to Gadhafi's government.

"They hope the government is wise," he said. "Lots of people have been wronged. If something is not done, there will be problems."

Property issues are one of the most complex problems that arise when revolutions overtake repressive governments that have held sway for decades. In many countries, property claims from before World War II are still being adjudicated, including a battle in Poland over the land where the U.S. Embassy now sits in Warsaw. Cuban exiles in Miami have assembled a registry of houses seized by the Castro government in hopes that a post-Castro government will provide compensation one day or return the properties.

Libya faces a similar complex landscape.

The Waddan Hotel here, for example, was one of a number of properties owned by the Nga family. Taken by the government in the 1970s, it's now a luxury hotel managed by the InterContinental Hotels Group, though technically the Libyan government still owns it.

Rebel soldiers from other parts of Libya took over the hotel when they arrived in the capital three weeks ago. As the rebels have moved out, the hotel has been replacing them with paying guests, foreign and Libyan, though the hotel staff is made up largely of volunteers at this point. The hotel's operating expenses are being covered by $40,000 left in the safe, said Ismail Omraa, the hotel's manager.

"I hope it's all given back," Omraa said of the property. As for what will happen next, he said he was waiting for the IHG Middle East manager to show up, possibly in the next week.

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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