Mike Taibbi / NBC News
Majdi Errabti, a 28-year-old Libyan trying to make his way in the post-Gadhafi world.
By Mike Taibbi, NBC News Correspondent
TRIPOLI – When Libya's rebel brigades roared into this capital city on Aug. 21, Majdi Errabti felt he had to be a part of the excitement.
"I told my mother, 'You cannot stop me from joining the fighting, because if I don't, it will be the shame of my life, and for the life of all my children.' She said she understood,” he said.
The 28-year-old Errabti grabbed a gun, but he never fired it. Instead, with rebel checkpoints already set up and the city clearly secure, Errabti left the fighters he'd joined and retreated in a mood of triumph to his neighborhood in Tripoli's Old City.
His excitement unabated, he went to his mosque, turned on the loudspeakers, and shouted into the microphone reserved for the call to prayer. "Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar..." God is Great.
"My mother heard it," he said with a smile, remembering the moment. "She said she recognized my voice, and was proud of me."
A month later, though, there's been nothing to match the high of that moment of pure celebration.
Longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi is gone, but in hiding and still issuing threats through messages carried by a sympathetic news channel in Syria. In two cities long favored by his regime – his hometown of Sirte and the tribal town of Bani Walid – Gadhafi loyalists have refused each offer of peaceful surrender and answered each rebel advance over the past week with blistering storms of artillery and sniper fire. The impasse has left the anti-Gadhafi forces confused, humiliated, and counting their dead.
In Tripoli and in Libya's second city, Benghazi, the National Transitional Council – though recognized by scores of countries and by the United Nations as Libya's official governing authority – is struggling to actually begin governing. With squabbling rife in the top ranks, they've failed in a first attempt to name a cabinet.
Tripoli, with more than 1 million residents, is peaceful and surging with new life in the absence of all but celebratory gunfire, but there's an uneasy undercurrent in the cafe talk about the NTC's military and political problems.
After a six-month sprint made possible by the NATO bombing campaign and the support of an international coalition, the ragtag rebellion that toppled Gadhafi appears to have hit a wall. The anti-Gadhafi forces can't seem to find a way to finish the job of winning the war; equally, it appears they're struggling in the beginning stages of winning the peace.
Struggles under Gadhafi regime
It doesn’t faze Errabti. "No, I'm not worried," he says. "It's a big country with different cultures, from Misrata to the mountains of Nafusa, from Bengazi to Tripoli. It takes time..."
Errabti's English is terrific. "Is there some shop you specifically have in mind?" he asked me when I told him I needed to go into the city center. He'd studied English in college and thought that even under Gadhafi his proficiency in one of Tripoli's popular secondary languages, along with computer literacy, would gain him a career.
But it didn't work out that way. Life under Gadhafi, he learned, was a relentless uphill swim against the twin waves of cronyism and a kind of institutional torpor that made the white-collar office jobs he sampled something akin to slow torture.
Francois Mori / AP
Libyan fighters chants slogans as they take control of Moammar Gadhafi loyalists' villages in the desert 466 miles south of Tripoli, at Gohta, Sept. 18, 2011.
"I went to one insurance company to work," he said. "But the people there, they didn't even deserve to be working. They couldn't write, they didn't care. I couldn't take it, being there. I had to quit."
Errabti even engaged in some cronyism of his own: A family friend who was Gadhafi's minister of justice offered him a job teaching English to the prisoners in one of the regime's notorious jails.
It turned out to be miserable. The conditions were horrific, the men just husks of human beings.
And so he quit again, But, with growing responsibilities and living expenses, he needed to raise money, and fell into a years-long pattern of day work for small amounts. Cleaning fish and selling them out of the trunk of his car. Installing or repairing air conditioners. "Usually, it was 10 dinar a day," he said. That’s about eight dollars.
He did get one break -- playing basketball for the Tripoli police team in a second-tier pro league. In one 40-game season he earned about $325 dollars a month, until he blew out a knee. Then it was back to day work.
"When I finished university, people told me, 'You have a good future, you'll do fine,'" he said wistfully. Instead he fell into a life of subsistence labor and an indolence he knew was dangerous. "Too many days you just wake up, hang around with friends, go back to sleep. You wake up and hang around some more."
Some of those friends were lost to alcohol. Even in Muslim Libya, where alcohol is officially banned, it's not hard to find bokha, the popular homemade moonshine. And some turned to heroin. Errabti pantomimed an injection. "Yes, it is here too."
I asked him if during that period he had lost hope. "I did not lose hope," he answered, "I believed Allah would give me everything I want and need." He looked away for a few seconds, thinking, looked back at me. "But, I lost time. A lot of time."
Despite slow progress, hope for future
In the big outdoor cafe on the edge of Tripoli's Algerian Square, groups of men spend the afternoons drinking coffee and smoking hubbly bubbly, a tobacco concoction cooled by water and inhaled through long flexible pipes. We joined three men at one table and each explained in his own way why the undercurrent of unease about the slow pace of progress doesn't translate to real worry.
"You must understand," said an older man named Abdel Zagozi, "that we are all just now speaking freely for the first time. And when we speak freely, we find we sometimes disagree! There is no problem with that, because that is freedom!"
He echoed Errabti's thoughts about the need to give the transition time, and that he continued to be happy beyond words simply to be able to tell his three children that their lives would be theirs to determine on their own.
The younger man at the table, Abdul Moshdi, agreed, adding that all Libyans, and not just those who end up as leaders, have to participate in the task of shaping the freedom now in their grasp. "The future is in our hands," he said. "It is our desire. We must all do something to make it a good future."
For Errabti, that means putting his career dreams back on the front burner.
He says he is looking for an opportunity "where I can use my education, my English language. Perhaps in media ... telling the story of what was accomplished here."
I asked if it would worry him if Gadhafi continued to elude capture, perhaps for months or years or even indefinitely, becoming a figure of mystery with newly mythic powers sufficient to drive a counter-insurgency.
"I don't worry," he said, "because he will never come back to power, it is impossible now. And if someone who is in power does even one percent of what Gadhafi did, the people would reject him immediately."
He said again, "I don't worry."