Why Libyan clerics banned cake in the capital ahead of New Year’s Eve

Since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations have become secret affairs and cakes have vanished from bakery windows

Libyans walk through a shopping street in the old quarter of the capital Tripoli, on January 20, 2020. - A peaceful solution to Libya's protracted conflict remains uncertain despite an international agreement struck in Germany, analysts say, as a fragile ceasefire between warring factions brought only a temporary truce. (Photo by Mahmud TURKIA / AFP)
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Abdullah wanted to take family photos with a Christmas tree this year, introducing his three children to Santa Claus as a sign of tolerance towards Libya’s small Christian community.

As a difficult year drew to a close, he also wanted to buy a cake to celebrate New Year’s Eve with his wife in their home in the capital of Tripoli.

Despite the pandemic and the war, many Libyans say they have worked to keep such traditions alive. But for Abdullah, taking part in seasonal good cheer could be risky.

This is because a fatwa issued by a group of hardline clerics with enormous influence in western Libya has been reissued every year since longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi was ousted in 2011.

Today you barely celebrate with your family or loved ones secretly, you don't know what might happen to you if you don't toe the public line of the extremists. Abdullah, a Tripoli resident

The rules are clear: no buying cakes, no private parties at home and no Christmas-themed clothing or decorations. Even the symbolic gesture of breaking a glass to bring good luck is forbidden.

A mere Facebook status update marking the festive period is also banned.

The clerics say such practices are not Islamic and that there is no need to adopt the celebrations of others.

Abdullah worries not only about the religious ruling, but also about the men who may try to enforce its word.

Revellers in Tripoli ringing in the New Year and bidding farewell to the old could face severe punishments at the hands of armed militants who swear allegiance to the extremist clerics.

Violent, ideologically motivated attacks have happened with greater frequency in recent years.

"I personally like to celebrate New Year's Eve, in solidarity with those who were violently targeted by extremists for marking the end of the year or buying a Christmas tree," Abdullah, who has a degree in history, told The National.

“We were used to celebrating the New Year before the downfall of Qaddafi and sending season’s greetings publicly and openly, competing over the decoration of cakes, holding house parties and inviting friends to spend a cheerful night in front of the telly, and see how Sydney becomes the first city in the world to bid farewell to the year,” he recalled.

“We’d watch a show of spectacular fireworks on the streets. Today you barely celebrate with your family or loved ones and even then, in secret. You don’t know what might happen to you if you don’t toe the public line of the extremists.”

Anything is possible in a city under the tight grip of dozens of heavily armed militias.

But the mass intimidation of so many residents in so many districts is likely to have required, at the minimum, the tacit consent of the authorities in the capital.

One problem is that Libya has two governments and dozens of militias – and no one is in full control of the country.

The conflict in Libya, which has Africa’s largest oil reserves, has drawn in regional powers including Turkey.

It’s a power struggle with external backers, between the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and the House of Representatives in the east backed by the Libyan National Army of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

In the chaos after the revolution in 2011, extremists in Tripoli and other cities rose to prominence, led by local warlords and often funded by criminal enterprise.

In the capital, this has led to intense episodes of factional fighting, which reached a fever pitch at the end of 2018.

Some began enforcing unpopular conservative and extremist views. For many Libyans, these radicals are known by the derogatory term “Al Madakhila”, or the intruders.

Some see them as the ideological twin of ISIS when it comes to restricting personal freedom.

Fatwas issued by Al Madakhila-aligned clerics are not legally binding because they are not affiliated to a government ministry or the Iftaa Council, a body of Muslim clerics in Tripoli.

But the armed groups nonetheless take the law into their own hands.

The GNA head Fayez Al Sarraj, as one Libyan journalist explained the situation in Tripoli to The National, derives his strength from the staunch support he enjoys from Al Madakhila. But this also leaves him vulnerable.

“They always play on his nerves in the current conflict with the government in the east. His unspoken fear is that they can make any change in due course. He makes no effort whatsoever to arrest them if they crackdown on people’s rights,” she said.

Although most of Libya’s 6.6 million inhabitants are Muslim, there are about 38,000 Christians, mostly migrants.

The capital has two churches and Christians are allowed to go to their places of worship on Friday, part of the weekend, when many government services and businesses are closed.

But it is not common to see Christians displaying decorations associated with the holiday, such as Christmas trees, Santa figures or fairy lights, anywhere in the country.

Last year, Christmas trees were confiscated in the East, a move that met derision on Twitter. One person joked: “They arrested a Christmas tree and a fake reindeer.”

But in Tripoli, armed supporters of Al Madakhila conducted sweeps on stores and bakeries before New Year’s Eve to ensure they were not selling cakes.

Mohamed, not his real name, works in a bakery in central Tripoli.

On December 29 each year, he gets clear instructions from the owner to stop accepting order for cakes.

“It’s a common practice in several cake shops. People want cakes to celebrate New Year’s Eve at home, but we don’t want to get into trouble with Al Madakhila,” he said. “They are a  thorn in Libya’s side but hopefully, the future will be sunnier and this war on Christmas comes to an end.”