TUNIS // Libyans prepared to mark the second anniversary of their tumultuous uprising yesterday in a nation divided, deeply unsettled and seemingly still unsure how to rebuild the country they clawed from Muammar Qaddafi with hefty international help.
February 17, 2011, is when demonstrations began in earnest in the eastern city of Benghazi, defying the brutality of the security forces to call for a nation free from the tyrannical whims of a leader who isolated and underdeveloped a resource-rich country.
The date is still resonant, sprayed in elaborate graffiti on walls across the country and lending its name to one of the biggest revolutionary brigades, now nominally incorporated into security forces. It conjures up hundreds of tricolour flags and crowds of people lightheaded with liberty, finally won after a bloody war in which amateurish rebels challenged the Libyan army with forceful backing from western and Arab countries.
But as the day rolls around, two years later, some of the hopes are fading and the institutions vital for reconstructing Libya are far from confident. In Benghazi, there has been a growth in violent incidents and extremist movements in the past year.
On Friday, demonstrators massed in the same spot where it all began, calling for the government to improve basic services such as health care, education and garbage collection and to produce a timetable for the writing of a constitution that has not yet been started more than seven months after the excitement of free elections.
"We had shouting in the streets," said Suleyman Zubi, a parliament member for Benghazi, of Friday's demonstrations, although he described the situation as "civilised".
He said he understood the concerns of his constituents, but there were inevitable delays to normal government because there were so many pressing issues to deal with.
"We have the weapons and the wounded ... and we have so many security files, domestic migrations," he said, reiterating the laundry list of problems that have plagued the country since Qaddafi was killed in September 2011.
The proliferation of heavy artillery, still in the hands of militia groups who resist integration into the security forces, the responsibility of the government to treat those wounded in the fighting abroad at vast expense, and dealing with those still displaced by violence all remain problems unsolved by a government whose reach seems limited outside the capital.
Mr Zubi also said that the interim government, whose primary job is to write a constitution, has been hobbled in that task by an inherited legal argument over whether the parliamentarians were to appoint the constitution-writing committee or whether it should be elected. As yet, there is no answer from the courts, he said.
"The security situation is still very tenuous," said Zahi Mogherbi, an emeritus politics professor in Benghazi. "So you can't say that everything is rosy and the government is in control of the country. The people in Benghazi and the people in Libya are very tired of this." Human Rights Watch, the international monitoring group, noted in a report earlier this month that thousands of people are still illegally detained by militias.
In the absence of a clear power structure, there are growing international concerns that Libya's security problems are feeding regional instability. A conference held last week in Paris, with Libyan and international officials, issued a communique saying that there was a need for "immediate, visible and tangible action" to address "national security and justice".
Failure in the management of borders and the problems of de-arming and demobilising revolutionaries were cited as particular areas of concern. The flow of Libyan weapons and fighters into north-west Africa have been identified as a likely contributing factor in increased strength of extremist groups who took over northern Mali last year.
Yet Mr Mogherbi said that remains "cautiously optimistic".
"Remember that we came out of a very violent revolution," he said. "We need to instil a culture of tolerance and democracy, and all these things are very daunting, very difficult, very big challenges. But at the same time, there were landmarks that proved that the Libyan people want democracy and want to change their life."