Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 17 September 2019

In post-revolution Libya, people are still struggling in the long shadow of Qaddafi’s dictatorship

The anniversary of the dictator's fall was supposed to have been marked with celebrations, but Libya still languishes instead under instability and violence.
Libyan soldiers manning a military outpost, stop a car at a checkpoint in Wadi Bey, west of the city of Sirte, which is held by Islamic State militants. Ismail Zitouny / Reuters
Libyan soldiers manning a military outpost, stop a car at a checkpoint in Wadi Bey, west of the city of Sirte, which is held by Islamic State militants. Ismail Zitouny / Reuters

It was supposed to have been a happy time. On February 17 for the past several years, Libyans have been celebrating the electrifying 2011 revolution that overthrew the despised Qaddafi regime, but this year the atmosphere was different.

On this, the fifth anniversary, social media users took to Facebook and Twitter to share their reflections on the transition from dictatorship. The mood was bittersweet, reflecting sadness at the lives lost, disappointment at the opportunities missed and hope for a way through the crisis.

“#Feb17 - 5 yrs on - insecurity, instability, injustice & fragmentation are the characteristics of #Libya today, but hoping we’re learning,” wrote Mohamed Eljarh.

“5 yrs post-#feb17, #Libyans solemn instead of celebratory. A heavy price has been paid, is being paid. Cling to hope for better days ahead,” said the Libyan youth movement Shabab Libya.

Two days after these heartfelt musings, American missiles slammed into a jihadist training camp in the western Libyan city of Sabratha, home to some of the most spectacular Roman ruins in the Mediterranean. More than 40 were killed, including Nourredine Chouchane, a Tunisian said to have been behind the 2015 attacks on the Bardo Museum and Sousse beach resort, which killed dozens of tourists.

If the juxtaposition of revolutionary anniversary and US air strikes was discomfiting, it is nevertheless a sign of the times. Five years after the ouster of Qaddafi, Libya has rival authorities in Tripoli and Tobruk with a new, internationally supported Government of National Accord awaiting parliamentary endorsement. On February 23, amid ongoing wrangling between MPs in Tobruk and to the frustration of Libyans and the international community alike, a planned vote on the government was postponed until next week; a sad signal of the parliament’s extraordinary lack of urgency.

Numerous militias call the shots across the country. ISIL controls Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, where it holds gruesome public executions and crucifixions. The war and chaos have cost Libya an estimated US$68 billion (Dh250bn) in lost oil revenue. Forecasters expect GDP to contract by 8 per cent this year, making it the worst-performing economy in the world. It wasn’t meant to be like this.

“Libyans are fed up with the whole situation,” says Youssef Cherif, a Tunis-based political analyst. “They want a national unity government that can bring peace and stability and start providing the basic public services to allow them to lead a normal life.”

Faiez Serraj, the prime minister-designate of the proposed Government of National Accord, addressed the nation in December on the 64th anniversary of independence, calling on Libyans to work together in the national interest. “We are in dire need of fostering a culture of dialogue as a community: ‘we’ not ‘I’.” National reconciliation would allow Libyans “to save our country from the clutches of terrorism and to lay the foundations of our state – to build a modern state based on the values of justice, democracy and the peaceful rotation of power; those values which were the core for the February 17th revolution”.

Libyans would do well to listen to warnings about terrorism. While politicians fiddle, their country burns. Last month, Martin Kobler, the German diplomat and head of the UN mission in Libya, expressed his concern that the peace process was moving more slowly than the expansion of ISIL. Political compromise between rival interests is essential if Libyans are to have the government they demand and deserve.

One reason that politicians are finding it so difficult to agree, according to Ashraf Wafa, a Misuratan activist, is that Libya is still suffering from the baleful Qaddafi legacy. “In Libya we got rid of the dictatorship, but we still suffer from the inheritance of the extremist Arab national belief of the dictatorship,” he says, arguing that Libyans remain susceptible to conspiracy theories involving the international community. “To overcome our problems we have to learn how to manage our differences and we need to disbelieve conspiracy theories by accepting the efforts of the UN and international community to support Libya.”

Libya still has the potential to be a model for North Africa and the Middle East. Rich in oil, blessed with favourable demographics and geography, it is free from the sectarian divisions that bedevil Syria and Iraq. Yet the growing strength of ISIL remains a profound cause for concern. Without an effective national government or armed forces operating under national command to go after it, the terrorist group’s unchecked growth will further destabilise the country.

The truck-bombing attack against a police training centre in the coastal town of Zliten last month, which killed at least 60 policemen and wounded more than 200, was an ominous reminder about the cost of disunity.

It is no surprise that getting rid of the dictator has proved the easy bit. Recovering from the scorched-earth brutality and institutional destruction meted out during a 42-year dictatorship was always going to require serious stores of patience and stamina.

Justin Marozzi reported from Libya during the 2011 revolution and is a communications adviser with the Government of National Accord.

Updated: February 25, 2016 04:00 AM

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