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Why are Libyans not celebrating the anniversary of the revolution?

February 21, 2019 at 12:49 pm

Libya’s revolution started on 17 February 2011 in the eastern city of Benghazi and went on to end the rule of the late Muammar Gaddafi. On this, the eighth anniversary of the revolution, many Libyans are mourning that day, rather than celebrating.

To understand why, I asked my thousands of social media followers one question: what is the revolution’s most important achievement? It was not a scientific opinion poll, I know, but the answers echoed the feelings of ordinary Libyans from all walks of life. Although many thought that the Libyan revolution was another episode of the so called “Arab Spring”, it remains, in fact, unique.

The revolt started with a small demonstration with easily fulfilled demands, but in less than ten days it had spiralled into a full-blown civil war. Many regional and international players got involved, culminating in NATO military intervention that ended the former regime and led to the murder of Gaddafi on 20 October, 2011.

READ: How one Libyan man is helping illegal migrants 

Eight years on and Libya is a divided country burdened with a myriad of problems, lacking security and run by corrupt officials. Many Libyans are nostalgic for the Gaddafi era when security, a stable economy and huge government subsidies were taken for granted. All of the ambitious economic modernisation projects that were in progress when the war broke out are now frozen. The modernisation effort was spearheaded by Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, the late leader’s son and heir apparent. Now Gaddafi Junior is trying to make a comeback, communicating with supporters from a secret location within Libya after being freed from jail.

According to Sadeg Faghira, who runs a news website, he is not celebrating the anniversary of the revolution “because there is nothing to celebrate.” The revolution, he adds, ignited inter-tribal hatred and left the country in civil war. Indeed, in light of the revolt against Gaddafi, Libya’s tribes, the backbone of society, stood on opposite sides. Regime supporters and their opponents are still divided today along the same lines, with little prospect of national reconciliation.

Faghira points out the huge human cost of the war and thinks it has all been in vain. “The NATO intervention,” he insists, “only made things worse.” While no official casualty figures are available, thousands of Libyans were killed and injured in the eight-month civil war that engulfed the country from February to October 2011.

READ: Does Libya have its own Al-Sisi in the making?

Morocco-based Libyan businessman Hussein Kamour is a strong supporter of the revolution. “Libyans today enjoy much more freedom than under Gaddafi,” he says, “and that is one important achievement to celebrate.” Press freedom, he claims, exists today whereas it didn’t before the revolution. “People like you,” he tells me, “can criticise anything, unlike under Gaddafi.” However, this is not entirely accurate; I won the European Union-funded Samir Kassir press freedom award in 2010 for a harshly critical piece I wrote while living in Libya before the revolution.

Furthermore, in 1985, the late Abudkhader Houderi, an editor-in-chief under Gaddafi, became famous for writing a strong editorial condemning the security services. Ramadan Al-Briki, editor of Quryna daily from 2007 to 2011 (now suspended) points out that, “Houderi was not punished… he even stayed in his job in the largest newspaper at the time.” Al-Briki tells me that he “never censored anyone” while he was at Quryna. “I used to publish pro- and anti-government reports,” he explains. It must be said, though, that criticism of Gaddafi himself was a red line which could not be crossed.

Electrical engineer Faraj Omeish is also pro-revolution but says that he has not seen anything worth celebrating so far. He blames the former regime for the security situation because it did not establish a strong military. “A strong army could have saved Libya, like what happened in Egypt,” he argues. When Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011, the Egyptian military took over and kept the relative peace while preparing for elections which took place in 2012. Elected President Mohamed Morsi was subsequently toppled in a military coup a year later led by General, now President, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi meets with Commander of the Libyan national army Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, in Cairo, Egypt, on 13 May 2017 [Egyptian President Office/Apaimages]

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi meets with Commander of the Libyan national army Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, in Cairo, Egypt, on 13 May 2017 [Egyptian President Office/Apaimages]

When it comes to women’s rights in Libya there is not much credit for the revolution; Libyan women have gained little, if anything at all. “Comparing women in society today with before [under Gaddafi],” notes graduate Jehan Makhluf, “we used to do much better then than now.” Generally, that is true. Under Gaddafi polygamy was limited to special circumstances and a man had to obtain his wife’s written consent before he could marry a second wife. After the revolution, the first legal changes removed this requirement.

Moreover, during the Gaddafi era, women enjoyed the same opportunities and pay as men in both education and employment. Women held high positions in government, the judiciary, education and even the police and security services. Gaddafi’s own security personnel included dozens of women, nicknamed “the Amazons”.

One TV news anchor who asked to remain anonymous believes that the revolution has achieved nothing for women. “This, though, is due to the rigid, backward social customs and traditions.”

It might be true that Libyan society is a little conservative when it comes to women’s participation and work, but it is the same society in which Gaddafi managed to break many negative traditions and customs that hinder women’s progress.

“Indeed, Gaddafi supported women through many initiatives that he sponsored and adopted as government policies,” stresses librarian Hassan, which is not his real name. “Post-revolution we have not seen any serious women-oriented initiatives as a component of social policy of the successive governments to-date. Whatever some women have achieved is due to their own individual efforts.”

READ: UN envoy to Libya is taking credit for Libya’s hard earned successes 

Another hurdle to women’s participation in daily life is the increasingly conservative religious teachings being spread across Libya. Women are encouraged to stay at home, wear the veil (and sometimes the niqab) and, above all, accept polygamy. The revolution gave rise to previously unknown religious preachers with a stricter interpretation of Islam. They are spreading their message through Friday sermons, television and radio.

When it comes to security, almost all of my social media respondents agree that the situation today is far worse than it used to be under Gaddafi. All of those who posted on my Facebook page, for example, believe that the country is insecure, including Tripoli, where security is managed by a coalition of militias nominally allied to the Government of National Accord. They have just one common denominator in their animosity towards Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have made tremendous progress in southern Libya recently.

The majority of respondents agree that the revolution has not delivered any tangible benefits for the country that are worth celebrating. No official celebrations have been organised and no government official has taken part in any public programmes commemorating the revolution. Even the concert organised on 17 February in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square only attracted young people who have nothing else to do in the capital, which lacks other forms of public entertainment. Overall, it is fair to say that the anniversary has passed largely unnoticed, other than providing an opportunity for many people to rue the events of the past eight years.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.