Next Monday marks nine years since the start of the foreign-backed uprising in Libya that toppled and then killed Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, plunging the country into ongoing chaos and lawlessness. The day has been remembered annually by Libyans, not as a day of celebration but, mostly, as a day of mourning, because ever since then Libya has been divided by political quarrels, armed gangs and militias.
After being away for a few months, I returned to Tripoli recently to gauge the public mood. Four days before I arrived in the Libyan capital, my brother-in-law, a 32-year-old father of three, disappeared without trace. Two days later we found out that he had been kidnapped. Kidnapping is part of the risk of living in Tripoli. In order not to anger his captors, I am not allowed to divulge further details.
In any case, relieved that he is alive and his whereabouts is known, my in-laws are working hard to free him while preparing for the worst. They have reported him as missing to the local police station knowing that the police are helpless in militia-dominated Tripoli, where kidnappings for ransom and political beliefs are now common.
The current fighting between Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and the coalition of militias that support the Government of National Accord (GNA) has further poisoned the political atmosphere in Tripoli. Armed men at checkpoints regularly check motorists’ phones to see if any have video clips on them that might indicate that the driver is an LNA supporter. Being picked up and accused of supporting the LNA is a serious crime, despite not being criminalised by the penal code. These days, though, the law itself is absent from people’s lives and Libyans are learning to live in a state of lawlessness. In order to avoid being trapped by his own phone, Fawzi — not his real name — told me, “I always leave my iPhone at home and take an old phone that has no smart apps.”
The failure of successive governments since 2011 has led to the deteriorating security situation. This and the occasional mini-wars make many Libyans nostalgic for the Gaddafi era of relative stability, social peace and, above all, security. Violent crimes, murder and kidnapping were rarities under the late ruler.
Despite all of this, Abobaker Agnona, the owner of a local radio station, is preparing for two days of celebrations to mark the ninth anniversary of the 17 February Revolution. He is the executive director of the Celebration Committee,-an ad hoc entity set up solely for this purpose. What is the revolution’s most important achievement so far? “The death of the dictator,” he told me rather sarcastically. He was referring to the murder of Gaddafi, whose grave is still unknown to his family and thousands of supporters in Libya.
Agnona is planning a “different” kind of celebration this year under the general theme of “Tripoli resisting” against the LNA troops who have been laying siege to the capital since 4 April last year in an attempt to unseat the GNA. The committee members do not seem to see the contradiction that Haftar himself was one of the top military commanders of the NATO-supported rebel forces that toppled Gaddafi, so marking 17 February by throwing the spotlight on him as the enemy is a bit awkward.
Nevertheless, Sunday 16 February will be marked by “children’s game shows, competitions and art exhibitions.” For the big day, 17 February, there will be a “military parade involving all security forces in Tripoli.” I asked Agnona if “friendly forces” are taking part in the parade. His answer was a definite no. My question was an indirect reference to the Turkish fighters in Libya to help the GNA against the LNA. While neither Ankara nor Tripoli provide specific numbers, it is believed to be fewer than 5,000 made up entirely of Syrian mercenaries. The LNA is also using mercenaries from Russia and Sudan.
Khaled, like thousands of other Libyans who fled abroad after the Gaddafi regime was destroyed, returned to his home in Tripoli two years ago having been assured of safety. Hundreds of Libyans still live in Egypt and Tunisia unable to return home for fear of persecution, arbitrary detention and even murder. Attempts have been made to reassure them but many do not trust the militia-dominated GNA in Tripoli. Hundreds have returned to LNA-controlled eastern Libya, though.
According to Abobaker Agnona, the celebrations are not some kind of national event to bring Libyans together. “The festivity is only to have fun and be cheered up during these stressful times,” he insisted.
Tripoli has so far escaped serious violence and destruction during the civil war, but this time, with the LNA on its southern outskirts vowing to destroy the GNA, it looks like its luck has run out. Haftar appears determined to press on and all efforts to formalise the on-off lull in the campaign have so far failed. Representatives of the two groups have just broken off talks in Geneva without any progress. The 5+5 military commission has been tasked with agreeing a permanent ceasefire instead of the current shaky truce to facilitate political talks that are likely to start on 26 February in the Swiss city.
Since arriving in Tripoli three days ago, the sound of gunfire and occasional artillery explosions has not stopped. More civilians have been forced to leave the southern outskirts seeking relative safety closer to the city centre. This suggests that the LNA troops are advancing, albeit slowly. In the meantime, Agnona and his committee are going ahead with their plans to commemorate “the great February revolution” to cheer up some Libyans. Welcome to Libya, 2020, where some citizens are kidnapped or displaced, while others find cause for celebration.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.