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Some Libyans do not want democracy 10 years after NATO forced it upon them

A soldier waves Libyan flag as people celebrate Libyan Revolution, known as the 17 February Revolution, which ousted former ruler Muammar Gaddafi, at the Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, Libya on 16 February 2021. [Hazem Turkia - Anadolu Agency]
A soldier waves Libyan flag as people celebrate Libyan Revolution, known as the 17 February Revolution, which ousted former ruler Muammar Gaddafi, at the Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, Libya on 16 February 2021. [Hazem Turkia - Anadolu Agency]

Wednesday marked ten years since the start of the Libyan uprising against the government of Muammar Gaddafi. France's military intervention was eventually ushered in before the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the strongest military alliance in history, took over.

After seven months of around-the-clock air bombardment, Gaddafi's government was toppled and the man himself murdered, leaving Libya in chaos, perpetual war and more divided than ever before.

NATO's intervention was vaguely authorised by the United Nations (UN) Resolution 1973, which gave the green light to any willing country to use "all necessary measures" to protect civilians allegedly under attack by state forces. By September 2011, the mission changed to "forcible regime change", in clear violation of the UN mandate.

Western leaders promised the Libyans democracy, peace and economic transformation – once Gaddafi was gone.

A decade later, and Libya has so far voted in two national elections, with several local ones. However, Libya is neither peaceful nor democratic, and with the exception of the 2012 elections, turnout has always been poor. Dreams of economic resurgence have long since given way to despair and agony.

Working in a cafe in Al-Hadba Al-Khadra, a rundown district south of Tripoli, Sabir Ali expressed: "We really do not want democracy, all we want is peace and security." One of his customers, Hassan, a mechanic from the next-door car repair garage, remarked: "Every few years, politicians promise us that paradise is around the corner, yet nothing is changing except that we are getting poorer and older." Fearing for his security, Hassan did not disclose his family name.

READ: In conversation with the Italian admiral hoping to bring peace to Libya

Since 2011, the country has held two general elections in 2012, and again in 2014, but every election brought more divisions, more wars and more economic difficulties. A banker, speaking anonymously, told me over the phone: "We were much better with our old man (referring to Gaddafi)," before adding: "What do you do with elections if you cannot feed your family?"

Libya: Never-ending chaos - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Libya: Never-ending chaos – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Generally speaking, Libyans do not believe in elections.

On 6 February, people in central Tripoli voted for their municipal council. Certified results indicate a meagre turnout. Out of 33,740 registered voters, only 6,524 bothered to cast their ballots and the winning list won by 1,545 votes – just five votes more than the runner up. This is a "miserable show of democracy even by the country's standards," commented Professor Milad, a political science professor at Tripoli University. Professor Milad posed the question: "If people in the capital do not care about elections, then who would?"

One would expect a high turnout for local elections in Tripoli. Its population is estimated at over one million, besides being the most vibrant city in the country. But this is not the case, prompting Professor Milad to explain it as such: "People do not believe in elections and they have more pressing priorities."

Mahmud Al-Gamati, a shopkeeper in central Tripoli, described life in Libya as an "uphill struggle". Abdal Aziz Salem, a university student, has been waiting in a queue outside Al-Gomhuria bank in Al-Dahra neighbourhood of Tripoli for four hours, to withdraw his father's salary. His father cannot come himself because he has kidney problems and "medicine is expensive and difficult to find," Abdal Aziz explains. Last night he spent two hours waiting at a gas station to fill his car. He adds: "Queues are the norm in Libya and even if you want to vote, you hardly have time." Abdal Aziz concluded: "You can skip voting, but not the bank queue."

Away from Tripoli, fuel and cash in the bank are even more difficult to find in a country where the economy is cash-based, and a car is the only means of transport in the absence of a public transportation system.

On Wednesday, national flags decorated central Tripoli and government buildings celebrating the 17 February Revolution's tenth anniversary, but not everybody is celebrating. For Mohamed Al-Gharari, the anniversary is a "sad and painful memory I rather forget," he expressed.

READ: How the United Nations took over Libya, then decided its future

In the middle of the night on 19 June, 2011, Mohamed's family home was destroyed by a rocket fired by a NATO fighter jet, killing three family members including one baby. For him, "the revolution is a bad thing." Mohamed never voted, and he is not alone, as results from other greater Tripoli municipalities registered low turnouts.

In Alandlous, an upscale district west of Tripoli, only 8,074 out of 34,298 registered voters actually voted in the 7 January elections. On average, participation in Libya's municipal elections has been all but disappointing. In a sarcastic tone, Mohamed asks: "Did NATO bomb my house so that I vote?"

For Professor Milad and many others, this indicates that Libyans do not really want elections. According to Suad, a clerk at Bab Benghashir Court Complex, south of Tripoli: "Elections are a luxury we cannot afford." The young woman, who did not mention her family name, also remarked: "Since 2011, Libya entered a dark tunnel without a clear end." Suad is a Gaddafi supporter as well as hundreds of thousands of others; however, it is too dangerous for them to speak publicly in democratic Libya.

Professor Milad thinks they are the majority today. He says that the failure of all governments since 2011: "Made people miss Gaddafi's days, despite the fact that elections were banned."

If NATO and its Arab allies destroyed Libya in 2011 to make it democratic, they have failed. To young Sabir working in the cafe: "Elections here mean nothing."

Yet, there exists some cautious optimism following the UN-brokered Geneva talks, voting in the new executive. If and when the new government is approved, its main task will be organising general elections by 24 December. However, that government's credibility "will be tested not by election, but by how much improvement it makes to our lives," Mahmud the shop keeper voices.

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

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