The Libyan revolution, one year on

A former resident of Tripoli charts the country's new journalism, justice system and civil society.

It's exactly one year since the official start of the Libyan revolution and Amnesty International marked the occasion with a damning report into the widespread human rights abuses committed by armed militias in the country and the failure of the National Transitional Council (NTC) to hold these armed groups to account. "A year ago Libyans risked their lives to demand justice. Today their hopes are being jeopardised by lawless armed militias who trample human rights with impunity," Amnesty's senior crisis response adviser, Donatella Rovera, said.

It made me wonder: at what point can you call a revolution a failure? If a post-revolutionary regime shows no more respect for individual rights than the ousted dictatorship, this seriously calls into doubt whether the revolution can deliver on the hopes of ordinary people.

In darker moments, I have questioned whether the violence was all worth it. If the revolution hadn't ignited a year ago, many lives would have been saved, my friends would still have their jobs, Libya would still be a safe, stable country. If you had lost a child in the fight against the old regime, I have asked myself, would you still think that overthrowing Gaddafi was the right thing to do, or would this question -- the underlying assumption that a loved-one's death was in vain -- be too painful to ask?

In the UK, many have been quick to pronounce the revolution a failure, and some declared it a disaster before it even really began. Britain's military intervention has helped encourage this perspective, but the government's infamous hypocrisy when it comes to befriending or ousting dictators shouldn't obscure the fact that Gaddafi committed terrible crimes against his people. When commentators jump from pointing out the UK's tarnished record with authoritarian regimes to arguing that Gaddafi wasn't as bad as all that, they make an unjustifiable leap of logic.

Counter-intuitively, perhaps, my painful re-reading of an argument along these lines -- Hugh Roberts' piece for the London Review of Books -- has reminded me of why, despite everything, Libya's revolution was not in vain. "It is tendentious and dishonest to say simply that Gaddafi was 'killing his own people'; he was killing those of his people who were rebelling. He was doing in this respect what every government in history has done when faced with a rebellion," Roberts writes. But not every government in history guns down peaceful protestors. Not every government in history tortures and executes anyone guilty, or simply accused, of criticising public policy. When there was no other way to bring about change, Libya's revolutionaries chose to meet Gaddafi's violence with violence, not vice versa. Gaddafi didn't start "killing his own people" in 2011; he had maintained his power through the strategic use of violence against civilians for over 40 years. The question of the legitimacy of the British government's support for the revolution shouldn't be confused with the question of whether the revolution itself was right.

The violence has not yet completely subsided. Many Libyans are still scared today. They are scared to go out at night because of sporadic fighting and an increase in crime; scared that someone they know will be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a gun battle erupts. But they were scared a year ago, too.

When you live in a police state, you live in constant fear. It may be a different type of fear from the more immediate threat of violence; you may sometimes forget it's even there. The constant niggling worry that you'll say or do something wrong and that the consequences will be huge become a part of your being. I know this, because whenever I left Libya, my sense of relief was physical. When I arrived in Heathrow after my first two months in Tripoli, my brother asked me "so, is Gaddafi as mad as people think he is?" and my first reaction was to look around in alarm to see if anyone was listening to our conversation. It's amazing how quickly such caution can become second nature, and how satisfying it can be to finally speak freely.

Libyans are relishing their new-found freedom of speech. I used to wonder, when I flicked through the sterile state news stories, how a free press would ever develop in Libya. Government propaganda seemed so pervasive that at times it felt like people had forgotten how to tell a story. Now independent media outlets are blossoming all over the country, and almost everyone I know is either starting a magazine or writing for one. Some magazines refuse to edit submissions -- not necessarily the best way to ensure quality journalism, my editor would undoubtedly retort -- but in the present atmosphere, editing seems too close to censorship. "You are most welcome to share your thoughts loudly," one of my friends said when inviting me to submit a piece to his new magazine. "Feel free to say the truth, even if it hurts the Libyan people to hear it." This is a truly monumental change.

Libyan civil society is flourishing too. Many of my friends are setting up or working for new NGOs: medical charities, reconciliation and women's rights groups that have emerged, seemingly from nowhere. I remember once commenting on how much rubbish littered the streets all over Libya, and a friend of mine answering with uncharacteristic frankness that "it's not just a question of educating people about dropping litter, it's because people have given up caring about public spaces a long time ago." Forty years into Gaddafi's rule, the whole country had retreated into their family units, but now they are developing a public spirit, a sense of ownership over their country, and a feeling of fellowship with their countrymen where once there was only distrust. This, too, is an amazing development.

Despite ongoing violence and instability, many Libyans are feeling positive for the future. When I asked Yusef Sawie, an old friend of mine now working as a news reporter and translator in Tripoli, about the mood in the country, he pointed not only to the joyful street parties, but to private ones. Many young couples have chosen to get married on the 17th -- the hairdressers he spoke to say they haven't been this busy for years, with some coiffing 25 brides in one day. And there's less anecdotal evidence of continued optimism, too. A survey by research company ORB of over 1,000 Libyans in Benghazi, Tripoli and Misrata has found that four out of five respondents agree that "the country is heading in the right direction".

I too believe that Libya is heading in the right direction. That is not to belittle Amnesty's report: action to protect the rights of suspected Gaddafi loyalists must be taken quickly and decisively. More than anything, the success of the revolution depends on the NTC's ability to establish the respect for human rights and individual freedom that was so lacking during Gaddafi's forty-year rule. Those responsible for human rights abuses, on both sides, must be brought to justice.

The challenges facing the revolution are immense, the war-torn country needs to be demilitarised and rebuilt, and a functioning justice system, police force, and the apparatus of democratic government will have to be built from nothing. But the revolution has not failed yet.

Sophie McBain is a staff writer for Spear's

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Don't blame Jeremy Corbyn - polls show only Tory voters could have kept us in the EU

Despite deep divisions in the Labour Party, it's the Tory voters who let Remain down. 

The Labour Party was already having enough difficulty keeping itself together without a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union coming along. The party was reeling from the election of a leader who was not only well to the left of most of his parliamentary colleagues but also did not obviously have the personal skills needed to do the job. However, the referendum on the EU compounded the party’s difficulties by exposing another fissure - between its traditional white working class supporters and its public sector socially liberal middle class ones (including the vast bulk of its parliamentary party). In combination the two divisions threaten to tear the party part.

Elections in the UK are usually about the left and right of politics, whether the government should do a little more or a little less. On this Labour’s working and middle class supporters tend to be at one with each other. They all, albeit to varying degrees, want the state to do more, to curb the excesses of the capitalist market and produce more equitable outcomes. So long as political conflict focuses on this issue they are a viable electoral coalition.

However, the EU referendum was not about the size and the role of the British state. It was about what Britain’s relationship should be with an intergovernmental organisation that epitomises one of the major social and economic phenomena of our time, globalisation. This phenomenon has had significant economic and cultural consequences, including, not least, substantial flows of migrants in search of work in an internationalised labour market. 

Young graduates vs working class pensioners

Among young university graduates this development is regarded as an opportunity rather than a problem. It is the kind of world in which they have grown up. They have acquired the skills required to compete in the global market place. Indeed, they may well become migrants themselves, deploying their valued skills in Berlin or Barcelona. Meanwhile the experience of university, in which international students are often commonplace, has led them to embrace the cultural diversity that immigration brings.

This world looks very different to many an older white working class voter, who left school at the earliest possible opportunity. They are used to a world in which everyone speaks the same language and shares a common set of cultural values.  As a result, the relatively high levels of immigration that the UK has experienced in recent years is regarded as a threat. They want back the country in which they grew up and in which they once felt comfortable. Meanwhile, they suspect that the inflow of migrants helps explain why they have seen little if any increase in their living standards.

With questions of immigration and identity at its core, the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU inevitably cut across Labour’s electoral coalition. Those with different educational experiences voted very differently. According to a large poll conducted on polling day by Lord Ashcroft, graduates and those still in education voted in favour of remaining in the EU by 59 per cent to 41 per cent, while those whose educational experience did not extend beyond secondary school voted by 65 per cent to 35 per cent to leave. Similarly, in their on the day exercise YouGov found that graduates voted in favour of Remain by 68 per cent to 32 per cent, while those whose highest qualification is a GCSE or its equivalent voted by 70 per cent to 30 per cent in favour of Leave. The party’s middle class supporters were in a very different place on this issue than their more working class ones.

White voters vs ethnic minorities

Just to compound Labour’s difficulties, there was a clear ethnic division in the referendum too. Those from an ethnic minority background, who have never shown much inclination to back UKIP, seemingly found the Leave side’s emphasis on reducing immigration relatively unattractive. Lord Ashcroft estimates that only 32 per cent of those from an ethnic minority background voted to Leave, compared with 53 per cent of those who regard themselves as ‘white’. Consequently, another part of Labour’s electoral coalition, Britain’s ethnic minority population, were also on the other side of the referendum divide from the party’s traditional white working class base.

Against this backdrop it was, in truth, hardly surprising that the highest level of support for Leave was in predominantly working class local authority areas in the North and Midlands of England where Labour tends to be relatively strong.  In the 2014 European Parliament election, Labour won on average 28 per cent of the vote in those local authority areas where less than 22 per cent have a degree, whereas the party won just 20 per cent in areas where more than 32 per cent are graduates. Now in the referendum, on average Leave won as much as 64 per cent of the vote in those places that fall into the former group, but as little as 42 per cent in the latter. A t the same time, no less than 71 of the 90 local authority areas in England and Wales with fewest graduates are in the North of England and the Midlands, whereas just 13 of the 83 areas with most graduates do so.

In short, the principal explanation for the fact that Leave did so well in the West Midlands (59 per cent), the East Midlands (59 per cent), the North East (58 per cent), and in Yorkshire & Humberside (58 per cent) in particular lies in the demography of Leave support and of those regions rather than in any particular failings on the part of the Labour party. Indeed, once we have taken the demographic character of an area into account, if anything Remain tended to do rather better the stronger Labour was locally. For example, amongst those council areas in England and Wales with relatively few graduates Leave won 62 per cent of the vote on average in places where Labour won over 25 per cent of the vote in 2014, compared with 67 per cent where Labour won less than 15 per cent.

Meanwhile, it was, of course, the other parts of its coalition, the socially liberal middle class and the country’s ethnic minority population, that ensured that London was the one part of England and Wales that did vote decisively in favour of remaining  (by 60 per cent to 40 per cent).  No less than 24 of the 33 council areas in the capital have a population in which over 32 per cent are graduates, while no less than 27 of the 41 most ethnically diverse parts of England and Wales are located in the capital. Again demography was crucial.

Corbyn not to blame

Against this backdrop it was hardly surprising that across Britain as a whole only around two-thirds (63 per cent according to Lord Ashcroft, 65 per cent as estimated by YouGov) of those who voted Labour in 2015 voted to remain in the EU. The party was never likely to achieve much more than this. And at least the party’s coalition did not fracture as badly as the one that backed David Cameron a year ago; well under half (42 per cent according to Lord Ashcroft, 39 per cent, YouGov) of those who voted Conservative in 2015 voted to remain. The real source of the Remain side’s difficulties was the failure of David Cameron to bring his own voters on board.

Yet it is Jeremy Corbyn who is taking the blame for the inside much of the Labour party for the Remain side’s failure, as the party’s pre-existing division about his leadership interacts with the division made manifest by the referendum. Of course, MPs are entitled to make their own judgement about Mr Corbyn’s capabilities for the job, a judgement that his performance in the referendum appears to have reinforced and which they may feel has become more pressing given that the outcome of the referendum makes an early general election more likely. But in truth there is little in the pattern of the results of the referendum to suggest that Mr Corbyn was personally responsible for Remain’s defeat. The referendum outcome looks more like a pretext for `an attempt to secure Mr Corbyn’s removal than a reason.

However, the referendum does raise questions for all wings of the Labour party, including above all its parliamentary party in which middle class graduates predominate. As we have argued before, unless the party can persuade the less well-off in Britain that social democracy can tame the tiger of globalised capitalism so that their interests and concerns – cultural as well as economic – can be met, it is at risk of losing their support. We have already in Scotland how the politics of identity can cause much of Labour’s working class support to melt away, and there is a risk that a similar politics could have the same effect in England should UKIP be able to sustain a post-referendum purpose and appeal. 

Certainly, there was little in the Remain side’s case – as espoused by Labour as well as the Conservatives – that met those concerns. There was, in truth, no answer on how to deal with immigration, while there was little attempt to explain how the UK’s membership of the EU could be used to advance the economic interests of the less well of. Instead the only reason offered for voting to remain was the allegedly deleterious consequences of leaving. Telling working class people that they have to put up with the consequences of globalisation is simply not good enough. Labour needs to take note – whoever leads it.
            
John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University and a columnist for IPPR’s journal Juncture