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