Among the various mementoes accumulated from many visits to Libya over the years, a massive broken padlock is the starkest reminder of the 2011 revolution. I took it from the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli shortly after the fall of the Qaddafi regime. Macabre on one level, it nevertheless seemed an apposite symbol of incarceration and liberation, a bolt of light after four decades of gloom and despair. The fact that it was made in Italy, the former colonial power and oppressor, only added to the symbolism.
Walking through the prison provided a brief, harrowing glimpse into the shattered lives of those who had dared to challenge the regime. The sickly smell of disease was overpowering. Bottles of medicine were scattered everywhere. We walked through the cells with a middle-aged Libyan man, a former prisoner who had come to revisit the scene of the crimes. He broke down in tears as we roamed through the complex, recalling the cruelty and injustice he had suffered.
Abu Salim occupies a prominent place in the hierarchy of atrocities perpetrated by the Qaddafi regime. It was here, in 1996, that 1,200 prisoners were killed in cold blood, mowed down by machine guns, forklifted into refrigerated trucks and driven away.
Libyans have long memories. The legacy of that massacre lived on, so much so that Abu Salim proved the touchpaper for the revolution. Street protests by relatives of those who had been killed swelled into a broader uprising that erupted in the eastern city of Benghazi in February 2011, fuelled by the arrest of one of the lawyers who represented the families. Then came Colonel Qaddafi’s blood-curdling warning of more massacres, a strategic miscalculation that drew in Nato, hastened the demise of the regime and cost him his life.
Abu Salim had other unintended consequences. It incubated a generation of religious extremists, nurturing over many years the narrow Salafist ideology that is a significant, but by no means the only, reason for the country’s current collapse into turmoil. In an intensely revealing chapter in The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath, Mary Fitzgerald, an Irish Times correspondent who has spent the past year living in Libya, chronicles the bewildering internal battles between the various militant factions whose attempts to reconcile differences within an umbrella movement failed and fractured, a microcosm of the new post-revolutionary Libya.
It isn’t difficult to discern a visceral dislike of democracy among this constituency. Some sent death threats – the lingua franca of their political discourse – to members of the National Transitional Council, or what they called, in a play on its Arabic name, the Majlis Al Wadani – Pagan Council.
Death threats and executions have since proliferated in eastern Libya, the headquarters of both religious militants and separatists, notably the killing of the United States ambassador Chris Stevens in 2012. If anyone doubted that the jihadists of ISIL could extend their reach into Tripoli, the bloody January 27 attack on the Corinthia Hotel, long a redoubt for local politicians, diplomats and foreign businessmen, served as another reminder that when national politics stall, the terrorists move in.
The attack also revealed the deadly consequences of the Libyan state’s loss of the monopoly of violence. Once the conservative hardliners had suffered heavy defeats in last summer’s elections, they quickly revealed their true colours, refusing to recognise the results, forming the armed Libya Dawn Alliance and seizing Tripoli. The election winners relocated to the eastern city of Tobruk and took up the name Dignity. Hence the two parliaments, the two notional governments, the two leaders in two cities. A new Dawn in the West, Dignity in the East – with little prospect in the short term of realising either. Pity the ordinary Libyans, 400,000 of whom from a population of six million have been displaced.
So where did it all go wrong? How did we go from euphoria to dystopia so quickly?
These are questions this book seeks to answer and in doing so it provides the most complete picture we have yet had of the Libyan revolution and its aftermath. The contributors are an expert bunch, ranging from the academic and Libya historian Dirk Vandewalle to Ian Martin, the United Nation’s former chief in Libya. Peter Cole, the lead editor, was the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst in Libya in 2011-2012. All have significant recent experience of post-Qaddafi Libya.
At times some of the language can descend into academic or think-tanky jargon, such as “sub-national identities and narratives” and “state and nonstate actors”, but this is a minor cavil in an otherwise compelling and troubling read.
Libya has long had a troubled relationship with its minorities and Libyans frequently exhibit what, by western standards, would have to be judged racist contempt towards both the Tebu and Tuareg tribes of the south. Though indigenous to what is today Libya, both groups were deliberately marginalised by the Qaddafi regime – an explicitly Arab affair, as the country’s ludicrous then-name, the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, made clear. Tebu and Tuareg alike suffered discrimination with regards to housing, education, employment and even freedom of movement. Hopes that the revolution would redress these old injustices have proved bitterly wide of the mark.
“I’m not optimistic about getting what we dream for,” one Tebu tribesman says. “The stability of the south depends on Tebu rights,” warns another, “and Libya’s stability depends on the south’s stability.”
Instead, the south has become a dangerous place with Tebu and Tuareg among the protagonists in both legal and illegal trade – drugs, human trafficking, kidnapping and terrorism. The shock waves of Qaddafi’s removal have spread far beyond Libya into neighbouring Algeria, Mali and Niger.
To make matters worse, Al Qaeda and ISIL fighters have inserted themselves into the killing and kidnapping mix. It is little wonder that Bernardino León, the UN’s special envoy to Libya, is warning that the country is running out of time – not to mention foreign reserves. Oil production in the holder of Africa’s largest reserves is now below consumption levels. “The general impression is that the country is very close to total chaos,” León said after the Tripoli hotel attack.
Amid the current conflict, are there any reasons for optimism – an all too scant commodity in the Middle East these days? Donning the historian’s hat and taking a longer view, one could credibly argue that after 43 years of eviscerating dictatorship, it takes more than a couple of years for a country to recover. Revolutionary euphoria does not of itself a stable new country make. It will take time to rebuild after the annihilating Qaddafi dictatorship.
Yet the same historian could point to far earlier fault lines in Libya, noting the relative novelty of Libya as a nation state, with the three Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the south and Cyrenaica (Barqa in Arabic) to the east persisting into the 20th century and independence only coming in 1951. Of Libya’s 60 years as an independent state until the 2011 revolution, 42 were under Qaddafi.
With the dictator gone, previously suppressed identities have surged forth, many of them advanced by their own supporting militias at the point of a Kalashnikov. Ancient ethnic and cultural divisions between East and West, between the settled population of the littoral and desert Arab Bedouin, between Arabs and Amazigh Berbers, between Arabs and the Tuareg and Tebu minorities, have all resurfaced and been allowed to sharpen in the three years since Qaddafi’s fall. The creeping extremism in the East and the superimposition of ISIL onto this fragile terrain only darkens the outlook.
One of the strengths of this book is its accumulated analysis of the enduring strength of tribalism, regionalism and religious conservatism within Libya, together with the ethnic politics of the Amazigh, Tebu and Tuareg, and how these centrifugal forces have stretched and strained an elastic Libyan national identity since 2011. It certainly challenges the view that Libya has a more or less homogenous society – it has no sectarian splits of the sort that are currently torturing Iraq and Syria – which in turn makes it more likely than most of its Arab Spring counterparts to make a successful transition from dictatorship to something more moderate and inclusive.
“If Libya can develop institutions that contain the political dialogue or disagreement between various strands, then a bright future awaits it,” the editors argue. By the end of this book, however, one feels less confident of such an outcome in the near term. The tragedy of the Libyan revolution and its bloody aftermath is that it didn’t have to be like this.
Justin Marozzi was an adviser to Nato and the NTC during the Libyan revolution, which he reported on for The National and other media. His first book, South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara, was an account of a 2,000-kilometre journey by camel and a history of the desert slave trade.
This book is available on Amazon.