Libya clutches at new hope 10 years after its revolution

Libyans celebrate the anniversary of their February 17 revolution in Tripoli

Over the past few years, the way that Libyans have celebrated the anniversary of their February 17 revolution has been more of an indication of what went wrong rather than a joyous commemoration of the end of over four decades of dictatorship.

For more than six years, the country has been split between east and west, with the sides controlled by different authorities: the Libyan National Army led by rebel military commander Khalifa Haftar to the east, and, to the west, the internationally recognized Government of National Accord headed by Fayez al-Sarraj. 

Though flag-waving anniversary celebrations and parades have been standard in west Libyan cities such as Tripoli, there was often nothing of the sort happening in the east. In 2020, on the ninth anniversary of the popular revolution that would eventually end the 42-year-rule rule of  Moammar Gadhafi, there was only a protest outside a courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi.

New government, new hope

This year, on the 10th anniversary, some hope that things might be different. Since last October, the UN-brokered truce between the two factions, who have been fighting for control of the country since 2014,  has largely held. And in early February, 75 delegates selected by the UN to represent a broad range of Libyan interests came together in Switzerland to choose who would establish a new “unity government.” This new government is meant to replace the divisive eastern and western authorities and run the country until new elections can be held this December.

The delegates chose Mohammad Younes Menfi, a Libyan diplomat with support in the east, to lead a presidential council, and businessman Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah, who is backed by western Libyans, as interim prime minister. 

Could such developments mean that, after a decade of chaos, both sides of the country can finally celebrate together?

“I hope so,” says Tarek Megerisi, an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations specializing in Libyan affairs. “Across the country, people want to celebrate that this was a day of change.”

Not a real celebration

But, as he also points out, Libyans from both east and west already had something in common during past anniversaries of the revolution. “The overly fabricated attempts at celebration in Tripoli and the attempts to suppress any kind of celebration in Benghazi are manufactured for the same political reason,” he explained.

In Tripoli, authorities present themselves as “guardians of the revolution,” who got rid of Gadhafi and defended the city against Khalifa Haftar’s attacks from the east, Megerisi explains. “Even if people accuse them of being mini-tyrants themselves.”

Whereas in Benghazi, the message from eastern authorities, who discourage celebrations, is that the revolution opened the door to Islamist extremism and that, in fact, it is they who should be celebrated because they protected eastern Libya from this supposed threat.

International interference

This is just part of the complex story that Libyans have struggled with since they held their first elections in 2012, after revolutionaries successfully ousted Gadhafi in 2011.

In 2014, after disputed election results led to fighting, international powers became more involved, with support for either east or west loosely based on the foreigners’ own political motivations. For example, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have supported Haftar in the east, partly because of his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and political organization, in Libya. Those countries all oppose versions of the same organization in their own homelands.

Turkey entered the fray on the side of the western Government of National Accord in Tripoli for economic and political reasons, and because its regional rivals supported the other side. Qatar had similar motivations for supporting forces in Tripoli.

Libya’s geopolitical potential and its oil wealth have drawn others, too, such as Russia. Libya’s role as a launching point for asylum-seekers heading for Europe and its proximity to significant landmarks such as NATO bases in Italy have led France and Italy to dabble in the Libyan conflict, too.

Foreign fighters here to stay

When brokering last October’s cease-fire, the UN called for the estimated 20,000 foreign fighters, supported by Turkey, Egypt, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, to leave the country. But that seems highly unlikely, says Arturo Varvelli, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Rome office, who has been researching Libyan politics since 2002.

“Libya has become a sort of proxy war,” Varvelli told DW. “I think that is the biggest problem in Libya at the moment: trying to contain the regional actors, many of whom have divergent visions for Libya.”

He believes many of the foreign powers like Turkey and Russia, who have “boots on the ground,” plan to stay: “Unfortunately, I fear it’s unlikely they will leave after a simple call from the UN, or because of the new government of national unity.”

No lessons learned?

The new presidential council set up to form the interim government has also already come in for criticism. The forum that elected the council “is widely seen as bringing together opportunistic, greedy politicians with little legitimacy or influence,” Wolfram Lacher, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, and Emadeddin Badi, of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Program, wrote in a recent analysis.

“It’s difficult to be positive,” Badi told DW. “Many conflate the longing of a majority of Libyans for positive change — in many ways a by-product of conflict fatigue — with a positive outlook for the new executive.” But in fact, he adds, nobody seems to be learning any lessons from the last so-called unity government, brokered by the UN and formed in 2015. This government failed to unite the country in any meaningful way, and fighting continued.

“The fact that we are in exactly the same place — just a few more tens of thousands of lives lost, a few million more lives ruined, and the country in tatters — is not really a cause for celebration,” states analyst Megerisi.

Sometimes, he says, it feels like Libya is just going around in circles. He believes Libyans themselves feel powerless and have become quite fatalistic.

“The people on the street feel negative but for different reasons,” confirms Asia Jaafari, a journalist monitoring social media for the the Libyan Centre for Freedom of the Press, based in Tripoli. “Those who didn’t support the revolution compare today to what it was like when Gadhafi was in charge. They say the revolution has failed. Those who did support it, are pessimistic because of what came afterwards. It was worse than they expected.”

“But it’s the opportunity that gives me and others hope,” Megerisi continues, referring to the proposed new government. “As long as the opportunities continue to repeat themselves, then at least we have the option to change. [After Gadhafi], for the first time in 50 years, Libyans were free to chart their own path,” he recounts. “The fact that they charted a path that led straight to war is not the most positive outcome. But nevertheless, the fact that freedom exists and that the hope remains … is the real gift of the revolution.”

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