Chris Stephen reports: “It was better under Gaddafi,” says the young Libyan student, studying the froth bubbling over the top of his cappuccino in a cafe in Tunis as he contemplates the revolution that swept Muammar Gaddafi from power four years ago. “I never thought to say this before, I hated him, but things were better then. At least we had security.”
Tuesday marks the fourth anniversary of that revolution but nobody is celebrating. Egyptian air strikes now hammering Islamic State positions in the east of the country, in response to the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians, is a further twist in an already grim civil war. Four years ago the student picked up a gun and joined rebel militias. Now he wishes he had stayed home.
“If I had that time again, I would not join [the rebels],” he says. Like many of his former comrades, he has left the country, but won’t give his name, fearing retribution against his family back home.
“In the past, we would have a party for the anniversary of the revolution, but not this time,” says Ashraf Abdul-Wahab, a journalist. “A lot of people tell you it was better under Gaddafi, that the revolution was a mistake. What they mean is, things are worse now than they were then.”
Libya’s Arab spring was a bloody affair, ending with the killing of Gaddafi, one of the world’s most ruthless dictators. His death saw the rebel militias turn on each other in a mosaic of turf wars. Full-scale civil war came last summer, when Islamist parties saw sharp defeats in elections the United Nations had supervised, in the hope of bringing peace to the country. Islamists and their allies rebelled against the elected parliament and formed the Libya Dawn coalition, which seized Tripoli. The new government fled to the eastern city of Tobruk and fighting has since raged across the country.
With thousands dead, towns smashed and 400,000 homeless, the big winner is Isis, which has expanded fast amid the chaos. Egypt, already the chief backer of government forces, has now joined a three-way war between government, Libya Dawn and Isis.
It is all a long way from the hopes of the original revolutionaries. With Africa’s largest oil reserves and just six million people to share the bounty, Libya in 2011 appeared set for a bright future. “We thought we would be the new Dubai, we had everything,” says a young activist who, like the student, prefers not to give her name. “Now we are more realistic.”
Just why Libya’s Arab spring went so badly wrong is a matter of hot debate. Some blame Nato for not following up with political support after its air campaign; some argue that it was the lack of institutions to make democracy work, or Libya’s atomised tribal structure that makes cooperation hard and magnifies distrust. Many have simply given up.
“So many of the revolutionaries of four years ago have gone to ground, they have fled, ” says Michel Cousins, editor of the English-language Libya Herald newspaper. “They say a revolution eats its children.” [Continue reading…]