Slow rebirth for post-revolution Libya

Two years after the start of the uprising against Col Muammar Gaddafi, the BBC’s Rana Jawad, in Tripoli, finds that many Libyans feel not enough progress has been made since a new government was elected.
Libyan protestors drove extremist militia from Benghazi. Net Photo.
Libyan protestors drove extremist militia from Benghazi. Net Photo.

Two years after the start of the uprising against Col Muammar Gaddafi, the BBC’s Rana Jawad, in Tripoli, finds that many Libyans feel not enough progress has been made since a new government was elected.

Bilal Bettamer is a conflicted character - a cynic, a government critic and an optimist all in one. A recent law graduate, he is one of many in Benghazi who took to the streets and the frontline to help end Col Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.

The spark of the revolution has long since faded in Benghazi, where the uprising started before it spread to the rest of Libya. Instead, the city has witnessed the birth of militia rule, assassinations and the influence of radical Islamists. The Libyan government has only just begun to seriously address the security vacuum there. But residents of the city feel they are largely in charge of taking care of their own.

Stalled progress

Mr Bettamer helped organise the Save Benghazi protests last year, in the wake of the attack against the US consulate that killed four Americans including the ambassador, Chris Stevens. The crowds later marched head-on to drive some militias out of their bases and succeeded, albeit briefly, in showing what they will not stand for.

The spirit of fight, not flight, is still very much found in Benghazi. “Benghazi is a fighter and it’s getting better already. All we need now is militias to be disbanded and police to be stronger,” Mr Bettamer told the BBC.

Did post-revolution Libya turn out the way he had hoped? “Of course, things didn’t turn out the way I wanted,” he says. “I wanted to start building Libya and forget about Gaddafi forever, the second he died. But that’s not how things go in a country [which] just came out of an eight-month long war and 42 years of absolute dictatorship.”

There is no shortage of complaints in Libya about the way things have turned out. The transitional authorities who took power after Col Gaddafi’s killing stalled on everything, from building a much-needed security apparatus to making sure that ex-fighters were treated properly.

A scheme to help the war wounded became mired in corruption, following revelations that many people who were flown abroad for medical treatment had not been injured in the conflict.

‘Diverse needs’

Much of the anger is directed at the 200-member General National Congress, elected in July 2012. The congress inherited these issues and further added to them by stalling on its own principal purpose - forming a panel of experts to draft the constitution. Much of the ill-feeling is now directed at the congress.

A new cabinet led by Prime Minister Ali Ziedan, formed two months ago, has so far been spared criticism because “they seem more serious and tougher”, as one Libyan put it.

Last week, the congress finally reached a decision on how to form the constitutional panel - the people will be electing 20 experts in each of the country’s three regions.

The hard work is still to come, though, and members of the congress, like Dr Guimaa Al-

Shawesh, are wary of rushing a document through too quickly. “We need to put something together that will contain the rights of all the Libyans, which we know are of diverse needs,” he recently told the BBC. Lobbying by various interest groups across the country has been stepped up in recent months.

Sticking points

The role that Islamic law, or Sharia, will play is potentially a major sticking point in the drafting of the constitution. It is the women who are most concerned about it. A mix of veiled and unveiled women recently attended a meeting of the Nisaa Quadimoon [Women are Coming] Foundation at a cafe in Tripoli. “We are working on the equality of men and women in the new constitution,” said lawyer Hannan al-Nuwesri emphatically.

Fellow member Madiha al-Naas specialises in gender equality, and told me about the concerns raised since the revolution.

“Political Islam surfaced - there is a worry… the conservative forces are in the National Congress, and it is affecting decision-making.” The congress is dominated by more liberal-leaning members, but it also has many moderate Islamists and a few Salafists.

In eastern Libya there have been some serious calls for federalism.

Essam al-Tajouri, a civil society activist from Benghazi, told me they need a constitution that guarantees the rights of their region to prosperity, education and health. “These rights can be achieved in a decentralised administration - be it under federalism, or provincial rule, municipalities, call it what you want - so long as we get rid of centralised power… the people will have the final say when it’s put to a referendum,” he said.

Meanwhile the Amazigh, Libya’s indigenous ethnic minority, are also lobbying. Key figures I have met, like the head of the local council of Libya’s western city of Zuwara, Tariq al-Atoushi, warned that they would wholly reject a constitution that does not recognise their language and identity. Bilal Bettamer is keen to let the world know that Benghazi is not the Baghdad, or Kabul, that the media makes it out to be.

“I lose hope at times but Libyans have this ability to do things that brings hope back in a second. I’m very positive about our future, because honestly, the worst has happened already, all we got now is recovery,” he says. The single demise of a dictator’s absolute rule gave birth to a multitude of demands, ideologies and rifts that are likely to deepen before they are neutralised - or so it is hoped.

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