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Year after Gaddafi death, Libya ponders progress
October 20, 2011 marked a milestone in Libyan history with the capture and death of Muammar Gaddafi. A year later, Libyans still long for security, but they have managed a democratic transition – of sorts.
In the heady early days of the 2011 Libyan uprising, a single figure dominated the protest signs, the graffiti, the revolutionary art and discourse of both rebel fighters and ordinary Libyans seeking a break with the past.
Muammar Gaddafi – disparagingly called Abu Shafshufa, or Old Fuzzhead, by Libyans – had to be traced and captured.
But after the August 23, 2011 fall of Tripoli, Gaddafi went into hiding and his unseen presence seriously rattled Libyan analysts across the world. Until he was captured, experts warned, a page in the history of this oil-rich North African nation could not be turned.
Then suddenly, the madman of Libya was caught in his hometown of Sirte – and brutalised and killed. The milestone was crossed, the page turned.
That was exactly a year ago.
Over the past 12 months, Libya has slipped and surged on the airwaves. Cycles of bad news have been replaced by waves of reassuring headlines, only to be swapped by further alarming trends – all at a dizzying pace.
As Libya marks the first anniversary of Gaddafi’s death, the diagnosis – as well as the prognosis – for the country ranges from mixed to schizophrenic.
Successful elections and another milestone crossed
Contrary to the predictions, the results of the national assembly elections saw a relatively modernist nationalist coalition beat the Islamist parties.
“The elections were successfully organised,” said Jason Pack, a Mideast history researcher at Cambridge University and president of Libya-Analysis.com. “The fact is, Libyans voted and the security was managed. Even in places like Sabha [a restive southern Libyan city] voting took place.”
A month later, Libya’s interim National Transitional Council (NTC) handed power to the newly elected assembly. Another milestone was crossed.
An attack followed by a backlash in Benghazi
But then September 11, 2012 dawned. That was the night US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the US mission in Benghazi.
Once again, the spotlight was on Libya’s precarious security situation and the seemingly intractable problem of armed militias unwilling to disband. In eastern Libyan cities such as Benghazi and Derna, the emergence of militant Salafist groups appeared capable of derailing the national reconstruction mission.
“The Libyan government is at least six months away from disarming militias,” said Firas Abi Ali, deputy head of the Mideast division of the London-based Exclusive Analysis. “The militias show little inclination for disarming. They see their weapons as the primary means of their political representation.”
But even as the reactions to the September 11, 2012 attacks were rolling in, residents of Benghazi took to the streets in massive anti-militia protests in which some hardline Islamist groups were forcibly evicted from their bases.
The backlash prompted Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), to note in a Foreign Policy article that “Libyans' reaction to the tragedy vindicated what Stevens believed the country is and could become.”
Prime ministers without cabinets
In the long term though, the solution lies in disbanding the militias and putting together a professional national army.
But that, notes Pack, is easier said than done, given the political hurdles facing the nation.
In the three months since the national assembly election, two new prime ministers have been appointed, neither of which has been able to present a cabinet list that satisfied legislators.
“Even if the politicians want to crack down on the militias, they can’t do that because they need a cabinet and bureaucracy first," explained Pack.
In a country that moved from colonialism to monarchy to dictatorship, democracy is a new phenomenon, and Libyans are slowly learning the ropes – some would say too slowly.
“Some Libyan intellectuals understand that it’s a win-together or lose-together situation,” said Pack. “But the politicians aren’t acting that way.”
Economic concerns in an oil-rich nation
On the economic front, Libya is in the enviable position of earning more revenues than it can spend. The oil-rich nation, with a population of only 6 million, earns a billion US dollars every 10 days but lacks the management capacity and political will to spend the money, according to a Financial Times report.
But in cities like Benghazi, which were overlooked under the Gaddafi regime, the political stalemate coupled with the alarming security situation has seen projects grind to a halt as foreign investors have balked and trade delegations cancelled visits.
Little wonder, then, that Libyans do not plan to hold major commemoration ceremonies to mark Gaddafi’s death. The country will, however, celebrate the first anniversary since the declaration of "liberation" that was announced on October 23, 2011 – three days after Gaddafi was killed.