TRIPOLI— Two years after Libyans in the eastern city of Benghazi began rising up against Muammar Qadhafi, citizens in the capital held raucous celebrations to commemorate the uprising-turned-civil war that ultimately ousted the dictator.
Some might interpret the joyful mood among Tripoli residents during the recent celebrations as a sign that Libyans are pleased with their country’s path in the wake of Qadhafi’s death. Another interpretation is that the revolution anniversary is viewed as a time when those who died fighting for the new Libya must be honored, instead of an opportunity to voice anger about the pace of the political transition.
There are likely truths in both views, but in either case, the intensity of the festivities showed how the revolution still looms large in the Libyan conscience. The date “17 February” is scrawled on walls all over the city. Posters and billboards recognize the martyrs and the missing from the nine-month conflict.
Neighborhoods are known for the specific roles their residents played in the revolution; Fashloom is known as the “spark” of the revolt against Qadhafi in Tripoli, while other areas are derided by some for being slow to side with the rebels during the liberation of Tripoli, as it is widely referred to in Arabic, in late August 2011.
Two years on, Libya is still defining its new identity, after 42 years in which the name of the country was synonymous abroad with a leader who many Libyans secretly loathed but were forced to pledge allegiance to.
As a result, Libya is grappling not only with the huge task of building basic institutions like an army and government ministries from scratch, but also with the divisions that came to the surface in the armed conflict that pitted communities against each other. In the time since Qadhafi’s death, a mentality has emerged that clearly identifies those who fought in revolutionary brigades as heroes, and condemns Libyans who fought for Qadhafi as traitors who do not deserve to reap the benefits of freedom in the new Libya.
The latter group includes communities such as the Tawerghans and the Mishasha, minority groups who now live in fear of attack from powerful militias from the cities of Misrata and Zintan, which continue to play a role in providing security in the absence of functioning army and police forces.
In stark contrast to Egypt, where the revolution did not result in the dismantling of the historically strong military institution, Libya’s decentralized revolution essentially wiped out the national army, which had long been a weak collection of brigades controlled by Qadhafi’s sons.
“Libya is awakening not just from 42 years of oppression but it is also now in a post-conflict situation,” says Hanan Salah, Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch, who witnessed much of the revolution while working for the International Committee for the Red Cross.
“They have to deal with thousands of militias,” Salah tells Egypt Independent. “No serious demobilization has happened, there is arms proliferation throughout the country, [and] there are great political divisions ... all of these differences now have to be reconciled. There are fundamental identity questions.”
Part of this discussion revolves around which citizens have the right to participate in leading Libya’s transition.
Members of the General National Congress elected last July to replace the initial transitional government are debating a draft bill known as the Political Isolation Law. This bill specifies which members of the former regime would be disqualified for competing for political office in elections to be held after Libya drafts and adopts a new constitution.
The current draft has been criticized by some Libyan activists as unduly far-reaching. It would bar many Libyans who held posts in the Qadhafi government from contributing their expertise as parliamentarians or as ministry officials.
“The criteria on which isolation is based are very sweeping and general,” says Elham Saudi, director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, who argues that participation in the new government should be based on perceived affiliations of some Libyans who had no choice but to serve in Qadhafi’s regime.
Some lawmakers see the issue differently.
“The main idea is: ‘You will be with us, but don’t lead us,’” says National Congress member Mohamed Sammud, who approves of the Political Isolation Law in its current form.
Sammud says it is “unacceptable” for the new Libya to be led by the “same group” that many Libyans sacrificed their lives to overthrow.
“At the same time, as a Libyan, you are welcome to live in your own country,” he reasons.
Sammud’s colleague acknowledged that some Libyans, including the Tawerghan people and those who fled the country due to fears that they would face retribution for their past loyalties to Qadhafi, are bearing the brunt of the new order.
“We have tried to encourage them to come back [to Libya],” says National Congress member Mustafa Gebril. “Especially the wives and children — why do they have to suffer? They are innocent, they shouldn’t be blamed because their father was in the regime.”
But besides dismantling what’s left of the old regime, there is a big task of rebuilding still ahead.
Ahmed Kamess, a young member of the recently founded Taghyeer Party, tells Egypt Independent that his organization is struggling to gain legitimacy among Libyans who are unaccustomed to party politics and to civil society organizations advocating for citizens’ rights.
“We are working to build this infrastructure,” says Kamess. “We want to change the spirit of people, to focus on encouraging participation in the drafting of our constitution.”
Kamess says he expects this process to take time.
Meanwhile, there is little evidence of progress by the transitional government in achieving its promises to secure the large country and its long borders from militias, who still guard checkpoints in major cities and often enjoy more legitimacy from local populations than soldiers who form the shell of the army.
“The government is trying to reform, but the weight of Qadhafi’s 42-year rule is overwhelming,” Frederic Wehrey of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace tells Egypt Independent.
Wehrey argues that “idea of Libya exists and is widespread,” explaining that Libya does not suffer from “the rampant tribalism of Somalia or the sectarian enclaves of Lebanon.”
“There are a lot of familial linkages that temper regional identities,” he says.
With an estimated population of just 6.4 million people, Libyans do enjoy close communal ties that could provide a buffer against the threats of “victor’s justice” and an incomplete national reconciliation process.
Amal Haddad, a housewife with her husband and three daughters who came to Martyrs Square in central Tripoli to mark the revolution anniversary, was optimistic about her country’s future.
“It’s normal that we are going to face differences of opinions as we build our new country,” she said. “As long as we resolve to address these differences without violence, we will continue to enjoy life without Qadhafi.”