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This is how I remember it: There were missiles coming down, and it was pitch black. It wasn’t the missiles that scared us, we were used to them. It was the darkness, mostly, not being able to see what happened if something did hit the house. It was also the emptiness, knowing that most of the neighbours had already left, that there would be no one to call out for help. The morbid anticipation of what could happen was one of the worst parts of the war.

We packed in the dark, consoling our fears with the plan that we’d leave at sun-up, that we couldn’t stay anymore. We had no idea where we would go and we didn’t care. We just had to go.

One thing I vividly remember is that we didn’t lock the doors of the rooms. My dad said, “If we lock them, they’ll break the doors down to get into the rooms.” He didn’t want them breaking our doors. We had accepted the fact that our house would be broken into, that there would be thieves who would try to get into our rooms, take our stuff, vandalize. We moved anything valuable to the roof’s stairwell, in case a rocket hit, in case the house went up in flames. We did this mechanically, matter-of-factly, like it wasn’t the most absolutely horrifying experience we had ever been through, that the idea of displacement, of being homeless, possibly losing our house forever, wasn’t so maddeningly awful that we wanted to drop to our knees and cry.

We left in the morning, with whatever we could fit in the car. I took one last walk around the house, the street, not really believing that we were going. The neighbourhood was dead. The stray cats and dogs we had been feeding were walking around aimlessly, brushing against my ankles. We were one of the only families left in the area, and there was no one else to feed them.

That feeling of disbelief stayed with me for a while, as we moved from house to house, country to country, living out of suitcases. Surely we’d be back in a few months. It can’t go on this long forever. We read every news story, every rumor, desperate for any shred of information. We scanned countless pictures on countless social media pages to see if we could recognize our house. Months turned into years, and we settled uncomfortably into the fact that we weren’t going back anytime soon. We sought out the stories of families who eventually went back to their homes, listening with hope to the stories of those who found their houses untouched, listening with poorly disguised misery to the stories of houses found in ruins, houses robbed of everything, even the windows, even the doors. I thought of our doors, and how my dad was afraid that they would be broken.

Fear turned into anger, and anger turned to depression. I had a recurring dream where I would drive into the neighbourhood and go back to our house. Sometimes it would be destroyed, sometimes there would be a mound of dirt preventing me from entering, sometimes I would find people living in it, zombies, bodies of dead soldiers. I would stand on the roof of the rubble and look at the burned trees and red sky and feel helpless. And then I would wake up.

I was always angry when I read the stories of displaced families. “They packed their belongings and left in a rush,” “100,000 families fled,” “They traveled to look for a new life and a safe place.” Families don’t leave everything behind in a rush, the thought is there in the back of their mind as soon as the fighting breaks out, they think it over a million times, even in the space of a day. You can’t just leave your old life behind, you can’t just forcibly start over. They never talk about that in the news stories, they never talk about the dreams and the constant feeling of disorientation. Every aspect of our lives was on hold, every plan put off, because we were waiting. We didn’t know what we were waiting for, we didn’t know what we’d find after the guns dropped and the smoke cleared. But we couldn’t move on, bound with thousands of other families in the excruciating wait.

Every meeting with neighbours ended in tears and sighs. Every time someone asked me, “Have you seen your house yet?” made me want to scream, to tell them that I didn’t know because of the fighting, how could I know?

The backdrop to this personal struggle was the war, the city exhausted by all the fighting and death and chaos. A bullet broke through the window of a house in one of the neighbourhoods we were staying in, killing a young girl. Her sister found her sprawled on the floor of her bedroom in a pool of blood soaking the textbook she was reading. A missile fell onto the living room of another house, destroying everything. No one was in the room at the time. Hearing these stories while you’re in your own home is one thing, you are able (to some extent) to dismiss it and create your own reality inside those four walls. But when you’re floating, un-anchored, there’s a sickening feeling of vulnerability.

I feel almost guilty talking about such a material thing, but there’s no way around it. Our house wasn’t just the place we lived, it was my sanctuary. I longed for my bed, my books, my old familiar comforts. Before this house, we had never lived in one place for longer than a year. I grew up unanchored, but at least that was something we did willingly. This house was the first place that belonged to us. The bedroom was mine, it was built for me, the garden was made for us to run in, every inch of the house was designed for my family’s use. Knowing that I could go anywhere, and this place would always be there when I came back, was my comfort. Having that comfort unexpectedly taken away was one of the worst feelings I have ever experienced. My relationships with friends outside this context because strained. What could I say to them outside of the reality that consumed me? One friend got married, another got her Masters’ degree, one started a new job he was passionate about. Me? Homeless, aimless, waiting.

The most maddening thing was not knowing. If we knew what had happened to the house, at least we would have some peace of mind. Even if it was destroyed, even if there was nothing left, we would know, we’d have some closure and could start planning for what comes after. But the guessing and speculating and being told to expect the worst took a toll on our psyche.

I applied for a job outside the country, because I had to break out, but mostly because I couldn’t wander in my city anymore. The idea that my home was a few neighbourhoods away but completely inaccessible to me filled me with impotent rage. I was already an expert in the suitcase life, it was just a matter of putting some distance between me and the misery. My parents didn’t protest, knowing that there were no good argument they could come up with for my staying. So I moved and tried to forget. But I still scanned the news and the pictures every day, still asked around for any new updates.

Last month, after the area was finally freed, my dad was allowed to enter. He went alone because they would only allow one person from each family. He came back, his face drawn. The pictures he took on his phone showed our rooms in shambles, everything taken out of the drawers and dumped on the floor, holes in the wall from the bullets, glass shards from the windows strewing the floor. But it was standing. It had survived the war, even though we barely did. My mom sent me the pictures, and I let out the first breath of relief in two years. The only thing my dad brought back from that first visit was a textbook from his library that he needed for a course he was teaching. I guess the shock had made him revert to that matter-of-fact mechanism.

He went back a few more times, bringing out more stuff, but when the fighting escalated in the nearby neighbourhood they wouldn’t let him back in. It was enough though, enough to give us a new dose of hope. Around us, the city is healing.

76 Hours in Tripoli

 

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Near the Tajourian seaside

For all my aggressively pro-Benghazi sentiment, there’s a special place in my heart for Libya’s capital city. Large, loud, bustling, with excellent coffee that almost makes up for the traffic congestion, the indifferent enormity and beauty of Tripoli is like a haughty love interest. I enjoy glimpsing a shadow of Benghazi in the Italian facades of downtown Tripoli, or the pedestrians walking down the seaside. But the accent of the passersby shatters that illusion; hearing ‘halba‘ instead of ‘wajed‘, or seeing the black shenna atop the heads of old men on street corners, instead of the distinct crimson of the East, reminds me of where I actually am.

No Libyan will admit this, in our long-standing tradition of stubbornness, but we love visiting other regions and cities. It’s that feeling of being not-quite-away from home, but far enough that you notice the small differences, which I think we find endearing. My Libya travels have been contained to the East, which makes the rare trips to the capital all the more exciting. West Libya is an entirely foreign place to me, while the South is still more of a mystery. (I’ve still unsuccessfully been able to visit Fezzan, but it hasn’t stopped me from continuing to try)

This trip was marred by the Libyan conflict, as everything is nowadays. “Are you sure it’s safe to go?” “I heard they kidnap Shergawis.” “Tripoli is not what it used to be, don’t be surprised when you arrive.”

The airport was bigger than I expected, and knowing that there wasn’t a three-hour car ride ahead of me (a la Labrag) was enough to keep me in high spirits. Driving around the city, I picked up on the familiar patches of the skyline, re-learning the architecture. There were more bullet holes in Tripoli then when I last arrived over two years ago, and the people a bit more forlorn. But there was also a lot of life, a persistent need to keep going, an unwillingness to succumb to the situation. The ugly rumors online about how terrifying Tripoli had become are as unfounded as the reports of Benghazi’s complete destruction. But people persist in these rumors, because we have developed a hideous sense of victory when we hear of a rival city’s demise, as though this failure justifies our petty political beliefs.

“There’s Bou Sita, if you look hard you can see the boat that Sarraj sailed in on.” It’s a new joke, but there’s nothing funny about the very serious armoured cars guarding the naval base. Around the city, you can spot stenciled graffiti in support of the GNA, but it’s not convincing. Real graffiti is not that meticulous, not that earnest in its message. These suspicions were confirmed by people I spoke with. “We had hope in them at first, but not anymore. What have they achieved?”

It was hard to get used to hearing from people in Tripoli that some of the militias are keeping the peace. Militias are all bad, aren’t they? We uncompromisingly rejected them in Benghazi,  a decision whose consequences we’re still facing. But it’s all for the ultimate greater good. Isn’t it? But Tripoli isn’t Benghazi, and their situation is not our situation. In Benghazi we don’t have tens of thousands of IDPs from other cities all seeking refuge, we don’t have the debilitating political expectations from unseen outside forces. When situations go to their extreme, we lean on one another. But in Tripoli, it’s every man for himself. Which is why I have to accept that, whatever my feelings are, my opinions are irrelevant to this city. اهل مكة ادرى بشعابها, as they say.

Another thing about Tripoli that is both endearing and embarrassing is that I’ve never spent a dinar there. I go from friend to friend, being hosted in that famed Libyan hospitality, and fights over the bill always end up with me losing to the argument of “You’re our guest!” Even when buying fruit at a kiosk, the vendor dismissed me with a wave of his hand as I try to pay, saying “Next time,  المرة الجاية.” I unconvincingly tell friends, “I’ll be hosting you when you visit me in Benghazi soon,” both of us knowing that they won’t be visiting Benghazi soon, that I don’t even want them to see Benghazi when it’s like this, with its rubble and its anger.

You don’t have to go far to find Benghazi anger though. Tripoli hosts thousands of Benghazi families who have fled the East, some unable to return because their neighbourhood still isn’t under LNA control, and some because it is. For the latter, it’s a self-imposed exile, a decision that hasn’t been taken without some measure of bitterness. I’m acutely aware that being able to travel freely between cities and regions in Libya has become something of a luxury.

In the morning of my departure, I bought an early-morning cup of coffee from a nearby kiosk. In Benghazi, as a woman, I could never stand in a line with a group of sleepy-eyed Libyan men at a coffee kiosk. But my visitor status to the city affords me this brazen opportunity. I walk around for a bit taking in the morning air, forgetting for a brief moment the war, the hatred, the divided country, and enjoyed being a regular citizen visiting the capital city of her country.

Tripoli is also where I first met Tawfik Bensaoud, during that last trip two years ago, ironic considering that we’re both from Benghazi. We had our first real conversation waiting at the airport gate for our flight back. I don’t remember what we talked about, probably politics or civil society, but I remember being content. Tawfik is gone, and the airport is gone, but Tripoli is still here, Benghazi is still here. We can only go forward now.

 

Dispatches from the Dark

Most countries mark the passage of seasons by the changing colours of the trees. In Libya, we mark it by the power cuts.

It must be summer, because the electricity has been cut not once, but twice today, marking a grand total of five hours of electricity. Five hours of scrambling for power sockets to charge our drained devices and our emergency lights. Five hours of rants reverberating around the house about the electricity company.

During the final week of my thesis preparations, a false summer blew through Benghazi and triggered the universally-loathed power cuts. In a panic and a frenzy, I would rush across the city from relative’s house to relative’s house, calling beforehand to make sure they had electricity so I could charge my laptop and continue working.

Based on personal experience, there’s very little that’s worse than a power cut. War? Meh, as long as the rockets don’t hit my house. Food shortages? We can live on pasta. Maybe the only crisis we’ve experienced in Libya today that is worse than the power cuts is the liquidity problem. It’s been months of apocalyptically long lines in front of the banks as people are allowed to withdraw only a minimum amount of cash to meet their basic needs. Which, as the price hikes continue on all imports, is getting to be a shorter and shorter list of needs. Do I really need to buy coffee this week? My favorite cookies have doubled in price, have to pass on those. I hope I don’t get sick because I don’t think my wallet can survive a trip to the pharmacy.

But the panic that comes when you need to meet your thesis deadline and you’re suddenly thrown into the dark ages comes in a very, very close second.

It’s a despicable, humiliating and downright depressing way of life, one that makes even the most gung-ho Feb 17 supporter grumble about our post-revolutionary existence. You know you’ve hit rock bottom when the most pressing issues your corrupt, ineffectual politicians discuss are how to provide flour, oil and tomato paste to the cities before Ramadan. And they triumphantly declare that they have worked out a plan, as though the years of their backwards rule that ran the country into the ground is suddenly vindicated. Hey, you know what’s better than flour and oil? A fucking functional country.

But this is just me during a power cut; surly, angry and annoyed. The electricity will come back, and I’ll turn on the air conditioner and try to cool off physically and psychologically. Around the country, millions of Libyans are experiencing the same frustrations. We are united by the struggle to survive, even if we’re not united on any other issue.

And I sit in the dark and whisper to myself, this nightmare has to end eventually. Right?

رسالة مفتوحة الى رئيس وزراء ليبيا, فائز السراج ,من مواطنة في بنغازي

بعد التحيه,

المفروض اني انهنيك على دخولك الى طرابلس باقل اضرار ممكنة. في بلاد زي بلادنا, واللي اي حركة سياسية ممكن تسبب في حرب, دخولك بسلام يعتبر انجاز رائع.

انا حنكون صادقة معك, فكرة حكومة الوفاق ماكنتش مقتنعة بها واجد. لأن الفكرة كلها كانت تدور حول قضية عدم تسليم السلطة من الحكومات السابقة, من شرذمة من السياسيين الفاسدين اللي حطوا السلطة والمال فوق كل شىء. ولذلك انا ماحسيتش ان تكوين حكومة الوفاق انجاز, بل ابتزاز.

لكن مرات الحاجة الصحيحة في العالم الافتراضي والحاجة الضرورية في الواقع يكونان عكس بعضهن, وللأسف هذه كانت هي احدى المرات. شفت مدينتي تمزقت من مجموعات متطرفة وخشت في حرب شعواء. شفت اصدقائي في العاصمة يعانون من صعوبة الحياة اليومية وخائفين من المجموعات المسلحة. سمعت قصص من اهلي في الجنوب عن تدهور وضياع فزان وعزلهم عن باقي البلاد.

لهاذا السبب, انا حندعمك, وحندعم حكومة الوفاق. ربما يكون مش هو الاختيار الصحيح, ولكن لأن الوضع لم يعد يحتمل و مافيش اختيار اخر.

ولكن هذه الثقة اللي عطيتها لحكومتكم غصبا عني, ياسيد سراج, ممكن ان تسلب بكل سهولة. لأن مش عندك حكومة سابقة و لكن حكومتين فلك ان تتعلم من اخطائهم. سبب خراب ليبيا معلق في رقاب هاتين الحكومتين. المؤتمر الوطني العام قووا المليشيات وتحالفوا مع الشيطان, اما مجلس النواب فاختبؤوا في قلعة و زادوا نار الحرب وقود. هم الاثنين سمعوا صراخ الناس و تجاهلوهم.

انا متأكدة ان عندك فريق كامل من المحللين و المساعدين يقولولك في نفس الكلام هذا. لكن انا انقول فيه لك لأني عايشه في وسط هذه الواقع. نجاحك بالنسبه ليا مش نجاح سياسي, نجاحك هو انقاذ ماتبقى من هذه المدينه وهذه البلاد. و فشلك حيعني النهاية بالنسبة لنا. سواء نبو ولا مانبو, حياتنا و حياتك مرتبطات, و انا حندعمك علشان ننقذ حياتي.

لو في حاجة وحدة بس تقدر اتديرها في فترة حكمك, خلي الحاجة هذه انك تسمع للشعب. مطالبنا حاليا مش صعبات واجد, بس وظيفتك مش فقط انك توفر الاشياء الاساسية. ايضاً, وظيفتك مش انك اتعود بالبلاد الى الوضع اللي كانت فيه في 2011, لأن هذا الوقت كان بداية المشاكل لنا. الان عندك الفرصة انك تكون اول رئيس وزراء ينهي عقلية “الثوار”. نحن معش نبو ثورة, نبو دولة. مش دولة لبنغازي فقط, او دولة لطرابلس او مصراته فقط. نبو دولة للجميع.

كون اول رئيس وزارء ليبي لا يتهم الشباب بتعاطي حبوب الهلوسة  لما يتظاهروا ولكن اسأل عليش يتظاهروا. كون اول رئيس وزراء لا ينشر الاكاذيب و المؤامرات على عدوه, لكن يتفاهم معه. كون اول رئيس وزراء يبدأ في حل الازمة, وما يشاركش في ازديادها.

نحن الاثنين معماريين, ونعرفوا كيف انصمموا مباني و مدن للناس. و نعرفوا ايضا ان افضل تصميم في نظرنا احيانا لا يستجيب الى احتياجات الناس. نحن مش طالبين افضل تصميم و تحقيق اهداف خيالية, اللي نبوه فقط هوحياة طبيعية. نبو نمشوا لمدارسنا وجامعاتنا وأعمالنا بدون خوف من القذائف العشوائية. نبو انسافروا بدون مانحسوا بالذل والمهانة اللي قاعدين انتعرضوا لها توا. نبو العدالة, والامن و الامان, والحرية. نعم, الحرية. صح, نحن الان ضعفاء, لكن هذا لا يعني انا نردوا الى القيود من جديد من اجل الامان.

حضرتك قاعد الان في منصب سلطة, و تقدر ان تقرر اي حاجة, من ضمنهن قرارات تكبح الحريات. لكن من فضلك لاتنسى, ياسيد سراج, ان بنغازي, حتى و هي مكسورة, مش حتسكت لأي شخص يحاول ان يكبت حريتها. خلينا نشتغلوا مع بعضنا, مش ضد بعضنا, وننقذ هذه البلاد.

مع تحياتي,

ندى عبدالقادر,

بنغازي ليبيا

31\03\2016

An Open Letter to Prime Minister Faiez Serraj from a Benghazi Resident

Dear Prime Minister Sarraj,

I guess I should start by commending you on entering Tripoli as peacefully as possible. In a country where any political move can set off a chain reaction of violence acts, this is a promising achievement.

I have to be honest. The idea of a unity government has never really appealed to me. It is centered on the concept of pandering to a corrupt group of politicians and war lords who refuse to hand over power, and flies in the very face of the principles of democracy that we destroyed our country to obtain. It feels not like achievement, but like blackmail.

But, what is right in theory and necessary in practice are occasionally two very opposite things. I have watched my city become torn apart by extremist groups and plunged into an ugly war. I have seen friends in Tripoli live in fear and dread under militia rule. I have heard heart-wrenching accounts of Libyans in Fezzan as they describe a deplorable way of life in complete isolation from the rest of the country.

For this reason I support you, and I support the Government of National Accord. Not because it is right, but because the current situation is unacceptable and intolerable, and we have no one else.

But trust that is begrudgingly given, Mr. Sarraj, can be easily revoked. You have not one, but two failed governments to learn from. Do not repeat their mistakes, for the appalling state of Libya today lies mainly on their shoulders. The General National Congress allowed itself to become fragmented and manipulated by illegal armed groups, and allied themselves with the devil. The House of Representatives, meanwhile, sat in a safe, stately castle, fanning the flames of war, as they watched Libyans suffer below, ignoring their pleas for help.

I’m sure you have a team of advisers and analysts telling you the same things I’m writing here. But I am writing it to you because I am living in the middle of it. Your success to me will not be a political achievement, it will be the return of life to my city, to my country. And your failure will mean our doom. Whether we want it or not, our lives are intertwined with yours, and my support comes from my sense of self preservation. Don’t ever forget that.

If there is only one thing you can do differently from your predecessors, please make it that you listen to the people. Our demands have become very basic, but that doesn’t mean you should only provide the bare minimum human needs and consider your job done.

Your job is also not to return Libya to the state it was in following the end of the revolution in 2011, because it was that period that eventually got us here. I ask you, on behalf of a nation sick of instability, to be the Prime Minister that finally puts a stop to the “thuwar” mentality. We do not want a revolution, we want a country. Not a country for Benghazi, or a country for Misrata or Tripoli, but a country for everyone.

Be the Prime Minister that doesn’t accuse youth of taking pills when they protest, but instead ask why they are protesting. Be the Prime Minister who, instead of propagating conspiracy theories about his opponents, reconciles with them. Be the Prime Minister that finally puts a stop to the destruction, instead of being another contributing factor towards it.

You and I are both architects. We know how to design spaces and cities for people to exist in, to live in. And we both know that even the best laid designs can fail to meet the needs of the people. We are not asking for fantastical plans and lofty goals; we just want some semblance of normal life. We want to go to work or school without fearing falling missiles. We want to travel without being treated like pariahs in other countries. We want justice, and security, but also freedom. Yes, freedom. We are weak, but that does not mean we want another set of chains on our wrists in exchange for security.

You are in a position of power, and you may be tempted to make restricting decisions. But never forget, Mr Sarraj, that Benghazi, even when broken, will not tolerate those who lord power over it. Work with us, not against us, and let us save Libya together.

Yours sincerely,

Nada Abdulgader

Benghazi Libya

March 31, 2016

Learning From A Revolution

Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come round again. That’s why they’re called revolutions. People die, and nothing changes.” ― Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

Here it is; the five year mark. You remember, don’t you? Standing in front of the courthouse, our faces flushed from the rally and the excitement, telling any journalist who asked us about our prediction for the new Libya, “Just come and see what it’ll look like in five years!”

We gushed about our “new country”, our arrogant enthusiasm justified by the innocent hope and happiness that underlined it, as though we already visited the future and knew with confidence what would happen. Hard to believe it’s only been five years. It feels like fifty.

Must be a record,”Fastest Destruction of a State”. Most effortless, too. We were so busy being tricked with all the parades and fireworks – the superficial festoons of freedom – that we didn’t notice the men behind the curtain, who came out and took apart the puppet show that we thought was real.

Five years later, we are shocked, ashamed, horrified. Those journalists we spoke to five years ago can’t even enter the country anymore to see the results of the revolution. We’ve lost everything in what one can argue is an ironic twist of karma, what we did to the pro-Gadhafi side is now being done to us by creatures more terrifying than they (or we, for that matter) ever were.

I always tell myself that I’m not going to write an anniversary post, after the third year when I slowly, painfully realized that it had become a sham, that the revolution and the achievements and the country weren’t really ours anymore. But that fateful day comes round, and I find myself reminiscing at how so much could change in such a short span of time.

The February 17 revolution, whether I like it or not, will always be a core event for me. It has left me with beautiful memories and a wretched life. It made me hopeful, it helped me discover my value as a person and unearthed new traits I didn’t know I had, it opened my eyes to a new outlook on life, and it turned me into a monster.

It never ceases to amaze me how an otherwise normal person, a member of society and a generally decent individual, can so easily be made to support massive amounts of violence, bloodshed and destruction. In any other setting, they would be horrified. But manipulated by ideology, influenced by the poisonous effect of mob mentality, they turn into something not at once evil, but at once repulsive, hideous.

This is what happened to me in 2011. I’m not trying to justifying my behaviour and beliefs during that time, by saying I became blinded by revolutionary fervor and lost myself in the din of possibilities, because there was a small voice, in the back of my head, who hesitantly pointed out the problems that were also appearing. I ignored that voice, allowed it to become lost among the screams of “Libya is free, Libya is free!” all around me. That’s on me.

Sadly, many Libyans have not learned from the mistakes of 2011. Instead, they have transplanted their obsequious cheerleading onto other, more fragmented causes. Those too, will fail them, and there will be an existential scrabble to find, or create, new belief systems, and on and on until there will be nothing left to believe in. One could look upon our situation and conclude that revolutions forge hope while war creates misery, but we couldn’t have had one without the other

The revolution was not built on mendacious or malicious reasons. We were fed up, people were oppressed and unjustly treated, the status quo needed to change. It was not for a love of chaos that we marched against the regime. But the moment the first black flag unfurled on the battle field, the moment the first family was forced out of their home for what they believed, we should have stopped. Taken a step back. Reassessed where the revolution was going. But we didn’t, pushed on by our own momentum, unable to assess anything, unable to feel anything but our own vague thirst of freedom.

We did stop, eventually, too late, suddenly realizing the setting we were in. Mouths agape, we ask in horrified voices, what happened? How could it all have fallen apart like this? Like those from whom the veil of madness is abruptly lifted, we gaze in awe at the very destruction we supported.

We sit now in our broken country, angry at ourselves, at each other, at anyone who comes near, disillusioned, hopeless, wishing we could turn back the clock five years earlier.

If I could go back in time to my young, foolish, naive 20 year old self, I would shake myself by the shoulders and shout, “Stop! Don’t do it! Thousands will sacrifice themselves for nothing! You will lose everything you hold dear! It’s not worth it!” But hindsight, they say, is 20/20. My younger, foolish, naive self will probably look at me, laugh, and say, “What are you talking about? Just come and see what it’ll look like in five years!”


When people ask me about the February 17 revolution, I don’t hesitate anymore in admitting that I regret being part of it, part of the movement it became that is still ongoing to this day. I think the turning point for me, the moment of revelation of “Oh crap, what have we done,” came sometime in 2013, when I realized that things weren’t going to end well in Benghazi. No one is denying that February 17 began with noble intentions, but it’s very difficult to extract what the revolution used to be from the movement we see today. Even without the numerous foreign elements that invaded the country, a lot of injustices were committed in the name of February 17 by Libyans themselves.  

What I’ll say is, I don’t regret protesting against Gadhafi, because while life under his rule was better, it was still horrible. He needed to know that we were fed up, that we wanted our country back and that we wanted to achieve our potential at citizens. I believe our mistake was in demanding a complete upheaval of the regime, because we had literally nothing to replace it with, and no experience or background in nation-building. No amount of revolutionary zeal and good intentions can run a country, and that was our fatal flaw. The ultimate goal was to improve Libya, and I believe that we could have, and should have, done it a much different way, one that didn’t involve creating sides and that didn’t lead to the large losses we see today.

 

The Death of Democracy in Libya

Yesterday, Libya’s House of Representatives held an urgent session in their Tobruk headquarters to vote on an issue of the utmost importance. No, not the peace process. Or the war. Or the terrifying ISIS threat. Nope, the issue that brought an unprecedented number of representatives together (ever since their first session) was, of course, extending their mandate in Libya.

For those of you with hazy memories, the House of Representatives was set up to replace the expired General National Congress, which, to no one’s surprise, also extended their mandate. The idea was that new elections would instill a better legislative body that the Libyan people could put their faith in – faith that the GNC had ripped to shreds.

These elections happened in 2014, right after the launch of Operation Karama in Benghazi. By that point, many citizens were fed up with the process of voting in new officials, hence the low turnout for the HoR elections. Those who did vote were the more optimistic citizens, who held on to the hope that a new governing body might pull Libya back from the abyss.

Elections were held, votes counted, and the HoR – which was to be based in Benghazi – was formed. However, certain political groups did not win as many seats as they had intended, and plans were set in motion to handicap the HoR before it had even begun working. Airports were attacked, representatives threatened, suspicion cast on the relocation to Tobruk (due to the conflict in Benghazi), etc. Ultimately, the GNC refused to hand over power, citing incredibly vague reasons that were a cover for their actual excuse, “Nu uh, we don’t wanna.” In order to cement their position, they strong-armed the Supreme Court into passing an order to dissolve the HoR, under duress by their militias.

I was one of the people cheering on the HoR, because I was fed up with the malicious incompetence of the GNC and their childish attempts to derail what was becoming an increasingly off-balanced democratic transition. Anything would be better than them, and a government that was closer to my own city might actually focus on the multitude of problems we were facing for a change.

But over time, the HoR lost the desperate trust of the people. Their repeated promises to fight terrorism and fix the country never materialized into anything more than bold words spoken through a microphone. The usual divisions predictably appeared within the HoR itself, and they repeated the same unprofessional gaffs as their predecessors. It became harder to defend their actions to those on the other side of the conflict. During one session – at the height of the war in Benghazi – members voted on raising their own salaries, a move that sparked universal fury (the first time all sides in the conflict agreed on something) and marked a steep loss in the tenuous support they had already had. But, the one fact that could be reliably turned to was that the HoR, despite their incompetence, were voted in democratically and recognized by the international community.

In the backdrop of all this was the threat (or, to some, the promise) of a military council, to replace the fragmenting HoR. This threat/promise continues to grow as the HoR’s mandate comes to an end.

According to the amended constitutional declaration of 2011, the HoR’s term ends with the completion of the constitution, or within 18 months from the start of the CDA’s work. In exactly 14 days from now, that 18 month deadline will be reached. We have no constitution, a government in the West that refuses to hand over power, and now a government in the East that is doing exactly the same thing that caused us to demand a new government in the first place. Hope, Libya’s last remaining hope, is a Government of National Accord, that combines the GNC, HoR, and nearly all the political factions in Libya fighting for a piece of the pie.

The HoR, as part of their Roadmap Committee, proposed a backup plan in the event that the national dialogue fails and a unity government isn’t formed; extending their mandate. Yesterday’s vote was a step towards ensuring that this plan was implemented, much to the ire of Libya’s enraged population.

The deadline to accept the national dialogue proposal is supposed to be October 20th, as it coincides with the end of the HoR’s term. By extending their mandate another six months, the HoR is basically inviting UNSMIL to extend this confounding process of forming a new government, which in turn will prolong the war.

Except, Libyans can’t wait another six months. We can’t wait another day. This plan should have been signed months ago so that the process of ending the conflict can begin, a conflict that is now entering its second year. The latest report by the UN indicates that over 2 million Libyans are directly affected by the war and need assistance. This extension is a blatant act of despicable, self-important selfishness that clearly shows how ignorant and insensitive the HoR is to the suffering of the country. Their excuse, that they don’t want to leave the country in a political vacuum, is an exact repetition of what the GNC said, confirming in the minds of Libyans everywhere that these government are just two sides of the same coin.

This move signifies something more than just another shameless power grab by corrupt Libyan politicians; it’s another nail in the coffin of Libya’s democratic transition. Every succeeding election saw a smaller turnout than the one before it, as every governing body we elect fails us. It’s incredibly common to hear citizens say “I’d rather cut my finger off than dip it in ink again” (a reference to dipping your finger in ink after casting a ballot). It’s one thing for your fellow countrymen to screw the country over while you look on helplessly, but it’s an entirely different thing when you know that you were the one who voted them into office to begin with. There is a phobia now surrounding elections, since our governments seem unable to hand over power without pointless extensions and wars. Libyans who staunchly supported the revolution now lament the loss of Gadhafi, and seriously discuss the potential benefits of reinstating military rule under Khalifa Heftar. The unity government itself is an un-democratic concept, as it centers around the distribution of power to political entities that had refused to hand it over.

It’s been said often since the end of the revolution that Libyans aren’t ready for democracy. I think the problem is that Libyans aren’t ready for politics. Either way, democracy can’t save Libya now, and the term itself has become a hated word. All that is desired is some semblance of stability, regardless of the cost. Some say that you cannot have a stable country without freedom, but Libya has neither stability nor true freedom. We are caught between greedy politicians, a growing terrorist threat and an indifferent international community. If the unity government is not formed, Libyans will not rally around the HoR, and we can’t keep waiting for perpetually unending dialogue negotiations. There are any number of scenarios that could happen by Oct. 20, each one more ominous than the last.