10 Years On

“We, who think we are about to die, will laugh at anything.”
― Terry Pratchett

I told myself I wasn’t going to write anymore anniversary posts about February 17. I mean, what is there left to say? Life has changed for the worst for most Libyans, and the empty platitudes about sacrificing for the future seem hollow at best and horrifying at worst when you realize that the future is going to built on the bodies of countless people who have been taken from us and the countless places which have been decimated by all the injustice, cruelty and greed that we are capable of.

Is this depressing? Yeah. Am I depressed? I’ve gotten over it, mostly. I’ve already wasted the best years of my life on this sadness, I won’t waste anymore. Reading through the posts of the past 10 years on this blog and seeing the steady decline of my optimism and hope is a weird experiment in real time of how far the human spirit can be crushed. I turned twenty right after the start of the revolution and now as I approach 30 I wonder if this world-weary cynicism is something that is common with growing up or if living through this decade of pain is what did it. Who would I be right now if the revolution didn’t happen? Where would I be? I wouldn’t have met all the amazing people that I did if it never happened, but then again, a lot of them would probably still be alive.

This blog is probably the reason why I’m writing this. I set it up in 2011 once the internet connection came back to Benghazi after months of being cut off from the world, so I could upload all the articles and thoughts that I wrote during that time. I wanted to be one of the many voices who could ‘finally speak out’, and I wanted to document everything because it was – and I guess still is – a historic moment that I lived through. I called it ‘Journal of a Revolution’, not the most creative name. But as it became less and less of a revolution, my writings became less about documenting history but rather ranting angrily as I saw the country crumble around me.

I lost faith in the revolution on September 19, 2014, Black Friday, when 14 people, including two 18 year-old activists, were assassinated in Benghazi, one day of many years of terror in the city. On that day, I stopped calling it a revolution and started calling it what it was; a war. From the start, it was a war of Libyans killing one another over ideological differences, and over who could control the country. A war with proxy actors, all fighting for a place that we were barely struggling to live in. The ideology of February 17 and September 1 began to look identical, because that’s what happens with people’s revolutions, eventually. I can see now that each one started with noble causes, each one needed sacrifices and a lot of power to succeed, and they each eventually stopped being about building a country for all in favour of a country for some.

I’m sorry if you clicked on this link thinking that I was going to write about what happened to the country in the past 10 years. I don’t know what’s happened to the country. I can only tell you what’s happened to me. I was a naïve architecture student when the revolution happened, and I graduated as a displaced person with severe trauma in a city that was half destroyed by terrorism and ugly politics. I started reading about Libya before the revolution, not just what my parents told me but the actual history. I read about the Kingdom, about colonialism, about the fact that our country has been built on a cycle of revolution and violence and instability, a Sisyphean exercise in nation-building.

But Nada, you screech, we should try and break this cycle of violence! Yeah, great, so inspiring. Except fucking how? Do you know what it’s like to work within the system, to try and change things and make an impact? Revolutions are easy, you just destroy the things you don’t like. Building things, like a government, like infrastructure, like people, that’s not easy. And it’s not easy when your little civil society projects trying to make a difference are wiped out by a giant Howitzer missile.

Building a country needs leadership and strong people who are prepared to get their hands dirty. I’m not a strong person. I’m a kid who had delusions of grandeur that were swiftly broken, and now I’m an adult who can’t even attend a government meeting without dealing with waves of anxiety. I vomit when I hear about another crime of another person who was shot or run over or tortured. I can’t sleep at night without making sure all my family members are safe at home or at least accounted for. I dream about car accidents, masked men driving blacked out pick-ups, mines exploding in my face if I step on them. And I have no patience for people who spout platitudes about revolutions.

I could write also about all the wonderful things have happened despite all the horrors. I can write about how much more developed Benghazi’s civil society is. I can write about how people are speaking up more and using their own ways to dissent against authorities. I could tell you about the beautiful projects I’ve seen in technology, medicine, architecture, energy, education, finance, about all the cool new businesses that young people are setting up. But you might mistake these stories as the overarching conclusion, that, despite all the obstacles, we still thrive and resist.

That’s not the conclusion.

We don’t resist and thrive because we overcome our circumstances. We do so because this is where we live, and we have to live, because the only other alternative is to bury ourselves in a grave and accept that everything is terrible. We have no other choice but to resist. And that’s not admirable, it’s sad, that we have no choices.

Am I being harsh? Yes. I live in a harsh country that punishes you for having hope. 10 years ago I would have told you that Libya would be so developed, so advanced, that we would catch up to the rest of the world. Today, I would tell you that it would be a miracle if we could get out of our multiple crises in another 10 years. If we could have electricity running 24 hours a day, if we could address our water scarcity and salination crisis, if we could withdraw our money from the bank and have the purchasing power to provide enough for our families.

At this point you’re probably thoroughly sick of all this self-pity and despair. But you wanted a recap of the past 10 years in Libya, didn’t you? Here it is. The reality. If you want a positive spin on February 17, ask the people who lined their pockets and got the hell out after lighting the dynamite, they’re the ones telling us to keep the hope and pray for a better day. I’m just here capturing the zeitgeist of my city, which is what I always set out to do with the blog.

What did the past 10 years teach us? We learned how to identify different weapons by their sounds. We learned what collective fear feels like. And we learned that in the face of death, the best thing to do is laugh, and hold one another tightly.

Three Years On

The days leading up to February 17 in Libya have been a mixed bag of emotions for the citizens, most of which became overwhelmingly negative after the Libyan Scouts building was bombed on the eve of the three year anniversary of the revolution. As an independent civil society organization with no political affiliations, this cowardly attack on the Scouts has left everyone confused.

It’s these unexplained attacks and assassinations that has brought down the collective spirit of the Libyan people these past months. Is this all we’ve accomplished? Is this why we had a revolution, so we’d become a haven of criminals and corrupt politicians?

For this reason, a lot of people have sworn that they will never celebrate as long as Libya continues to break apart. Celebrate when there are finally achievements worth celebrating.

But it’s unfair to say that nothing good has come out of the revolution. The fact that we can even discuss the state of the country and criticize our ineffectual government is in itself an achievement.

So we can talk, so what? It’s not like we’re doing anything useful with our words. 

Unlike the politicians on T.V. or the slacktivists on social media, some people are actually taking advantage of this freedom of speech to do something good. There have been countless campaigns in school across the country to raise awareness on issues of breast cancer, AIDS and domestic violence, to name a few.

But what about real change on the political front? Our government is still playing us for fools.

Except the government has realized that we’re no longer buying into their empty promises. The last protests against the GNC extension were well organized and peaceful, and sent a powerful message that the people can still unite together against perceived oppression. The candidates for the constitution elections are doing more to earn the trust of the people.

And the steady rate of crime? What kind of democracy has a weak police force?

Crime is not unusual in Libya. But unlike the Gadhafi-era days, we had never heard about any incidents. With the growth of local media and the increased use of telecommunications, news spreads faster and reaches a larger audience. That doesn’t mean that our security situation is great, but we have to be realistic.

What about all the corruption? Everyone from the higher-ups to small company administration are involved in embezzlement, nepotism, etc.

Is this news to you? Did the corruption problem suddenly hit us after the revolution? We’ve always had corruption. But we’ve never had this level of transparency and accountability before. It’s not ideal, but it’s a start.

Life under Gadhafi was less stressful. At least I didn’t have to hear bombs every night.  

It’s selfish to assume that just because life under Gadhafi was great for you, it was great for everyone. Despite being an oil country, we have low rates of poverty, no infrastructure and a weak economy. The absence of bombs doesn’t make a significant difference. Not to mention the fact that it was Gadhafi who was actively destroying the country.

But now we have dozens of Gadhafis! And we can’t even identify half of them.

So should we wait another 42 years to fight them? It doesn’t matter what the face of tyranny and oppression look like, they should be battled with the same passion and fervor. Except instead of RPG’s and anti-aircraft missiles, we have to utilize a different set of weapons; namely education, tolerance and unity.

So what have we achieved in the three years since those first days of our awakening?

We’ve become more aware of the difficulties of rebuilding Libya. People kept saying “it won’t be easy”, but we had high expectations from the start, and we allowed the failure of reaching these expectations to bring us down. We’re now more realistic not just of the obstacles but of our own weaknesses. Set attainable goals, like solving the electricity problems, instead of goals like “looking like Dubai”.

To give up on Libya after everything we’ve been through is to cheapen the blood of those who gave their lives so that we could have one more day to fight. When we say it’s NOT EASY, we mean that we will have to deal with heart-break and frustration and differences of opinions, along with everything else; this is part of human nature and therefore part of the struggle.

Some people have an endless supply of pessimism that they love to share with the world; it doesn’t mean you should give them credibility because you’re feeling skeptical.

Celebrating this day is a way to to take a break from all the turmoil, to acknowledge that we still have a long way to go but that we have the opportunity to progress. We’ll make mistakes and learn from them. But to give up is to stay that there is no more chance for progress and growth, which is fundamentally incorrect.

Do you remember the Scouts I mentioned at the beginning of this post? They cleared up the wreckage in their headquarters, decorated it with flags, and went out to celebrate. That’s the spirit Libya is made of.