Libya revolution one year on: Better after Gaddafi?


Has the Libyan revolution gone wrong? Watch Mark's Newsnight film in full

TRIPOLI: On the outskirts of Misrata, there is a poster by the roadside. It is a slickly produced ad, funded by local businesses, carrying the slogan "Tomorrow Will Be Better."

Does it represent the kind of inherent optimism you find in many Islamic countries? Or is it an admission that, one year after the revolution to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi began, there are many respects in which there is disappointment and apprehension?

There is, without doubt, enormous pride at having toppled the old order. Point a camera at people on the streets celebrating and they will tell you how happy they are, and exult that "Libya is Free!"

Gada Mahfud, a writer in The Tripoli Post, referred this week, however, to "clouds of pessimism in the hearts and minds of Libyans", and this fits with the mood of a good number of people I have spoken to.

Many insist that they cannot say these things publicly, which itself prompts questions about freedom of speech. One of them, commenting on recent power cuts, told me: "This did not happen before the revolution, believe me. Everything in Libya was fine except for Gaddafi and his chums".

International disquiet

If there is a hope that "tomorrow will be better" on the part of many Libyans, there is also a disquiet on the part of some of the revolution's foreign backers.

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The country has lurched from a dictatorship, complete with a cult of the personality, to a collective leadership with a cult of obscurity”

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The Europeans are increasingly uncomfortable with reports emanating from Amnesty International, Medecins Sans Frontiers, and Human Rights Watch, detailing widespread arbitrary detention and torture. Frankly, these issues do not top the concerns of the average Libyan, so let's return to them later.

The type of problems they care most about are those of economic stagnation; an apparent paralysis on the part of central government; and the fact that "law and order" remain largely in the hands of militia groups from the revolutionary strongholds.

Foreign governments have recently unfrozen more than $60bn (£38bn) in Libyan government cash, and as oil production climbs back towards 2m barrels a day, revenues are pouring in.

Inevitably, people are asking why unemployment (estimated variously at 10-20%) is, if anything, increasing and hundreds of government construction contracts remain suspended when the country has so much money.

Flying here from Istanbul, I chatted on the plane to a Turkish businessman on his eighth visit since the revolution, trying once again to get a building project re-started.

Lack of public debate

People who want answers to these questions find it very hard to get them. The country is ruled by an interim government, responsible to the National Transitional Council (NTC), the self-appointed body that co-ordinated the revolution.

Both are meant to step aside after elections in June, and there is a feeling that nobody wants to take big decisions before then, for example to start building highways or other major infrastructure projects.

The new ministers and NTC are remote figures who most Libyans cannot name, some of whom were not publicly identified for months.

Dominic Asquith, the British ambassador here, told us: "The whole process of communication between government and people is still a work in progress."

The country has lurched from a dictatorship, complete with a cult of the personality, to a collective leadership with a cult of obscurity.

As for public debate or opposition, it has been limited by the murder of some prominent figures and the apparent impunity of the militia bands.

Those who have died range from Abdel Fattah Younes, who defected from the Gaddafi regime at the start of the revolution and commanded the rebel forces for a couple of months, to a former regime diplomat found dead a couple of weeks ago with signs of torture.

Refugees attacked

Powerful groups such as the Misrata militia brigades have taken revenge on their enemies, in their case the Tawergha tribe, which they accuse of perpetrating war crimes in their city on behalf of Gaddafi.

Some 30,000 Tawergha have fled from their home town near Misrata. On 6 February, some of these refugees were attacked at a refugee centre near Tripoli, and eight killed by men who the Tawerghans say were from the same armed groups.

There is little evidence of any government attempt to protect the refugees or punish those responsible.

This type of incident brings us to the concerns of foreign governments. Some diplomats here are beginning to wonder aloud whether the revolution's conduct towards its former opponents might sow the seeds of a new insurgency.

They speak about former regime supporters as "the 20%". One comments: "What we cannot afford is for it to become 70/30 or even 60/40."

In their meetings with Libyan government officials, French, British, or Italian officials urge them to speed up the processing of detainees, which by some estimates number more than 8,000.

Many of these people have been refused contacts with lawyers and given no idea when they might be tried, say human rights workers.

Former Gaddafi strongholds like Sirte, Bani Walid, and Tajoura contain many embittered people who can expect little assistance from their new masters.

With its great national wealth, small population, absence of sectarian tensions, and the absence of a large occupying army (as in Iraq), the odds ought to be weighted in favour of Libya's new rulers.

Many people are waiting for June's elections for them to raise their game and demonstrate effective control of the country.

In that sense, the message that "tomorrow will be better" seems as much of a plea or a pledge of faith than any sort of statement of certainty.

Mark Urban Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    One year later, do the Europeans (Britain/France/etc) feel better about Ghadaffi's ouster? it is not clear that the active military participation of NATO will produce the desired effects in Libya, namely; cheap and easily available oil and oil contracts. Although Ghadafi was a vicious dictator, it is not clear that he is worse than some other ones (e.g. Kim Jong Un, Robert Mugabe, Assad, etc).

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Libyans are a militant and revolutionary people. From Gaddafi's radical transformation of Libyan society to the recent conflict - Libyans (regardless of either side) are fighters with profound convictions.

    Unless Libyan society can unite its diversified peoples (as Gaddafi was able to sustain - albeit with an iron fist), it is difficult to be optimistic for peace in the near future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    This Libyan situation could have been, should have been, foreseen. Libya is a tribal country that operated best under a strong hand. June elections or not, Libya has never been democratic territory. Tribal means vengeance, bloodshed, constant struggles for the upper-hand & constant fears that the hand will be cut off.
    But oil is flowing; so, what matters the rest?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Most unpleasant fact is Libya now another Somalia of Africa. From highest standards of living placed to the lowest thanks to freedom loving western powers. If we are getting rid of dictators lets start from arab gulf countries. Sheiks and princes have been ruling these countries for decades and nobody says anything about them. It is all comes down to "our dictator" we are happy with

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I am now in Tripoli a can attest to the restrained jubilation. The biggest thing facing Libyans is knowing how to deal with the new freedom when everything for the past 40 years has been directed from the top with little opportunity for independent decision making. They need to first get used to the idea that they are free to make those decisions before there is a flow of activity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Libya had the best standard of living in Africa & was a great country that was self sustaining through its natural resources. Gadaffi refused to put his country in debt to USA-UK-IMF-Israel & Libya was invaded & destroyed by NATO (mainly UK). It was given over to wild gangs. Libyan towns are in ruins & prisoners executed. The UK in particular, should be indicted for war crimes against humanity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Just think how wonderful Libya COULD be. They have wealth in oil and an opportunity to make a fresh start; however I fear tribal loyalties will dictate the country’s’ future. Let’s all just wish them the best of luck.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The western anti-midas touch once more turns another country into a mess with torture,armed gangs killing each other, no power, poverty etc.. Cameron is obviously pleased, UK 'proud' of Libyan revolution.

    Perhaps Libya needs a NTC2 and start another revolution .

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Allow foreign powers to put weapons in the hands, and pantomime bravado into the hearts, of the type of British citizen religiously wearing football strips and 'exulting' 'There's only one Toon Army' and what do you expect? Nuancing the reality now, ex post facto, won't wash the blood from your hands Mr Urban. You're as much a part of the 'con' as the Neocon's behind this grisly mess.


  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Tomorrow I don't know but Saturday looks pretty good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    @#2 - The same could be said of Louis XVI and the French, and of many other developed nations' histories. It takes time to learn to do democracy right, something we in the West forget. Nevertheless, nations must start somewhere or they will forever be oppressed. Instead of lamenting that Libya hasn't become a model democracy overnight, let's focus on what it has accomplished and how we can help.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Time and time again we see how effective forced 'democracy' is in countries such as Iraq and Libya. Will we ever learn that what we consider the best form of rule in the West, is totally unsuitable for the rule of people in the Middle East/North Africa.

    Gaddafi was the ideal man to control libya, just as Hussein was the ideal man for Iraq. No matter how unpalatable you may find these comments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Gaddafi must be laughing in his grave :) !!



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