Libya revolution one year on: Better after Gaddafi?

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.

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.