“Wasn’t it better under Gadaffi?” is a question that strangers have forced me to ponder countless times over the past ten years. Vaguely familiar with death and destruction-laden news coverage from Libya, many expect us to experience a haze of nostalgia for the familiar allure of authoritarianism. To be fair, many Libyan families were indeed safer, richer, and far less anxious about the future than they are today. But behind this veneer of stability, the Libya I that and many others knew was a dystopian police state where justice lay beyond an impenetrable barrier.
Ten years ago, Libyans rising to disrupt the status quo that had prevailed over their country for over 40 years seemed unthinkable. Muammar Gadaffi had cultivated an aura of indispensability to foreign partners and of inevitability to those he tyrannically ruled over.
Yet, the two narratives quickly collapsed. After Gadaffi used lethal force against protestors, Libyan rebels—backed by a UN-mandated NATO intervention—did away with him. Often glossed over is the fact that it was the trail of grievances Gadaffi had left in his wake that sparked an uprising against him. Libyans—much like their neighbors—did suffer from socio-economic and political inequality, but those acted as mere catalysts for Gadaffi’s undoing. The origins of Libya’s revolts, however, can be traced back to the yard of the eastern city of Benghazi’s courthouse, in front of which families of inmates killed by Gadaffi in the infamous 1996 Abu Salim massacre often gathered to demand retribution. After the lawyer representing them was arrested by the regime, the courage of these martyrs’ families formed the backbone for the wide-scale protests that ensued. Those brought together wide segments of Libya’s society, with major mobilization amongst women and youth.
At its core, Libya’s revolution was therefore a decades-long ignored call for justice, in turn met with repression, and ultimately culminating in a bloodstained reckoning. Over time, the events that sparked the revolution have gradually been labelled by skeptical Libyans as inconsequential footnotes or, worse, cursed as cardinal sins. Consciously forgotten are also the years 2012-13, prior to which Libya relapsed into a full-fledged civil war in 2014. For all its many faults, that biennial period—which saw national elections being held with a 60 percent turnout—is a testament to the enduring aspiration of Libya’s wider society to a blueprint for governance that transcends authoritarianism.
Yet, while the nascent period of Libya’s democratic transition saw its citizens civically express their desire to move beyond Gadaffi, the country’s political elite was far less invested in a makeover. Politicians of different shades were united in preventing reforms that would see the dysfunctional levers of patronage Gadaffi bequeathed Libya with forsaken. The autocrat’s institutions thus outlived him, and his headless Jamahiriya—or “State of the Masses”—transmogrified into a hydra-headed behemoth of its own. This dynamic proved a boon to proxy powers—most prominently between Gulf states—which saw in Libya’s divided post-revolutionary elite opportunities to advance their agendas. These foreign states flooded Libya with weapons, empowering their preferred political and armed factions, sabotaging the country’s transition, and polarizing its society. The tormented cries of a population yearning for justice and change thus went unheeded, and the socio-political and economic inequalities that galvanized Libyans into uprising widened.
To make matters worse, a new figurehead for a counter-revolutionary thrust in Libya—Khalifa Haftar—emerged during its transition’s collapse in 2014. In a country whose social fabric was fraying, Haftar’s expedient scapegoating of Islamists for post-revolutionary failures resonated. À la Sissi, his authoritarian aspirations were thinly veiled behind narratives of counterterrorism, restitution, and stability. In practice, however, the general has presided over a project that has manufactured injustice across the country. By mimicking Gadaffi and branding his wide array of domestic opponents as terrorists, Haftar has not only reopened old wounds, but also generated new ones along tribal, ethnic, and communal lines.
Capitalizing on the foreign support of counter-revolutionary forces, Haftar has sought to catalyze the artificial recreation of Gadaffi’s Libya, violently straightjacketing Libyans back into authoritarianism. To this end, forces under his banner have displaced tens of thousands, killed scores of civilians, and inflicted ineffable damage on the country’s cohesion, bringing it to the verge of partition. The gravity of these crimes has been met with Western powers’ desire not to alienate Haftar’s foreign backers, effectively shielding him from accountability—in turn eroded the credibility of multilateral norms and institutions, disillusioning Libyans about the premise that the 2011 NATO intervention was ever about protecting them in the process.
These serial moral failures proved a boon to Gulf autocrats that backed Haftar to advance the lesson that revolting against rulers breeds instability. However, by coercing Libyans to align under Haftar (or any other authoritarian-like figure), these counter-revolutionary forces are effectively ensuring that sentiments of injustice that sparked the 2011 uprisings are not only unaddressed but exacerbated—delaying inevitable grievance-based revolts. In the process, Libya’s institutional sclerosis has been aggravated, with its economy teetering on collapse and its population growing poorer. Much like in 2011, prolonged economic disenfranchisement and perceived wide-scale corruption across the country will only complement injustice to breed outrage.
Libya was not better under Gadaffi—it merely is worse ten years later. Libya’s revolution—sparked by a desire for justice—may have been doused by injustice, but its smoldering ashes will inexorably be set ablaze, fueled by the anger of a battered population’s desire for retribution. Channeling this desire for change constructively to right the course of the uprising requires an inclusive approach that would heal the wounds inflicted on the country’s social fabric—away from the venal voices that have monopolized the conversation surrounding Libya’s politics since 2011. In many ways, living up to Libyans’ revolutionary aspirations is contingent upon heeding the peaceful calls for justice made a decade ago—in addition to addressing the socio-economic and political inequalities that drove people to protest thereafter. Only then will Libya be free of the ghosts of its past and the calamities of its present.