Zintan, Asharq Al-Awsat—Every revolution has it: that one seminal moment. In Libya it came with the face of the dead Muammar Gaddafi, soiled and bloodied and caught in a grainy camera phone photo. It was the image that signified the victory of the rebels over a dictatorship that had kept itself in power for forty years. “I thought it was over the day that Gaddafi died,” said Osam, a quiet 23-year-old Libyan who speaks near-perfect English with a slight American accent. “But now I think that there will be a second revolution.” As Osam has discovered, the seminal moments in revolutions are rarely the final moments too.
Three years after the start of the uprising that brought down Gaddafi, Libyans like Osam have become increasingly disillusioned and are wondering what the future holds for their increasingly fractured country. The sense of everyday calm is undermined by the fact that few of the new state’s institutions are functioning as they should. The National Army is small and weak and outnumbered by a plethora of competing local militias—ghosts of the 2011 revolution—that still control most areas of the country and refuse to withdraw from the capital Tripoli. The police force is unable to provide even the most basic level of security, as the hair-raising and almost daily reports of kidnappings testify.
Most crucially, anger is growing towards the General National Congress (GNC), the legislative body elected in July 2012 in what was hailed at the time as Libya’s first peaceful political transition in modern history. Protesters have taken to the streets daily in towns across the country since the GNC announced it would extend its own mandate beyond its February 7 deadline. The elections to select the people who will draw up the long-awaited constitution are planned for February 20, but Osam told us that he does not believe that they will actually happen.
His cynicism is a worrying sign because he is part of the generation which should be most engaged in what is happening in their country. He was just twenty when the uprising began, a middle-class student who had never picked up a weapon before. For five months he fought on the front line against Gaddafi’s forces, and he says he is still proud of the part he played in the revolution. “That’s why people know Libya, because there was a revolution and it was an historical thing,” he said. “I will always be proud.” But even if this Thursday’s elections happen, he says he does not know who he will be voting for. “For now, for this time, there is no-one who could represent me,” he says.
If there is any place that could be considered the heart of the Libyan uprising, then Zintan—Osam’s hometown—would be a strong contender. It was from here, high on the dusty plateau of the Nafusa Mountains, that a quickly organized and powerful local militia pushed into Tripoli from the south. To the disdain of the town of Misrata, itself a contender for the ‘home of the revolution’ crown, the people here in Zintan claim that without their efforts, the revolution would have ended in the East, Gaddafi would have clung on to power, and the country would have been split in two. Today the town still finds itself at the center of events in Libya; it was Zintan’s local militia that intercepted Saif Al-Islam, Gaddafi’s urbane London-educated son, as he tried to flee across the border into Niger. Somewhere, in one of this small, sleepy town’s identikit buildings, Saif Al-Islam remains the prisoner of the Zintanis. They have retained custody of him despite the best efforts of the GNC and the International Criminal Court, arguing that the judicial system is too weak to ensure that his trial would be fair and proper in Tripoli.
Zintan’s main square is just as featureless as the rest of the town—a roundabout with a pavilion on one side. Inside the pavilion, rows of photos depict the faces of all the young men from this area who died during the revolution. It is a place of memorial and pride, but on the Friday before the third anniversary of the uprising, those faces formed the backdrop to a new protest, one against the political leaders who have replaced Gaddafi. “No extension” read the banners that were hung across the pavilion’s façade, in reference to the GNC’s self-imposed new mandate.
Khaled Kor watched the demonstration from the other side of the square. “We want to vote for a new National Congress, without any parties,” he said. “We don’t mean that we don’t ever want parties, but in this time we still haven’t got a constitution or election laws.” The solution as he saw it was to elect non-partisan representatives in the name of cities and areas, reflecting the sense of parochialism that now permeates every aspect of politics in Libya. “That is the real condition,” he said. “We can’t change ourselves, we can’t change this country in a few days.”
But it is that sense of parochialism, of separation rather than togetherness, that lies at the heart of Osam’s gloominess. “When I fought, I fought for my country,” he said. “I can see now that there’s nothing united, everyone is fighting everyone, trying to get the power. They don’t think about Libya, they just think about their cities—I’m from Tripoli, I’m from Zintan, I’m from Misrata.”
As the protest in Zintan unfolded, other events were afoot in Tripoli. A retired army general, Khalifa Haftar, announced in a video posted on the internet that the GNC was to be suspended under an initiative by the Libyan National Army. Rumors of a coup spread quickly, but nothing at all changed in the capital. It is difficult to launch a military coup without an effective military in the first place. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan quickly rubbished the claims, pointing out that Haftar was not a member of the military anyway. The whole saga seemed to capture the general state of confusion and denial in Libya.
The mood in the country seems to be one of helplessness rather than outright anger. The protests have so far passed off peacefully, but the people participating in them sense that no-one is listening to them anyway. Three years on from the revolution, this feels like a country run by competing interests rather than by the people—and no-one has any ideas of how to put that right.
“In moments of anger, people will say that they preferred Gaddafi,” said Abdulrahman, a young man from Tripoli. “Under Gaddafi there were rules. Now we’re in a state of chaos because people don’t think in a political way.” He wouldn’t have Gaddafi back even if that were possible, and neither would the huge majority of people in Libya. But he fears the direction that the country is now taking.
“You know you’re on the right track when you see it,” he said. “This is not it.”