by Shafik Mandhai
The six years since the Libyan people’s successful uprising to end Gaddafi’s rule have seen the country divided between rival governments, various armed groups, ethnic militias, and a renegade general.
A once united rebel front has now broken into innumerable armed factions loyal to their home cities, political or religious ideology, or foreign backers.
The conflict has claimed the lives of thousands of fighters and civilians alike, slowed the country’s economic development, and given space for groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, to establish a toehold in the country.
Regional powers, such Egypt and the UAE have become deeply involved in the country’s complex conflict by backing renegade General Khalifa Haftar, and carrying out air raids against his opponents.
The country’s deterioration has led many inside and out of the country to question whether the country was better off during Gaddafi’s 42-year-long reign.
‘Dream of return’
For one group, however, there is no hint of regret over the late leader’s demise.
The self-styled “Brother Leader” left little room for dissenting political expression, and those who dared align themselves with opposition political movements risked imprisonment or death.
Spurred by the atmosphere of repression, thousands of Libyans fled the country seeking new homes in other Arab states or further afield in Europe or the US.
They included members of the Muslim Brotherhood, monarchists, and leftists.
Most spent decades in exile and expected never to see their homeland again, until the uprising of 2011, during which thousands returned to their country to join the rebel cause.
“Alhamdulillah (thank God), I got the opportunity to go and I partook in what was happening,” said Belal Ballali, a British resident of Libyan origin, referring to the 2011 revolution.
Ballali and his family fled the country after his father was placed on a wanted list by the Libyan government and spent the following 32 years in exile, living between Scotland and the central English city of Birmingham.
For much of that period, Ballali did not believe the former regime’s rule would ever end and thought Gaddafi would end up dying a natural death.
“We used to dream about going back to Libya and that was always high in our hopes but to think that Gaddafi would be gone in the way he went was unexpected,” he said, adding his first inkling of hope came after the Arab uprisings that began in late 2010.
“To see what happened in Tunisia and in Egypt, there was obviously hope there but the reality was that due to his known brutality- he had crushed opposition in the past- I didn’t think that this would ever materialise.”
The dream did materialise, thanks in part to a NATO-led aerial campaign against Gaddafi forces, which saw the capital, Tripoli, fall to the rebels a little over six months after the uprising began.
Gaddafi fled to his stronghold of Sirte, but surrounded by rebels and hunted by NATO aircraft, an attempt to break out of the city in a large convoy failed with fatal consequence for the leader.
His killing was followed by a sense of optimism for Ballali but Libya’s rebuilding process broke down several years after Gaddafi’s death, fuelled by an abundant supply of weapons and young men without the prospect of a job due to the country’s war-battered economy.
The division and the chaos didn’t come directly after the death of Gaddafi or the success of the revolution…it was only when General Khalifa Haftar had his failed coup in Tripoli that he initiated the battles in Benghazi and the situation in Libya quickly began to deteriorate – Belal Ballali, former Libyan exile
“I felt relief that this could be the end of the war, that there would be no more bloodshed, and (there would be) hope, hope for the future.”
The investigative researcher in his early forties said Gaddafi’s death was not the direct reason for today’s division and trouble in Libya and instead blamed the ambitions of renegade General Khalifa Haftar.
“The division and the chaos didn’t come directly after the death of Gaddafi or the success of the revolution,” he said.
“For a period of two and a half years, there was relative security given the number of guns on the street and generally speaking people were quite happy.
“It was only when General Khalifa Haftar had his failed coup in Tripoli that he initiated the battles in Benghazi and the situation in Libya quickly began to deteriorate.”
Libyan diaspora communities are replete with similar stories and sentiments.
Mohamed Mukhtar’s family fled Libya in 1999 during a wave of arrest by the Gaddafi regime and settled in the northern English city of Manchester.
Imbued by what he described as a feeling of patriotism and a yearning to return to his homeland a free man, he joined the rebel cause shortly after the uprising began.
Unlike Ballali, however, Mukhtar was certain a struggle to overthrow Gaddafi would eventually happen long before the 2011 revolution.
“Because I was brought up in a household that was strongly opposed to Gaddafi, we would always go to protests in London against the regime,” he said, adding: “I really believed that regime had to go sooner or later, whether I was 20 years old or 50, I really wanted to be part of that.
“Libya is my eternal home, I was really moved by the oppression of my people, I wanted to achieve great goals and there is nothing greater than freeing your people.”
Like Ballali, Mukhtar blamed the “greedy” ambitions of politicians and foreign meddling after the revolution for ruining the transition to democracy.
I would tell those who think it was better under Gaddafi that if they were to taste one month under the Gaddafi regime, I’m 100 percent sure they would review that claim and take the side of the revolution. – Mohamed Mukhtar, former Libyan rebel
Nevertheless, he insisted those who said Libya was better under Gaddafi had no appreciation of the scale of repression under his rule.
“I would tell those who think it was better under Gaddafi that if they were to taste one month under the Gaddafi regime, I’m 100 percent sure they would review that claim and take the side of the revolution.
“The solution [to the ongoing crisis] isn’t to bring Gaddafi back, it’s to remember why we had a revolution in the first place”
For Ballali, despite the pain of seeing the ongoing carnage in his country, the troubles Libya is experiencing do not nullify the necessity of removing Gaddafi and he remains a strong believer in the uprising.
“I believe the revolution was a success, however, the extraction of a bad tooth will always be painful.
“But it still has to be extracted and Gaddafi had to be extracted.”