‘Wasn’t the situation better with Gadaffi?’ It is a question that strangers have forced me to ponder countless times in the last ten years.
Vaguely familiar with the news coverage of death and destruction in Libya, many expect us to experience a haze of nostalgia for the familiar allure of authoritarianism.
To be fair, many Libyan families were safer, wealthier, and far less worried about the future than they are now. But behind this veneer of stability, the Libya that I and many others knew was a dystopian police state in which justice was beyond an impenetrable barrier.
Ten years ago, it seemed unthinkable that Libyans would rise up to break the status quo that had prevailed in their country for more than 40 years.
Muammar Gadaffi had cultivated an aura of indispensableness for foreign partners and of inevitability for those over whom he ruled tyrannically.
However, the two narratives quickly fell apart. After Gadaffi used deadly force against the protesters, the Libyan rebels – backed by a UN-mandated NATO intervention – finished him off.
Often overlooked is the fact that it was the trail of grievances that Gadaffi left in his wake that sparked an uprising against him.
Libyans – like their neighbors – suffered from socio-economic and political inequalities, but these acted as mere catalysts for Gadaffi’s doom.
However, the origins of the Libyan riots can be traced back to the court yard of the eastern city of Benghazi, in front of which the families of prisoners killed by Gaddaffi in the infamous Abu Salim massacre in 1996 they met often to demand retaliation.
After the lawyer representing them was detained by the regime, the courage of the families of these martyrs formed the backbone of the large-scale protests that followed. These brought together broad sectors of Libyan society, with a significant mobilization among women and youth.
In essence, the Libyan revolution was thus a decades-long ignored call for justice, which in turn was met with repression and ultimately culminated in a bloodstained reckoning.
Over time, the events that triggered the revolution were gradually labeled by skeptical Libyans as inconsequential footnotes or, worse, condemned as capital sins. The years 2012-13 were also consciously forgotten, before which Libya relapsed into total civil war in 2014.
Despite all its flaws, that biennial period – in which national elections were held with 60% turnout- is a testament to the continuing aspiration of Libyan society in general for a governance model that transcends authoritarianism.
However, while in Libya’s emerging period of democratic transition, citizens expressed their desire to leave Gadaffi behind, the country’s political elite was far less committed to change.
Politicians of different persuasions came together to prevent reforms that would make it possible to abandon the dysfunctional levers of patronage that Gadaffi bequeathed to Libya.
In this way, the autocrat’s institutions outlived him, and his headless Jamahiriya – or ‘State of the Masses’ – was transformed into a hydra-headed monster.
This dynamic turned out to be a boon for proxy powers – especially among the Gulf states – who saw opportunities in Libya’s divided post-revolutionary elite to advance their agendas.
These foreign statesthey inundated Libya with weapons, empowering their preferred political and armed factions, sabotaging the country’s transition and polarizing its society.
Thus, the tormented cries of a population yearning for justice and change were not heard, and the socio-political and economic inequalities that drove Libyans to revolt widened.
To make matters worse, during the collapse of the transition in 2014 a new figure emerged for the counterrevolutionary drive in Libya, Khalifa Haftar.
In a country whose social fabric was unraveling, Haftar’s timely scapegoat for post-revolutionary failures, the Islamists, resounded. In the manner of Sissi, his authoritarian aspirations were hidden behind a discourse of fighting terrorism, restitution and stability.
In practice, however, the general presides over a project that creates injustice throughout the country. By mimicking Gadaffi and labeling his wide range of national opponents terrorists, Haftar not only reopened old wounds, but provoked new ones along tribal, ethnic and communal lines.
Taking advantage of foreign support from counterrevolutionary forces, Haftar tries to catalyze the artificial recreation of Gadaffi’s Libya, violently chaining Libyans to authoritarianism.
To do this, the forces under their banner displaced tens of thousands of people , killed dozens of civilians and caused unspeakable damage to the country’s cohesion, bringing it to the brink of decomposition.
The gravity of these crimes runs counter to the desire of Western powers not to alienate Haftar’s foreign backers., effectively shielding it from accountability, which in turn eroded the credibility of multilateral norms and institutions, disillusioning Libyans with the premise that the 2011 NATO intervention was intended to protect them in the process.
These string of moral failures turned out to be a boon to the Gulf autocrats who supported Haftar in promoting the lesson that rebelling against rulers creates instability.
However, by coercing Libyans to line up under Haftar – or any other authoritarian-type figure – these counterrevolutionary forces are effectively ensuring that the feelings of injustice that sparked the 2011 uprisings are not only left unaddressed, but are exacerbate, delaying the inevitable revolts based on discontent.
In the process, Libya’s institutional instability worsened, its economy teetered on the brink of collapse, and its population increasingly impoverished.
As in 2011, Libya was not better off with Gaddafi, it is simply worse ten years later. The Libyan revolution – started by the desire for justice – may have been quenched by injustice, but its smoldering ashes will burn inexorably, fueled by the anger of a battered population that wants retribution.
Constructively channeling this desire for change to set the course of the uprising requires an inclusive approach that heals the wounds inflicted on the country’s social fabric, away from the vengeful voices that have monopolized the conversation around Libyan politics since 2011.
In many ways , living up to the revolutionary aspirations of Libyans depends on heeding the peaceful calls for justice made a decade ago, as well as addressing the socio-economic and political inequalities that prompted people to protest afterward.
Only then will Libya be freed from the ghosts of its past and the calamities of its present.
Emadeddin Badi has a degree in Business and Economics from the University of Essex, and a postgraduate degree in Violence, Conflict and Development from the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), in addition, he specializes in governance, post-conflict stabilization, hybrid security and peacebuilding.
Source: The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy