Post-Gaddafi Libya: what has changed?

I landed in Tripoli last week just over eight weeks after my previous visit there, but during that time, momentous changes had happened in Libya. I was eager to see what changes Gaddafi’s death and Libya’s subsequent official liberation on October 23rd had brought about in the capital city.

News reports of rebel forces beginning to hand in their weapons, and the fading out of the so-called ‘celebratory gunfire’ left me expecting to see far fewer guns on the streets. The reports were, in Tripoli at least, largely accurate, and advertisements put up throughout the city by the interim government to encourage people to hand in their weapons reassured me of their efforts to end the gunfire. That isn’t to say that there wasn’t still the odd round fired at night; but as a UN worker told me towards the end of my trip, the sound of gunfire in the capital symbolising celebrations had become so rare that hearing gunfire implied actual fighting. Whether this development can be seen as a success or not, I’m not sure.

During my first visit, numerous conversations centred around Gaddafi’s whereabouts, amongst Libyans and non-Libyans alike. I remember sitting in a hotel lobby in early October when a journalist approached me to ask if I’d heard any hints as to where Gaddafi might have been hiding; naturally, I hadn’t, and he had walked away, slightly disappointed.

It seemed to me as though not knowing where Gaddafi was united the country. Finding him (and for many, killing him) was one clear aim that would signify the end of 42 years of terror. It was to be the sign that Libya was liberated, the trigger for instant change, and the signal that the revolution and its deaths had all been worth it.

Before the liberation, people were content with living in relative disorder; a lack of water, or cashflow problems in banks were just a side effect of the greater goal of overthrowing a dictator. The unsaid promise that it would all change post-liberation filled everyone with a sense of optimism for the future.

However, from what I saw last week, things are not changing fast enough to satisfy that optimism. Despite logical thinking that it will take years for the country to recover, that even in the best case scenario, there can be no huge changes instantly, people are already disappointed. For a population who has just achieved a revolution that this time last year would have been thought of as utterly impossible, being told to wait years for real change is not going to be accepted without protest. But put yourself in the shoes of someone who has just lost their brother, or father, or husband, in the war, and then ask yourself whether you would be content with being told to simply wait and see whether or not their death had been in vain.

The most worrying change that has developed is that without the one goal of finding Gaddafi motivating and uniting the country, people’s personal agendas are beginning to conflict with others. Some, it seems, want to focus on the past, and making sure that those who had committed crimes are brought to justice as soon as possible. The idea of working with people who held positions under the Gaddafi regime is, for some, repugnant. But for others, looking to the future is the most pragmatic way to deal with rebuilding the country; what is in the past is just that, and all help is needed to rebuild the state. It is clear that reconciling the various perspectives is not going to be an easy task.

Civil society organisations are now faced with the real challenge of how to continue in a liberated Libya. So many organisations sprung up out of nowhere to see to specific needs during the war, such as those organising volunteers in hospitals for the wounded, or assisting families who had lost their primary breadwinner in the war. The vast majority of people who have been working in these organisations haven’t been paid for months, and while the need might still be there for the organisation, on personal levels carrying on without getting paid is simply not sustainable. So what now for those organisations? International funding? Donors from inside Libya? The business of NGOs takes time and commitment to learn, and from many I spoke to, it’s a confusing one to find yourself in.

Likewise for media publications; finding yourself in the middle of a warzone makes your subject of reporting fairly clear. But now that the war is over, what is their angle? They are now faced with finding their specific voice, the spark that makes them stand out from numerous other media outlets. And just like with the grassroot NGOs, these journalists have not been paid for their work for the past 9 months. Now, in order to remain in their position as journalists, they need to find a business model or financing.

Listening to a discussion between Libyan civil society organisation representatives actually made me think of a tap which had been subjected to incredibly high pressures, and then was suddenly released. People’s opinions were spurting out at every angle; they all wanted to use their newly acquired right to free speech at the same time, and I have to say, it didn’t always make for a very coherent discussion.

Another problem area was the accusations and whispers of corruption following almost anybody who has been in a position of authority since February 17. It’s difficult to know who to believe, but it’s no wonder that people are slightly paranoid given the levels of corruption under Gaddafi. However, the ‘stigma’ or accusations around these positions has, I imagine, scared off potentially strong leaders at a time when Libya needs them. As one Libyan told me, anyone in those positions is going to get ‘burned’, whether they deserve it or not.

Legitimacy of the government, first the NTC, and now the interim government, is a clear issue that haunts almost all discussions over changes that can be implemented between now and the planned elections for mid-2012. The fact that those in charge now have not been elected by the people has led many to question their newfound power and authority. Again, there appear to be two schools of thought; those who point towards the elections as a new beginning when real change can happen, and those who want new policies, or the groundwork for the new policies, to be put down from now.

The issues faced now by Libyan civil society could continue fill up another even longer blog post, but this is intended just as a snapshot. It’s clear that these issues will have to be addressed, and soon, to ensure that those who have fought for their freedom realise that it was in fact worth it. The optimism that I saw in October is gradually being replaced by a pessimism that needs to be stopped soon to avoid it spreading. As one young Libyan told me- “The flag and the anthem have changed. But everything else is still the same.”


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