Conflict & Justice

Three years after the start of their revolution, Libyans are still waiting for a constitution and a stable government

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Credit:

Lucinda Smith

Three years after the start of the revolution, Osam Dabea goes back to the cave where his mother, sister and young brother found refuge during heavy shelling.

Monday marked the third anniversary of the start of Libya's revolution.

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Libyans no longer have to contend with Colonel Gaddafi, but the country remains in political turmoil with a weak central government and militias effectively controlling parts of the country. And Libya still has no constitution.

For the anniversary, I returned to Libya's western mountains, one of the revolution's hotspots, to talk with some of those who took up arms three years ago.

The last time I was in the city of Zintan was July 2011. After weeks of heavy shelling, the rebels had pushed away Gaddafi's army and this small town had become safe again. Dozens of families were then trickling back into Zintan to celebrate.

Children were playing with a tank in the middle of the square. Some of the buildings around were gutted by shells.

Now you've got trees, a brand new police station, and the tank is gone.

Some things are similar, though. Firecrackers are popping and loudspeakers blaring, but these days they are for protests, not celebrations.

At the root of the anger is Libya's General National Congress. The GNC was elected in 2012 to serve no more than 18 months.

During this transitional period, Libyans were supposed to elect people who'd draft a constitution, and then vote on it. But none of that happened.

The GNC recently extended its mandate, triggering protests across the country. At one protest in Zintan, the loudspeakers blared: “We don't want you anymore, or this government, and we're here to get you out. You're not giving us the right to vote. We want to vote right now, new elections.”

In the small crowd, I meet Khaled Kor, the manager of Zintan's media center during the revolution.

He says Libyans are mad at the GNC for wasting so much time. But he says he's hopeful Libyans will stick to non-violent means to get their voices heard. He points to the protesters in the square.

“If you see now, you cannot see any armed cars or weapons and you can see policemen there. If you make my people demonstrate like that, I think it is very big step, as you know,” says Kor, who is happy because of that.

I go to visit a family I'd met in 2011 to see if they share the same optimism.

23-year-old Osam Dabea fought on the frontline. He saw friends and neighbors die. But now he says removing Gaddafi was actually the easy part.

“I thought that people will like just hold hands and just try to rebuild the country, but no, as far as I can see, people are trying to destroy the country. People are trying to overtake the country," he says.

Osam is also angry at the GNC for clinging to power.

With car bombs and assassinations in Benghazi, tribal fighting in Southern Libya and jailbreaks still common, Osam says transitional authorities have failed.

“When they came, they said that we will help you and take Libya to another path. We believed them. After that, we saw nothing. We saw people are fighting, people are dying, we saw the country drowned with the blood."

Abdurahman is the young Libyan who drove me to Zintan. “We're in a chaotic phase,” he says. “The GNC has done nothing to unite Libyans.”

He says that he realizes nothing comes easily. "I know we need to be patient, but you know the right track when you see one. This is not it. This is so not it. Still people thinking about their cities, their groups ... 'I'm from Zintan, I'm from whatever' ... That's exactly how Gaddafi ruled Libya, by keeping stuff apart.”

While we talk, his phone buzzes. It's a mass text message informing Libyans that there will be elections after all, but not to replace the GNC. It's to vote for those who will draft a constitution.

The elections are scheduled for February 20. After months of delays, Osam and Abdurahman say it now all seems a bit rushed.

Osam says he doesn’t even know who is on the ballot and Abdurahman is unsure who to vote for.

“There's no media, no information about people we're going to vote for,” he says. “How do you expect people to pick the right person, while you didn't clear that [up]?”

Both are educated. Both attend college now. Osam studies computer engineering, Abdurahman is in medical school. They've traveled abroad, too. Osam lived in the US for a year when he was a teenager.

Yet they're at a loss to understand Libya's transitional roadmap. And if they're confused, they say, imagine how the average Libyan who's lived his whole life under Gaddafi's arbitrary rule must feel.

Still, there are signs that people have learned about the power of their voice. Osam's sister, Khwala, says you just have to look at what happened at Zintan University.

Students wanted a garden and chairs outside so they could hang out, and more qualified teachers. She says the president didn't do much, so students pressed him to step down, and ultimately he did.

“After the revolution, if the students want something, they will get it, believe me,” says Khwala.

Protests may have worked at the university. But there's no sign that the General National Congress is bowing to pressure.

The GNC says if it leaves now, that would leave a complete political vacuum. Instead, it is urging Libyans to vote in Thursday's election.

Update: A previous headline for this story incorrectly indicated that Col. Gaddafi was ousted three years ago (in February 2011). The uprising against Gaddafi began on February 18, 2011, but Gaddafi wasn’t toppled until after the fall of Tripoli in August 2011.

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    Credit:

    Lucinda Smith

    The bodies of some of the 400 fighters from Zintan who were killed in the revolution are buried in this local cemetery. Zintan was the largest town under rebel control in the Western Mountains in the spring of 2011.

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    Credit:

    Lucinda Smith

    Children watch a protest from a rooftop on Zintan's main square. Banners demand the resignation of Libya's General National Congress.

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