Libya: The shadow of Muammar Gaddafi


A Libyan rebel flashes the V-sign for victory on Sept. 25, 2011 outside of Bani Walid, Libya.


Joseph Eid

CAIRO, Egypt — Asma Al Magariaf awoke at her Virginia home on Oct. 20, 2011 to a flood of calls and text messages from Libyan friends around the world.

Reports were trickling in that Libya’s long-time dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, had been captured by rebels — then later, that he had been killed.

As the daughter of then-prominent political dissident Mohamed Yousef Al Magariaf, who is now Libya’s de facto head-of-state, 37-year-old Asma grappled with emotions over what this meant for her country, then mired in a months-long civil war against the eccentric, oppressive leader.

She had lived the majority of her life in exile.

“The revolution had ended, but the next phase started,” Asma, who does not hold political office, told GlobalPost in a telephone interview from Libya’s capital, Tripoli. “The phase of hard work toward rebuilding the country from scratch. It’s not an easy task.”

READ: Gaddafi: The Revolution Through Libyan Eyes, an eBook by GlobalPost Correspondent Tracey Shelton.

A year after Gaddafi’s gruesome demise — where vengeful rebel militias dragged the bloodied dictator from a drainpipe, then beat and eventually executed him, according to Human Rights Watch — Libya is politically more free. But it is also beset by socio-political and humanitarian problems that threaten its quest for democracy.

Most Libyans were ecstatic to be free from the repressive regime that held power for 42 years, and eager to embark on the construction of a new Libya.

In July, voters elected a largely secular General National Congress tasked with forming both a government and a constituent assembly to draft Libya’s new constitution — and the country now enjoys a lively, privately-run press corps.

“People will say: we will suffer this any day before going back,” said Hend Amry, a 37-year-old Libyan activist who also lived for years in the United States with her once-exiled family. “In its simplest form, [Libya’s revolution] is a model of a violent Arab Spring uprising, if you can say that. We had a war and the good guys won.”

Libya was once the feel-good story of the Arab Spring. There were charismatic and hopeful rebels, pitted against a reviled dictator and backed by a seemingly altruistic NATO-led air campaign that boosted calls for further western intervention in the name of human rights.

More from GlobalPost: Complete coverage of the fall of Gaddafi

But the North African nation of 6.4 million is now contending with major security issues. Armed militias, relics of the revolution, operate with impunity. Extremists have emerged as well — like those who carried out the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, killing US Ambassador Chris Stevens last month. The country has also now become a weapons hub, funneling firepower to conflicts in the rest of the region.

Libya is now front-and-center in the US election debate over foreign policy. Republican challenger Mitt Romney is using the consulate attack to lambast President Barack Obama for what Romney calls his weak strategy abroad.

US lawmakers are now retrospectively questioning the wisdom of having thrown their weight behind a NATO-led air campaign against Gaddafi troops in 2011, only to have one of their own killed by terrorists in Benghazi, the heart of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion.

Some observers are worried international support for Libya’s democratic transition will diminish if an already weak central state is unable to rein in both the extremists and the militias.

“The jihadists should be Libya’s main worry,” said Mohamed Al Jarh, a Libyan political commentator and social activist.

More from GlobalPost: In-depth: Libya's rebels after the rebellion

Al Jarh said extremist groups were the only ones powerful and organized enough to challenge Gaddafi’s rule in the 1990s. Recently, the militants have been behind attacks on Sufi shrines, which extremists oppose as unIslamic.

The extremists “are very threatening in terms of ideology and military power,” Al Jarh said. “Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, they don’t agree with democracy, they only want sharia [Islamic law].”

Ordinary Libyans have struck back, ransacking last month the Benghazi headquarters of one group many say were behind the consulate attack, and denouncing the violence.

“There was a uniform opinion among Libyans after the attack that what happened doesn’t represent us,” Magariaf said. “We know they are extremists and we showed that we support the government.”

This week, state-linked militias killed 11 people after besieging the former Gaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid, where Libya’s rag-tag and splintered army has yet to restore order.

“I’m worried that this could be Libya’s legacy — that after our liberation, a whole town was attacked and shelled,” Al Jarh said. “Is the government even in control?”

The security vacuum has also enabled smugglers and armed groups to funnel weapons pillaged from Gaddafi’s stockpiles to armed causes from Mali to Syria.

“Arms proliferation out of Libya in the wake of the [NATO] intervention — it’s been really bad,” said Martin Butcher, arms policy advisor at the London-based charity group Oxfam. “There are reliable stories of these weapons reaching groups in Somalia, Gaza, Chad, Niger, Mali — probably in their thousands.”

But while its weapon stocks may worsen regional instability, Libya is still on the path to democracy, activists say.

“We often underestimate how sophisticated the Libyan public is,” Magariaf said. “They are willing to be patient and see that progress is made. For the first time in history, people felt like they were part of one time. We knew we deserved better.”