Libyans marked 11 years since the uprising that toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi on Thursday, but the democracy many hoped for seems elusive as ever, and many fear a return to conflict.
The anniversary comes as the country, plagued for years by divisions between East and West, has two rival prime ministers in the capital, Tripoli.
Just weeks after national elections scheduled for December 24 were indefinitely postponed, the east-based parliament voted to appoint influential former interior minister Fathi Bashagha to replace the interim unity government.
Incumbent Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah, appointed as part of a United Nations-led peace process, has insisted he will hand over power only to an elected government.
The resulting confrontation has fueled fears of a new conflict – not between East and West, but within Tripoli itself.
As the anniversary approached, the streets of the capital were lined with the red, black and green flags adopted after Gaddafi’s overthrow.
On Friday, a day late due to bad weather, concerts and fireworks are planned in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square, where Gaddafi once famously gave a desperate speech before the “revolution of February 17” dragged him from power.
Dbeibah attended a fainting ceremony for army recruits on Thursday at a base on the outskirts of the capital.
In a speech, army chief Mohamed al-Haddad vowed that the Libyans “will never forget the martyrs of the February Revolution who sacrificed their lives for a democratic state”.
Oil and poverty
The political vacuum that followed the NATO-backed insurgency led to a bitter power struggle, fueled by regional and tribal rivalries, as well as the involvement of outside groups.
And despite the country’s vast oil wealth—the largest proven reserves in Africa—many Libyans live in poverty.
“The situation got even worse,” said Ihad Doghman, 26.
A civil servant by day and a grocer by night, he has two jobs, like many of his compatriots, because “it’s the only way to make ends meet”.
Since Gaddafi’s ouster, Libya has had no fewer than nine governments and two large-scale civil wars, but it has not yet hosted presidential elections.
After the parliament’s latest move, armed pro-Bashagha groups in Misrata – both his hometown and Dbeibah’s hometown – gathered in Tripoli in a show of force.
Rising tensions could threaten what has been a long period of relative peace since a historic ceasefire in October 2020 formally ended the devastating one-year attempt by eastern military leader Khalifa Haftar to destroy the capital. to conquer.
That paved the way for UN-led peace efforts, with Dbeibah being appointed a year ago this month to head a new unity government with the mandate to lead the country into the December 24 elections.
But bitter bickering over the legal basis of the polls and the presence of divisive candidates – including both Dbeibah and Bashagha – led to them being postponed indefinitely.
The country’s UN mission, UNSMIL, on Thursday urged Libyans to “maintain stability and tranquility in the country”.
In a statement, it pledged to continue working on a “comprehensive and consensual political process to lead to free and transparent national elections as soon as possible”.
Despite the failures, Libya expert Jalel Harchaoui said the country had made progress on many fronts.
“Libya has not seen a major firefight since June 2020,” he said.
“Among the elites, many mortal enemies two years ago talk to each other and in some cases form alliances. That is the beginning of a reconciliation.”
In December, just days before the election, Bashagha had left for Benghazi to meet Haftar, another controversial presidential candidate, in what he said was a gesture of national reconciliation.
Haftar’s troops have since supported Bashagha’s appointment as prime minister.
And now that he has secured the support of the Tripoli-based Supreme Council of State, a body that often opposes the east-based parliament, Bashagha has until February 24 to form a government.
Given the tumultuous recent history of the country, the next question will be whether Dbeibah will go peacefully.