When the Arab Spring protests started 10 years ago, I was covering the war of the Pakistani armies against the Pakistani Taliban. It felt like a world away from what I knew as the peaceful streets of Cairo and Tripoli.
In fact, when the protests started, my colleagues and I watched the news unfold on Al Jazeera without believing it was happening at all.
The day of February 17 now remembered as the day of the revolt in Libya began small. A few gathered in Benghazi, in eastern Libya, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Then more people started to arrive. Within hours, there were thousands.
You wouldn’t have known if you were watching Libyan state television. The protests were ignored. The people of Benghazi had another outlet, however: social networks and the Internet.
Over the next few days, videos were uploaded and hashtags created, the most popular being # feb17th. In the capital, Tripoli, Gaddafi loyalists decided to hold their own pro-regime celebrations and state television broadcast live footage of this for hours over the next few days. But it was too late.
Al Jazeera started releasing the photos and messages from Benghazi almost as soon as people uploaded them. Libyan protesters responded by setting up large screens showing Al Jazeera in Arabic and English.
As the Arab youth began to realize that they had a voice, they grew louder and louder. Enough of corruption and nepotism and enough silenced voices, they shouted out loud. I knew I was witnessing history and wanted to be there.
A moment of profound change
I finally had my chance later in the year when I went to cover the aftermath of the revolution. Having seen the war unfold from afar and hearing the stories of those who had died, I was well aware of the price ordinary Libyans were paying for freedom. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I landed. What I found was a moment of profound change for Libya.
Standing with the film crew on the rubble where Gaddafi’s compound Bab al-Aziziya once stood in Tripoli in December 2011 [Photo courtesy of Imran Khan]In December 2011, Libya was on the cusp of something big and beautiful. The war that had torn him apart was over, and among the Libyans there was a sense of optimism that I had never seen before. My crew and I got into our car every day and from Tripoli we explored the country as much as possible. What we found was extraordinary. Politicians, artists, traders, restaurateurs all seemed excited about the future.
Then we arrived in the city of Sirte. At the height of the war in August, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had retreated to the coastal town and it was there that his fighters mounted a final stand on his behalf.
On October 20, 2011, one of the many militia groups fighting to free themselves from the Gaddafi regime cornered the colonel and other members of his entourage in Sirte and, after fierce fighting, captured and killed him.
Subsequent investigations suggested that the militia had acted in a manner that was illegal under the Geneva Convention. They are said to have killed Gaddafi by beating him to death, but accounts differ. We may never know for sure. In Libya, no one has ever been charged with any crime related to this incident.
He feared they would kidnap us
My crew and I arrived in Sirte in December of that year. Now information can be a tough business and may require someone with local knowledge, producer, cameraman, driver. It’s a bit like being in a circus troupe traveling from place to place and being very visible once there. That day was no different, but it was a part of my time in Libya that I will never forget, even though I’m only in town for less than 15 minutes.
We had been in the car for a few hours by the time we got there and it was good to get out and stretch our legs. I couldn’t wait to talk to the people of Sirte and get a feel for their hopes and dreams for the future.
It didn’t take long. We suddenly noticed several heavily armed vehicles driving around us. Our Sirte guide was blunt: get out within 10 minutes and get out of town. Otherwise, he was afraid they would kidnap us. The look in his eyes suggested he was deadly serious. We left in five minutes.
In front of the Misrata War Museum in December 2011 [Photo courtesy of Imran Khan]Looking back, I should have realized that this was an omen, a sign that Libya’s future was as bleak to some as it had seemed optimistic to others. ongoing struggles, then a war against ISIS (ISIS), which seized the opportunity to recruit former Gaddafi loyalists as chaos reigned.
Powerful nations began to support and arm different factions. In general, two powerful forces have emerged since.
One is the Internationally Recognized National Accord Government, or GNA, supported by Turkey and recognized by the United Nations. The other is in Benghazi where it all began, where a powerful general has emerged. General KhalifaHaftars’ forces are supported by France, Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
In a curious twist in international relations, France, which is a member of the UN Security Council, supports a leader who is not recognized as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people by the UN. You might be wondering why and that’s a good question. The reason could well be French personal interest. The Tripoli government has sided with Turkey, and France has long-standing lucrative defense contracts with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
It is now the balance of power in Libya and the country is as far from a secure and stable future as it was in 2011.
Nobody expects peace any time soon
Speaking to Libyans inside and outside the country, there seems to be an emerging consensus that the presence of powerful foreign forces supporting their preferred partner is the biggest obstacle to peace.
I was last in Libya in 2016 and the sense of optimism I saw in 2011 was gone, replaced by resignation that it is just like that.
View across the Mediterranean Sea to Misrata, Libya, in December 2011, at the end of a year that saw uprisings in February and the arrest and death of the country’s dictator in October [Photo courtesy of Imran Khan]Malik Almijea, who lost a leg fighting Gaddafi’s forces in 2011, now lives in Misrata and works as a personal trainer. I spoke to him this week about the 10th anniversary of the revolution in Libya.
In 2011, Libyans rose up, spoke out and revolted against a dictator. We wanted a democratic state, but the situation is not what we hoped for. It will take time. After 42 years of Gaddafi’s rule, I think it’s normal that we are where we are. Hopefully things get better, he told me.
And while that may be a sentiment most can agree on, the way forward is less clear. As a young Libyan told me this month: oil, arms sales, money. As long as this is the ultimate equation, no one is expecting peace anytime soon.
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