TRIPOLI – Libyans on Wednesday marked the 10th anniversary of their 2011 uprising that led to the overthrow and killing of longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi. Many have their eyes on a recently appointed government tasked with leading Libya through elections later this year, with hopes of unifying the divided nation.
Celebrations began late on Tuesday in the capital, Tripoli, where people gathered in the city's main square amid tight security. Key streets and squares had been cleaned and decorated with banners and photos marking the anniversary.
Festivities also rang out in other cities in the south. An an apparent “targeted mortar attack” on the celebrations in the Mansheya neighborhood in the southern city of Sabha killed a child and wounded at least 29 people, including two children, according to the U.N. mission in Libya. The mission called for a prompt investigation of “this heinous attack on civilians,” and for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.
There were also celebrations in the eastern city of Benghazi, once known as the birthplace of Libya’s 2011 uprising. Holding Libyan flags, a few people gathered in the city’s square despite a wave of cold weather that hit the country this week.
Hassan Wanis, head of the general authority for culture in Tripoli, said celebrations and commemorative events were planned in the three regions of old Libya: Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east, and Fezzan in the southwest.
“All people are ready to celebrate specially this time, in order to unify the country,” he said.
Faraj Rajab, a schoolteacher, said there was far too much insecurity and economic hardships to celebrate. He said he hopes the newly appointed government paves the road to elections.
“We still live with failure, corruption and destruction,” he said.
Libyans took to the streets 10 years ago, shortly after protests led to the overthrow of Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, in what became known as the Arab Spring.
Libya has become one of the most intractable conflicts, along with Yemen and Syria, left over from the 2011 uprisings. In the years that followed Gadhafi’s ouster, the North African country has descended into chaos and has become a haven for Islamic militants and armed groups that survive on looting and human trafficking.
The oil-rich country has for the past several years been split between rival administrations: a U.N.-backed, but weak government in Tripoli — a city largely controlled by an array of armed factions — and an eastern-based government backed by strongman Gen. Khalifa Hifter. Each is backed by foreign governments.
There have been devastating bouts of violence. The latest began in April 2019, when Hifter, who is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, launched an offensive seeking to capture Tripoli. His campaign collapsed after Turkey stepped up its military support for the Tripoli administration with hundreds of troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries.
Months of U.N.-led talks resulted in a deal in October that ended hostilities and called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries in three months and adherence to a U.N. arms embargo, provisions which have not been met.
The talks also established a Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, that earlier this month appointed an interim government — a three-member Presidential Council and a prime minister — to lead the country through elections, scheduled for Dec. 24.
The interim government includes Mohammad Younes Menfi, a Libyan diplomat from the country’s east who hails from the tribe of anti-colonial hero Omar al-Mukhtar, as chairman of Libya’s Presidential Council. Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah, a pragmatic, well-connected businessman from the western city of Misrata, was appointed prime minister.
Dbeibah is still consulting on forming his Cabinet, which requires confirmation from the country’s divided parliament. Menfi arrived in Tripoli on Tuesday and met with Dbeibah and other officials. According to Menfi's office, the three-member Presidential Council held its first meeting in Tripoli on Wednesday to discuss mechanisms to hold the December balloting.
In separate phone calls on Tuesday with Menfi and Dbeiba, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stressed the importance of holding the elections and implementing the cease-fire deal, including the withdrawal of foreign forces from Libya. There are at least 20,000 mercenaries and foreign fighters currently in the country, according to the U.N.
In a report marking the anniversary, Amnesty International repeated its calls for holding accountable those who were engaged in war crimes and serious human rights violations in the past 10 years.
“Unless those responsible for violations are brought to justice, rather than rewarded with positions of power, the violence, chaos, systematic human rights abuses and endless suffering of civilians that have characterized post-Gadhafi Libya will continue unabated,” said Diana Eltahawy, the group’s deputy regional director.
“We call on parties to the conflict in Libya and the incoming unity government to ensure that those suspected of committing crimes under international law are not appointed to positions where they can continue to commit abuses and entrench impunity,” Eltahawy added.
In the past years, Libya also emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. Traffickers often pack desperate families into ill-equipped rubber boats that stall and founder along the perilous Mediterranean route.
Thousands drown along the way, while others end up detained in squalid smugglers’ pens or crowded detention centers if captured by authorities.
Magdy reported from Cairo.