On the afternoon of 11 September 2012, when the militias of Ansar al-Sharia carried out the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi in which the ambassador Chris Stephens died, a group of the city’s youngsters found their way in through the back door to try to save his life. They got him to hospital, but it was too late. That same night, another group of young people—or perhaps the same one—removed the rubble and broken glass, and cleaned the building of blood stains. A few days later, the unarmed population surrounded the barracks of the militias responsible for the assassination and forced them to leave the city. In the course of those weeks in the city of Benghazi, hundreds of people surrendered weapons they had kept in their homes since the war, realizing that violence was no longer an option.
On another afternoon, in the previous August, the transition government was handing over power to the National Congress in Tripoli. The ceremony was presided over by the youngest woman member who had not covered her hair with the scarf that women in Libya usually wear. The until-then chief of the NTC, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, rebuked her for her “lack of decorum” and forced her to leave the stage. He was alone in his embarrassing reproach, and the social networks flared up to defend the young woman, despite the fact that the Libyans are a deeply religious people.
These are two flashes, two disparate, unconnected but, for me, highly significant examples, because they show a people that rejects violence and Islamic false puritanism.
Libya now has an elected parliament which, after a turbulent process, has named a government, led by Ali Zidan, that has to address many serious problems. There are in the region of 100,000 internally displaced persons as a result of the conflict. Almost half of them are from the city of Tawarga, which fought for Gaddafi to the end. Now, retaliation is being vented on these fighters, but also on their parents, wives and children, scattered in precarious camps all over the country, hated by all. There are also thousands of people in jail, many being tortured, awaiting charges and trial for their alleged collaboration with the former regime. And a marginalized population of black foreign nationals who have no rights and are subjected to exploitation, beatings, torture and arbitrary arrest.
And women, and young soldiers with no future or acknowledgement, and unattended war wounded, while those in power distribute aid among their friends, and a health system in need of reform, and piles of rubbish waiting to be collected, and petty kingdoms, and a new wave of corruption implemented by the latest rulers of the country…
Yes, Libya has problems. But it also has an alert, vigilant population that demands accountability even if sometimes using weapons to do so, even if sometimes it takes injustice into its own hands. With a population of barely four or five million, and well stocked with oil, Libya is one of the most literate countries in Africa, a territory without the large masses of marginalized groups that Egypt or Tunisia have, so malleable for their ignorance and their defencelessness.