Libya was brought to life, filled with colour and injected with fresh optimism by the three-day long celebrations which took place last week to mark the anniversary of the 17th February revolution. Despite rumours of a 'second revolution' fuelled by anti-government protests planned for 15th February, Libya was a veritable sea of calm over the long weekend of festivities insofar as security was concerned.
Foreign companies and embassies warned their employees to stay away from crowded areas or to leave the country completely, while most international airlines cancelled their flights over the weekend citing 'security concerns'. There was much hype about Libya's deteriorating security situation, with phrases such as 'downward spiral', ‘edge of an abyss' and 'descent into anarchy' appearing all too frequently in articles about the country and its future. However anyone who experienced the celebrations in Libya this year would have been hard placed to match these descriptions to the reality.
In the capital Tripoli, the streets were completely full of people of all ages and backgrounds, crawling around in cars covered in flags and ribbons with revolutionary music blasting from the speakers. The streets were hung with red, black and green bunting, young men lined the way setting off fireworks, sprinkling rose water and burning incense, and on many street corners there were huge barbeques and groups of men dancing and singing. There were also many checkpoints and there were very few reports of disturbances. Martyrs' Square itself was incredible. There were men, women and children celebrating until late into the evening and everyone was smiling at everyone. The children ate popcorn and candyfloss, and most people lit Chinese lanterns so that when night fell, the sky above Tripoli was filled with thousands of flickering candles, a symbol of the revolution.
Given the success of the celebrations, I would have expected a wealth of articles praising how smoothly the anniversary passed by, describing the incredible party atmosphere in Libya's main cities, the excellent security precautions and the general lack of anything even remotely threatening. Yet in the days following Libya's celebrations, there was a striking absence of information about any of the above in mainstream international media. I am well aware that 'good news' doesn't sell, but by ignoring or writing off the truly positive moments in Libya's most recent history, there is a real danger that foreign organisations and the international media are sealing a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom and gloom for this North African state.
This year, as with the first anniversary last year, foreign companies erred on the side of caution and left Libya during the celebrations. While it is of course entirely their free choice to do so, if they are going to insist on doing this during every anniversary or every time there is something which might bring Libyans out onto the streets, then what hope does Libya have of regaining stability? Every time there is an exodus of this kind, contracts are suspended, trade missions are delayed and at least a month of business and progress is lost. Foreign investors want Libya to be more stable before they commit to projects, yet by being overly cautious they are the ones helping to propagate this vicious circle of instability.
Understandably the Libyan authorities are not happy about this. Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines, which had suspended flights over the anniversary, have so far been refused permission to resume flights into Tripoli, with authorities taking the view that since the two airlines had stopped flights to Libya over security concerns, “they had best stay away for another week because the security was no different.” I have to say, I couldn't agree more.
To add to that, by leaving Libya during these celebrations, foreigners are truly missing the best of the country. Libya is not always an easy place to live, but it is moments like last weekend's festivities that make you realise how much potential there is for a bright future, how far the Libyan people have come since overthrowing Gaddafi and how determined they are to make good on their revolution. While there is political turmoil in Tunisia, physical and sexual violence in Egypt's Tahrir Square, and an ever worsening conflict in Syria, the Libyan people managed to organise their own nationwide party with no violence, harassment or serious security concerns.
Celebrations like these do not lessen the myriad problems that Libya still faces, but they show that Libyans do have the will and the determination to make their revolution succeed. Many have been disappointed and frustrated by the apparent lack of progress in recent months, but the incredible show of solidarity and camaraderie shown over the past few days has given many a new sense of hope, purpose and optimism about the future.
These celebrations flew in the face of all the naysayers and pessimists, yet if the outside world doesn't hear about achievements like this then perceptions of Libya will not change. The international community will continue to back away and leave Libya to fall into an 'abyss' perpetuated and sustained by blinkered foreign organisations and one-sided media reporting.