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Libya: the revolution was the easy part

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For these young Libyans, to register and participate in the elections means acknowledging that their voices are no more important than anyone else’s.


Rhiannon Smith
21 May 2012

As an Arabic language graduate and self-professed Middle East enthusiast, I eagerly snatched up the opportunity to work in the mysterious Libyan Jamahiriya when I was offered a job there in 2010. At the time I was planning only to stay for a short period, just long enough to get a feel for the country, yet Libya’s distinct personality got me hooked. Two years, one revolution and countless worried phone calls later, I am still living and working in Libya’s capital, Tripoli.

I began writing about life in Libya when I realised that what I was experiencing post revolution, and what the outside world thought I was experiencing, were often at complete odds. International news reports on Libya tend to focus on the gunfights, torture claims and condemnations without putting them into the context of daily life or looking at the root cause of these incidents. Libya and its people suffered a great deal during the revolution, yet in little over six months life has returned to relative peace and normality. Serious efforts are being made to rebuild Libya as a free, democratic nation. Yet we rarely hear about them.

The past few weeks in Tripoli have been dominated by registration for the June general elections. Registration was slow off the mark due to a lacklustre awareness campaign by the High National Election Commission, but by 14 May 63% of eligible voters had registered and the closing date has been extended to 21 May.

Libyans who have registered are naturally very proud of the fact, and in recent days I have seen countless close ups of white and orange voting cards with young Libyans beaming in the background. These are often accompanied by similar pictures of elderly relatives, and comments evoking pride and satisfaction at what has so far been achieved. Of course registered voters do not automatically translate into votes cast, but nevertheless it is a very encouraging start.

However, despite the last minute enthusiasm for voter registration across Libya, there is one demographic that seem reluctant to jump on the bandwagon. Many of the young men who fought in the revolution have returned to their civilian lives, yet there are many others who still play active roles in military brigades. These armed ‘thuwar’ (revolutionaries) seem to be disdainful of the whole electoral process, and those I have spoken are convinced they will be able to vote on the 19 June if they so wish, despite not being registered.

In part, their disregard for the electoral system stems from past experiences, where any rule can be broken if you know the right person. In part they feel that society is in their debt. Recent weeks have seen an increase of armed protests in Tripoli, and I would argue this is for the same underlying reason; the ‘thuwar’ are realising that the revolution was the easy part.

In the revolution, there was a common enemy, a common goal, and a bond of loyalty between fighters. If you died, you died as a martyr; if you were injured, it was in the fight for your country. These young Libyans went from having nothing to being heroes overnight. To give up their victors’ mantle and put down their guns would mean a return to insignificance. To register and participate in the elections means acknowledging that their voices are no more important than anyone else’s.

Libyans will tell you that the real ‘thuwar’ have melted away, leaving only the greedy, uneducated thugs who are toting guns and demanding privileges in the name of the revolution. Whether this is true or not, these young Libyan men are certainly realising that the world of politics is infinitely more complex than that of the battlefield, and their ability to deal with the post conflict political arena could well determine the success and stability of Libya in years to come.

This article is part of Arab Awakening's This week's window into the Middle East.

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