Last year on 20th Ramadan (the holy Islamic month where Muslims fast during daylight hours) which fell on August 20, 2011, Libya’s capital was finally liberated from Gaddafi’s iron grip. This year, 20th Ramadan fell on August 8 and it felt like the entire city had turned out to celebrate the one year anniversary of Tripoli’s liberation. Even before the sun went down, Tripoli’s streets were full of smiling people, excited children, beeping cars and hundreds of Libyan flags. After sunset, the sky was a riot of reds, greens and blues as fireworks were launched from all corners of the city and whole families came out onto the streets to eat, dance and celebrate together. Strangers greeted each other as neighbours and a spirit of jubilation and optimism was palpable right across the capital.
It’s easy to see why. This time last year Tripoli residents and rebels fought a swift, successful battle against Gaddafi’s military and finally freed Libya’s capital city six months after the first uprisings in February 2011. Although many were killed and countless injured, the fight for Tripoli lasted less than three days and was hailed as a significant turning point in the rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi. Two months later, Libya’s late leader was captured and killed, and the North African state was officially declared liberated by its transitional leaders, the NTC. The months that followed were turbulent to say the least. There were weapons everywhere, power struggles between armed factions and transitional leaders, and issues of transparency, corruption and revenge to be overcome. Many predicted that the country would spiral into outright civil war, and that elections scheduled for summer 2012 would never take place.
Yet one year on, Libya has proved the pessimists wrong. As law and order has gradually been restored and people have gone back to their normal lives, new Libya has blossomed. Local media outlets have grown exponentially with citizens finally able to say what they really think without fear of reprisals. A host of Libyan NGOs and charities have sprung up ready to help build the future of their country. Most importantly free, fair elections were held in Libya less than a year after the old regime was ousted from power.
It is therefore fitting that on this day when Tripoli celebrated its achievements of the last 12 months, the chairman of the National Transitional Council Mustafa Abdul Jalil officially handed over power to the newly elected General National Congress in a symbolic transition which marks a new chapter in post-Gaddafi Libya. The elected members of the Congress were sworn in and Mohammed Magarief, leader of the National Front party, chosen as its president. Over the coming days and weeks a government will be selected and political wrangling will begin as independents align themselves with parties and the full weight of writing a constitution and leading Libya through its final transition stage is transferred to the shoulders of these congress members.
This is a momentous occasion in Libyan history, yet read about Libya in the international media and you might find this hard to believe. Reports describing armed militias, terrorist attacks and corrupt leaders are prolific and paint a picture of a country on the edge of the abyss, the new Iraq or Afghanistan.
Admittedly Libya still has a long way to go and there are still many wrongs to be righted, not least Libya’s justice system and the fate of thousands of Internally Displaced People who are still unable to return to their homes. However to focus on these aspects without putting them into the context of everyday life and the gains that have been made is alarmist and irresponsible. When speaking to friends and family in the UK I spend much of my time explaining that I actually lead a normal life in Tripoli. I don’t have a curfew, I don’t fear for my life and I actually feel safer walking around after dark here than I would in many British cities.
Libya is a conservative, Muslim country whose people fought for freedom in all its forms and the next few months will be crucial in determining just how that freedom is preserved. The relationship between tradition and modernity must be discussed and all sides of the argument heard as Libya seeks to forge its new identity. Libya has come through civil war, held free elections and now has an elected body of representatives who are able to openly debate their country’s future and can build the foundations for generations to come. Given the wildly different situation little more than a year ago, it’s no wonder Tripoli was so alive with joy and jubilation on 20th Ramadan, a day which held so much significance for so many.