Four years after the start of the rebellion that ended the long rule of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, a culture of fear and intimidation has fallen over the country.
“If you have an opinion, you keep it to yourself,” said Elham, a soft-spoken economics student at the sprawling University of Tripoli. “Everyone is scared, so we can’t talk about politics. And since we are girls, if we talk, maybe someone will kidnap us. We can’t talk at all.”
The hushed and downcast mood on the tightly guarded campus today – people interviewed there asked that their full names not be used – is in stark contrast to the jubilance three years before, when, just free of Gadhafi’s oppressive regime, students voiced their aspirations loudly.
They hungered for rights, democratic elections, independent media, international restaurant and shopping chains, and above all a prosperous future in a Libya similar to Dubai, the Persian Gulf emirate that’s a symbol of prosperity. Living in a traditionally conservative society, Libyans often said their devotion to Islam was the one thing that didn’t need fixing.
Now, though, as the Feb. 15 anniversary of the rebellion’s beginning approaches, the country is deeply divided. Two governments rule, one in Tripoli and one in Tobruk, near the border with Egypt. Assassinations and bombings are common.
Last week, gunmen claiming to be affiliated with the Islamic State attacked the luxury Corinthia hotel in the heart of downtown Tripoli, killing at least 11 people in an hours-long siege. It might have been bigger news if the hotel, long a favorite of foreign businessmen, government officials and journalists, hadn’t stood largely empty in recent months.
Abdul was a popular teenager when he rushed to join the fight against Gadhafi’s forces in 2011. Shot in the arm, he turned in his weapon and returned to the campus a hero. But since then, his idealism has soured, as the battles over lucrative assets and political power in the oil-rich nation continue.
“The people who were part of the revolution feel like they are not even Libyan anymore,” he said. “What was it all about?”
Local conflicts across Libya are now cast into a larger, divisive context.
On one side is Prime Minister Abdullah al Thinni’s Tobruk-based government, bolstered by the “Operation Dignity” military campaign of Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a Gadhafi-era defector who long lived in the United States before returning to Libya in 2011. The Tobruk-based government is recognized as Libya’s legitimate authority by the United States, the European Union, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
On the other side are the “Libyan Dawn” forces and their government, led by Prime Minister Omar al Hassi, which seized control of Tripoli, the capital, last year and are backed by Turkey and Qatar. A ruling by Libya’s Supreme Court declared the Tobruk-based House of Representatives illegal and unconstitutional. The international community has largely ignored the court decision.
Glossing over the diverse makeup and schisms within each coalition, the Dignity alliance brands its Libyan Dawn foes Islamic extremists, while the Tripoli government condemns its adversaries as former Gadhafi loyalists. Both descriptions arguably are inaccurate.
The violence, however, killed 2,825 people last year and forced another 400,000 Libyans from their homes, according to the website Libya Body Count.
Libya’s main source of cash, crude oil sales, has plummeted. Oil production, which had reached 1.6 million barrels per day, has fallen to around 330,000, and the National Oil Corp., based in Tripoli, says it imports an estimated 70 percent of the gasoline that Libyans use.
The Central Bank of Libya, with nearly $100 billion in foreign reserves, is fighting for a neutral role despite threats by warring sides to split the institution. It’s warned that the country spent more than twice its revenues last year, leaving a $18.6 billion deficit. Subsidies on gasoline and food will soon be cut, and austerity measures introduced. The majority of Libyans are dependent on government salaries, which are rarely paid on time.
Militias have become the country’s de facto rulers, escalating a culture of fear. “Militias attacked, threatened, assaulted or arbitrarily detained journalists, judges, activists, politicians and ordinary citizens with impunity,” the advocacy group Human Rights Watch reported last month in its annual review.
In the first nine months of 2014, the human rights group said, there were at least 250 assassinations, including the brutal murder last June of outspoken activist Salwa Bugaighis at her Benghazi home. Kidnappings, such as the disappearance of prominent activist Abdel Moez Banoun in Tripoli last July, have become increasingly common.
Many Libyans are nostalgic for 2012, the year after Gadhafi’s overthrow, as a time of solidarity and optimism before violence undermined the peace.
Lobbies of luxury hotels in the capital, such as the Corinthia and Radisson Blu, bustled with government officials, foreign businessmen, diplomats, aid workers, journalists and Libyan activists. Although weak governance, Benghazi’s calls for more autonomy and the growing, unruly militias rang warning bells, optimism around the elections and the still-ongoing constitutional process was infectious.
Since fighting engulfed Benghazi in 2012, with a renewed assault by Hifter last October, and the ferocious battle over Tripoli’s airport last summer, the fronts are now near the western coast, in the southwest town of Ubari, around the Gulf of Sidra, and Benghazi and Derna to the east. Most embassies, the United Nations, international charities and foreign companies have evacuated, and activists have been largely silenced.
One prominent Libyan activist, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because she “didn’t feel safe,” said photos of activists were often posted on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, along with details of where they lived. “Social media, which ironically was a major tool for activists, has become a tool for terrorizing them instead,” she said.
For exiled Hana el-Gallal, a leading human rights activist from Benghazi who’s relocated to another Middle Eastern country – for security reasons, she asks that it not be named – the disintegration of the revolution and its impact on the city have been devastating. Local medics claim that around 600 people have been killed in Benghazi in the last three months.
“We are not fighting for a civil state anymore or other rights like freedom of expression or freedom of anything,” she said. “We are just talking about freedom of life and freedom of food.”