Hopeful calls for change turned harsh memories in a struggle for liberation: more than a decade later, Libyans recall their fight for freedom.
What started as peaceful demonstrations in Libya against the four-decade dictatorial rule of Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi slowly turned into one of the country’s worst political and humanitarian crises—but the story differs in the eyes of those who lived it.
It started on 15 February, 2011, when anti-regime protestors gathered in Benghazi, a major seaport and city in Libya, calling for Gaddafi to step down and release thousands of political prisoners who were held unjustly in his deadly prisons.
Salma, a Libyan student living in Qatar, was only eight years old at the time, but the memory of the chants still reside within her. She remembers going to demonstrations with her friends and family, looking up to the hundreds of people around her, and feeling the heartfelt energy of everyone demanding change after years of suffering.
“My earliest memory of the Arab spring was screaming out ‘Al sha’ab yureed isqat el nizam’ [the people demand the fall of the regime] along with my friends, at a protest against the dictatorship in Libya,” Salma told Doha News more than a decade later.
“I remember feeling very inspired even though I didn’t know exactly what was happening, because I could just feel the excitement and empowerment from everyone.”
The demonstrations and tangible hope for change was palpable across Libya’s borders, from Egypt through to Tunisia , where the movement which inspired millions and came to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’, erupted in early January. People across all demographics and ages, from the young to the elderly took part—becoming one amongst the masses that made history across the region.
Some people, however, were watching it from afar, unable to be physically present in the region, albeit rooting for the change that was unravelling before the world. Farah, a mother who was born and raised abroad, witnessed the revolution through news channels, her family members and friends ‘back home’, and the stories of those she knew, but it did not feel any less real.
“I saw the first images of the Arab Spring on the news in Tunisia, where I paid some attention, but then it spread to Egypt—which definitely caught my attention. And as the coverage continued, I had this thought, is it possible..? Could it be that this could also spread to Libya? It seemed both impossible and miraculously possible at once,” she said, as she reminisced on her earliest memories of the revolution.
“The proudest moment was seeing people take on that very risk and fill the streets when it wasn’t safe. There’s nothing like that moment: to be so overcome with pride for your community, knowing that you are far away and safe and don’t have to share that risk, but we get to benefit from it.”
Unlike its North African neighbours, however, Libya’s revolution did not have a conclusive end. The violence of the regime and Gaddafi’s security forces against the protestors slowly turned the revolution into a bloody civil war, in which foreign countries eventually intervened in.
After days of clashes and ongoing violence perpetrated primarily by Gaddafi’s regime, his son, Sayf al-Islam, vowed that the regime would fight “to the last bullet.” And he was not wrong. Gaddafi’s men were adamant in quelling the revolutionaries, both those continuing their protests and those who had taken up arms, fighting for all the suffering they had endured over the last 40 years of torture chambers, lack of free speech and authoritarian rule.
Meanwhile, whilst Salma and Farah lived the revolution through their TV screens or through their elders, others remained on ground, old enough to process the complexities of the situation, living the experience to the last beat.
Ahmed Salem, who was 21-years-old when the revolution started, was amongst the crowds from day one. He saw it all, the hopeful cheers, the hefty escalations and finally—the deadly war.
“It felt like fighting for your life. The country was extremely divided, and you always had to look over your shoulder to make sure you were safe. We went to protest violence and ended up watching the worst and most brutal conflict in front of our eyes,” Salem, who now works as a journalist covering the conflict, recounted.
The activist was one of the front liners in the demonstrations. Growing up, he lived an extremely hard life in a family of five. “My dad would not eat so we don’t go to bed hungry,” he told Doha News.
For this reason, when he finally had the chance to demand change, his chants in the streets of Libya carried the weight of years of hardship and struggle.
But his voice was not enough to end it all.
“I lost two of my closest friends. Held their bodies in my arms. How can you have hope after that?” Salem said. “I remember people panicking, talking about asylum. Those were the same people who were chanting for a better life. Now, they are seeking it elsewhere, desperately scared for their lives.”
Thousands of people started leaving the country in hopes of a better future and a safer life, after the conflict began taking a significant toll on the country’s security and living conditions.
In early 2011, the UN Security Council exacted sanctions against the Gaddafi regime, imposing a travel ban and an arms embargo, as well as freezing the family’s assets. The United States also froze at least $30 billion in Libyan assets.
As the months went by, several offers by the regime for a ceasefire were rejected by the rebels in the country, because the removal of Gaddafi was not a condition stipulated. Given the seeming impossibility of an agreement, the conflict raged on, with the rebels being backed by NATO as of August 2011.
On 20 October 2011, Libyan rebels captured Gaddafi and killed him in Sirte, in what most Libyans considered the ‘liberation of Libya’, assuming an end to the chaos and violence.
There was no end to the violence, however. With a vacuum for power now, and despite efforts by local councils to form a transitional government, both rebels and Gaddafi loyalist groups refused to cooperate, spurring the country into a prolonged civil war and a multitude of self-proclaimed governments.
The power struggle by the various different groups gripped the country to its core, leaving thousands of casualties behind.
In 2019, watching disheartened as the events unfolded, Salem knew it was time to seek life elsewhere. He packed his bags, said goodbye to his family, and travelled to Qatar to work as a journalist. He did not, however, leave his fight behind.
“I cover Libyan politics now, so I always feel like I’m connected to my home somehow. The fight is not over, you know? One day, even if this generation does not get to witness it, our Libya will be free again,” he told Doha News.
Meanwhile, for Salma, who grew up watching Libya’s history unfold before her eyes, her future is still fuelled with hope.
“I feel that everything I do is in anticipation of another Arab Spring. The revolution taught me the importance of major systemic changes rather than only symbolic ones,” she said.
As the fight for freedom and better governance of the country continues, the memory of the Libyan revolution still resides deeply in the hearts of its people, over a decade later. And for many, it is still not over
“It was an Arab spring, whether it succeeded in all of its mission or whether it made things worse is..secondary. That moment at that time, it was an outpouring of grievances of anger, of demands—for justice,” Farah said.
“But also care and concern for each other. Those were all real, real emotions, real drivers for change, and nothing that came after can take that away from us.”