More than a year ago, in March 2011 to be exact, the UN Security Council demanded an immediate ceasefire in Libya, including an end to the prevailing attacks against civilians
The council added that the actions by the regime might potentially constitute “crimes against humanity” and consequently the Security Council imposed a ban on all flights in the country’s airspace.
This resolution was one in a dramatic series of developments in North Africa and the Middle East, which resulted in the fall of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and continuous tension in other states ranging from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. Tension and violence are still prevailing in Syria.
In all this, one thing seems certain: that expectation of freedom is contagious. Where ambitions seem very contained and where few apparently were ready to question the status quo, all of sudden everyone started to ask questions and backing them with action even in the face of violence.
At the moment, we can only look back at the events that took place in the last year and seek to understand in a more composed way what led to them and whether the ambitions of those directly involved were ultimately realized.
After winning the struggle against their former regime, a general sense of hope characterised the mood of entire masses across Libya, Tunisia and Egypt; amid uncertainty the respective peoples were in high spirits. In a way, the revolution was the easy part. A lot of work still needs to be done. In Tunisia, months after Ben Ali fled, thousands of protestors continued to occupy the squares of the capital insisting that real reforms are implemented. They feared that one Ben Ali will be replaced with many milder versions of him. There was a conviction that too many former cronies in the government were pulling the strings behind the scenes.
According to estimates from the World Bank, the revolution in Tunisia has caused a loss of $5 billion (€3.6 billion) to $8 billion, up to 20% of Tunisia’s GDP. Meanwhile, the very same thing that led to the revolution – a lack of meaningful opportunities for educated young people – is now hurting their chances even more. The same World Bank report shows that recent graduates have a 46% chance of remaining unemployed 18 months after graduation in a country where half of the population is under 25. It is this that has led to thousands of refugees taking to the seas recently, trying to make it to Italy and France, a move that cost almost a dozen young Tunisians their lives.
Things in Tunisia seem to move more smoothly than in the other post revolution states. Reports in international press suggest that police officers are slowly and steadily regaining the trust of the population. The army is keeping order and staying out of politics. Journalists are learning how to write for a press that is free now. And people continue to express pride in what they did and a euphoric disbelief at being free.
On the other hand, things seem more complicated in Libya. Last month, images appeared in respectable British media of Libyan youths in Benghazi desecrating British graves from the Second World War. Last week, the rivalry between tribes turned into an open conflict when a Tabu tribe member shot a member of the Arab Abu Seif tribe.
Suddenly Libya found itself being criticised and held responsible for the acts of individuals. There are also concerns about human rights. But it is proliferation of arms and the reported undemocratic practices that are raising a big question mark over the abilities of the transitional council to effectively and democratically rule the country.
Recent international media reports suggest that the Libyan government is increasingly tempted to declare a state of emergency hoping to avoid further escalation in violence across the country, while Libya’s governing council still relies on militias made up of former rebels to keep the peace. Meanwhile, Libya’s first free elections are due in months and it seems that there is still a significant lack of uncertainty as regards how to engage with the general public in order for choices to be made. Ultimately, much depends on the ability of these countries to build solid institutions and to control the emergence of chaos.
Although there is still a long way to go it is astonishing how much was achieved in the past six months.
Dr Refalo is Labour spokesman for Gozo