Benghazi, Libya’s second largest urban center after Tripoli, is swinging to the rhythm of patriotic songs emanating from cars and shops. Libyan independence flags adorn the streets, cars, houses, and official buildings on nearly every corner and hundreds of people – men and women, young and old – have filled Ashajara Square in the city center.
Security preparations in anticipation of the first anniversary of the Libyan revolution began on February 11th. In spite of rumors that festivities would be limited for fear of potential violence, Libyans have left their houses in droves to partake in this historic commemoration.
As the sun set last night, residents of Benghazi began to trickle into Ashajara Square to attend a concert featuring Masood Boseer, a guitarist from Benghazi, who joined the Libyan rebels on the battle front during the war against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. His song, ”Sayabqa watani qawiyan, sayabqa watani aliyan”, (which translates as,“My nation will remain strong, my nation will remain high up in the sky”), became famous among Libyans around the world for embodying the spirit of the uprising.
The night’s festivities set the mood for the revelry that would continue today and evoked poignant memories of last year’s events.
“I fled the oppressive regime of Gaddafi. However, when Benghazi rose against him, I left my job in the UK and returned to Libya in April 2011 to fight with the Libyan freedom fighters,” stated Al Amine Bejoo, a 38 year-old Libyan with a distinctly cockney accent. Bejoo left Libya at the age of 19 for Malta. He then traveled to Switzerland and the Netherlands until he finally settled down in Torquay (a town in southern England) upon receiving asylum.
In spite of the hardships of the past, Bejoo expressed his pride at what he and his countrymen accomplished. “People are happy. This is our revolution. This is our freedom – we can smell it. This is where it all started, Ashajara Square. Everybody worked hard and we won,” he said excitedly.
Fathi Terbel, a 39-year old Libyan lawyer and activist, also conveyed his pride for his hometown of Benghazi, which was ground-zero of the Libyan revolution. “My fortune is that I come from Benghazi – the birthplace of Libyan uprisings since 1971,” stated Terbel.
While the movement that began on February 17th, 2011 may have appeared to be a spontaneous eruption, in reality it was the consequence of a process that was set in motion years earlier; a process in which Terbel found himself at the center.
On February 17th, 2006, Terbel participated in demonstrations against Danish cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammed, which resulted in the killing of approximately 20 protesters by Gaddafi’s security forces. This harsh reaction from the government soon became the impetus for future demonstrations against the regime.
“We realized that Gaddafi’s regime was weakening since the 2006 protests, particularly in Benghazi,” Terbel recalled.
Last year, three of his family members died mysteriously while incarcerated at the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. On February 15th, Terbel joined 200 protesters who made their way to Benghazi’s Internal Security Office and demanded that the truth be disclosed concerning the fate of all those killed in the jail. During the demonstration, Terbel and scores of other protesters were arrested.
By February 17th, 2011, word of Terbel’s detainment had spread throughout Libya. A number of online social networks called for mobilization on a national level. Libyans of all ages and social backgrounds took to the streets of Benghazi, Baydha, Tripoli, Zawiya, Misrata, and Zuwara, clamoring for Gaddafi’s ouster and marking the onset of Libya’s revolution.
While many Libyans have found cause to celebrate the memory of the events that began last year, expressing hope and optimism for the future, others remain skeptical about the outcome of this revolution in light of the challenges facing post-Gaddafi Libya.
Abdurrahim Ettira, a 28 year-old hotel receptionist from Benghazi, didn’t feel like there was much to celebrate. “I hoped for many changes but I’ve seen nothing,” he stated with resignation. Ettira took part in the first Benghazi demonstration in front of the internal security office, which stands today, partially burnt, as a testament to Libya’s unfinished revolutionary transition.
Ettira expressed his unhappiness with the work of the NTC, citing a lack of transparency. According to Ettira, the implementation of constructive change still remains far off. “Gaddafi’s people are still part of the NTC, and that is not helping the democratic transition in Libya,” he said.
Others, such as Abdurraouf , a 22 year-old shop assistant, remain positive about progress made in the country since Gaddafi’s death. However, he recognized that the work of the NTC has only just begun and the process of reform has been slow. “There are things that the NTC has been slow to change,” Abdurraouf acknowledged.
“Things have changed a lot since last year. I am happy about the future of Libya,” Abdurraouf concluded optimistically.