Four and a half years ago, on the 19th of March, 2011, Mohamed Nabbous was killed by a sniper while covering the latest updates of the Libyan revolution against Muammar Gaddafi. Nabbous, at just 28 years old, represented the ambitions of so many young Libyans; he founded the Libya Alhurra TV Channel, which all Libyans at home and abroad were glued to during those early days of the uprising, myself included. Hours after his death, French and British aeroplanes entered Libyan airspace to enforce a no-fly zone, as was authorised by the United Nations Security Council.
Today, David Cameron was attacked over what many headlines referred to as the “collapse” of Libya as a country. In particular, media outlets and MPs suggested that Cameron should never have allowed Britain to carry out air strikes. As a Libyan I couldn’t disagree more with this, and I’ll tell you why.
The Libyan revolution kicked off very rapidly. It started in Benghazi, and all of a sudden, pockets all over the country started uprising in non-violent protest. We were all surprised: uprisings in Libya were uncommon, and in the past the Gaddafi regime had responded to them with an iron fist. But this time, people were buoyed by the support of their Tunisian and Egyptian neighbours, and social media was an invaluable weapon.
Gaddafi, of course, ordered his forces to quash the uprising – and what Nabbous was reporting on the day that he died was the advancement of Gaddafi’s arsenal into the second capital city. If they hadn’t been stopped by the coalition air strikes, God only knows what would have happened – the torture and death of a million people is my best guess, taken from experience.
My hometown Zawiya, some 40km to the west of Tripoli, was one of the first cities to follow in the footsteps of the East and revolt. Gaddafi wouldn’t have this. It was the first and only major city that his troops regained control of, as it was close to his stronghold in Tripoli. What happened there was ugly; the firsthand accounts I heard daily from my family were terrifying. My grandmother witnessed Gaddafi’s troops enter Zawiya from her house on the eastern edge of the city by the motorway. She told me that you could not see where the line of military tanks started or ended.
The battle for Zawiya was gruesome – not only did they kill a lot of people, but they even dug up the graves of people who had died in the main square and been buried by their families, and threw the bodies into pits in unknown locations. When some of Gaddafi’s troops were captured, it turned out that most of them weren’t even Libyans themselves: they were hired mercenaries from other African countries. Gaddafi couldn’t find enough Libyans to fight for him, but he had enough money to buy vast armies of these mercenaries from surrounding areas.
In pictures: Isis' Libyan stronghold of Sirte
In pictures: Isis' Libyan stronghold of Sirte
1/10 Isis in Sirte
Isis fighters parade through in Sirte in 2015
2/10 Isis in Sirte
Islamic State (IS) group jihadists on the outskirts of Libya's western city of Sirte
3/10 Isis in Sirte
A photo of a billboard in Sirte, Libya, listing seven rules for women's clothing, saying they must be loose-fitting and undecorated
4/10 Isis in Sirte
Isis militants process down a street in the coastal city of Sirte in Libya this week; the group has heralded Libya as its ‘strategic gateway’ to attack Europe
5/10 Isis in Sirte
An Isis lecture on Sharia at the Ouagadougou complex in Sirte, Libya, in 2016.
6/10 Isis in Sirte
A sign reading "The city of Sirte, under the shadow of Sharia" as smoke rises in the background while forces aligned with Libya's new unity government advance on the eastern and southern outskirts of the Islamic State stronghold of Sirte on 9 June.
7/10 Isis in Sirte
Fighters loyal to Libya's GNA prepare to launch attacks against Isis as they continue their resistance on the outskirts of the western city of Sirte
8/10 Isis in Sirte
Forces loyal to Libya's UN-backed unity government are seen during clashes with jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) on the western outskirts of Sirte on June 2, 2016.
9/10 Isis in Sirte
Forces loyal to Libya's UN-backed unity government fire during clashes with Isis around 14 miles west of Sirte on June 2, 2016.
10/10 Isis in Libya
The fact that our dictator had access to these kinds of funds made the playing field spectacularly uneven. If he had been allowed to continue his reign of terror with an unending supply of troops from throughout the continent, there’s no doubt that he would have retaken every city in Libya the same way. The people of Zawiya were yearning for an intervention to happen earlier like it did in Benghazi. Months of suffering were endured in Zawiya before it was liberated again. The air strikes were welcome, and they should have come sooner.
To many western people, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Comparisons with Iraq, for example, always seem to be used, and the terms “imperialism” and “neo-colonialism” thrown around (mainly by white British people attempting to advocate on my behalf). But every situation is different, and Muammar Gaddafi was a genocidal maniac. Public executions and “disappearings” were common under his dictatorship; executions were even broadcast during children’s TV programmes. The secret police in Libya were so terrifying that nobody dared speak a word against Gaddafi in public, and their reach extended into the UK. Even when I moved to London, I only criticised Gaddafi’s reign in private, with a select group of friends who were under strict instructions to never repeat anything I’d said in public.
In hindsight, of course Cameron could have done things differently. The real issue is that there was no plan in place for what was to happen after Gaddafi was deposed. No boots on the ground was the deal, which was probably the wrong decision – although who can blame the Libyan people for brokering that deal after centuries of suffering under colonialism before Gaddafi’s rule?
A UN army of peacekeepers should have been dispatched to Libya after the war to collect weapons at the very least, as so much weaponry from Gaddafi’s supplies became available to militias and vigilante groups in the aftermath of the air strikes. This abundance of armoury is the root cause of the problems Libya suffers from today, including the fact that it has become an enclave for Isis.
The situation worsens the longer we leave it, and it’s time for the UN to step up: a peacekeeping mission can still be done. It will be difficult, but it will make a positive difference in Libya and, ultimately, for the world. As for David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, Libyans will always feel indebted to them and their countries.