BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — Libyans on Sunday celebrated the eighth anniversary of their 2011 uprising that led to the overthrow and killing of longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi, with a varying intensity of festivities underscoring the split between the country’s east and west.
Thousands of people reveled in the western cities of Tripoli, Misrata and Zawiya, where bands played national songs and flags lined the streets. Those well-funded commemoration events, however, contrasted with the much more subdued festivities in the country’s east.
With rival administrations at opposite ends of the country, oil-rich Libya has become a haven for armed groups that survive on looting and human trafficking. Authorities have yet to agree on a date or mechanism for presidential or parliamentary elections, which had initially been agreed upon for last year.
“I wish from God Almighty that this year will be a year of goodness, love and sincerity … that we will be brothers and there will be national reconciliation,” said Jalal al-Gobi, a resident of Misrata, a city in the west. “We want something tangible on the ground.”
Libya remains largely a chaotic patchwork of territory run by militias and armed gangs, with rival administrations in Tripoli and the east.
The split pits a U.N.-backed government in Tripoli — a city largely controlled by an array of armed factions — against Benghazi-based strongman Gen. Khalifa Hifter, head of the Libyan National Army. A parliament in the eastern city of Tobruk is also internationally recognized.
While Marshal Hifter officially acknowledges the 2011 uprising that he himself fought in against Gadhafi as legitimate, he blames what he describes as its excesses for producing Islamic extremists he later spent years fighting in the East, as well as illegitimate gangs holding territory in the West.
In Benghazi, a city that once billed itself as the birthplace of Libya’s uprising, only a few people gathered at the central courthouse, surrounded by buildings pockmarked with bullet holes from fighting that has raged between rival militias in the years since the uprising.
“How can we celebrate in our current situation as dozens die every day by clashes and the economic situation is in ruin and people are suffering,” said Benghazi resident Saddam Abdusalem. “Why celebrate failure?”
The United Nations is seeking to hold a conference in Libya early this year to agree on a national agenda to rebuild the fractured nation and lay out the path to elections. The effort, however, has been delayed by Libyan representatives who must first agree on the basics for a new national consensus.
There has been some progress in stabilizing the country in recent months, with a tepid cease-fire holding in Tripoli after fighting between rival factions broke out there last summer. But the date and place of the hoped-for national conference remain unclear, and many of its potential participants question whether it is even feasible.
U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame has voiced optimism that elections for a new parliament and president could happen before the end of 2019, and that this time it could stick unlike various pacts that have collapsed in the past. The most recent similar conferences held last year in Paris and Palermo, Italy, have failed to produce a fresh accord.
The instability in the North African nation has raised great concern for Europe, the destination for waves of migrants fleeing poverty and wars across the Middle East and Africa. Human traffickers have exploited the lawlessness in Libya to use it as a launching pad for sending rickety boats across the Mediterranean to Italy, with thousands drowning along the way. Many migrants also end up detained in squalid smugglers’ pens or crowded detention centers if captured by authorities.
In a Tweet to mark the anniversary, Amnesty International decried human rights abuses that have occurred since the uprising, saying it was time to end “arbitrary arrests, abductions, extrajudicial killings, torture & other ill-treatment,” committed with impunity by “militias, armed groups and security forces.”
While nostalgia for the Gadhafi era is rare, some Libyans have grown resentful of the 2011 NATO-backed intervention, originally justified as a move to protect protesting civilians from a potential slaughter by Gadhafi’s troops.
“I won’t be celebrating this catastrophe,” said Tripoli resident Mohammed Farhat. “It may have started as a legitimate call for reforms, but later foreign countries got involved trying to control Libya’s resources and turning its people against each other.”