It has been nearly three years since Qaddafi’s regime collapsed, after months of fitful combat between his militias and a patchwork army of students, shopkeepers, and jihadis who gathered to depose him. Like the other protest movements of the Arab Spring, the Libyan uprising was inspired by the ouster of the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali, and by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, in Egypt. Most of those revolts did not end well. Just as Egypt’s revolution has been hijacked by the same military that upheld Mubarak’s corrupt power, Libya’s revolution, too, has come asunder.
On June 25th, in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, the lawyer and democracy activist Salwa Bugaighis was killed, bringing despair to those who knew her. Bugaighis, a bright, funny, courageous woman, fifty years old, was fighting for a democratic, open society. Along with her husband, Issam, and her sister Iman, she was at the forefront of the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi; later, she sat on the hastily declared transitional council that sought to bring order to the excited anarchy that followed Qaddafi’s fall.
As that anarchy turned to bedlam, Bugaighis worked to reconcile Libya’s feuding groups—even as her life was threatened, and as other critics of the militias were murdered. She had been spending time abroad, because of such threats, but came home for the elections.Yesterday, just after she returned from voting in parliamentary elections, gunmen surprised her at her house and shot her to death. Issam, who was abducted in the incident, is still missing. A Libyan friend of Bugaighis told me, “I am shocked beyond words. Sometimes I think that we just fucked up by removing Qaddafi—that I would rather live under a dictator and not worry about the safety of my family.”
Every revolution begins with the hope of a better life—however the revolutionaries interpret that phrase. But in the ugliest conflicts the fighters can become so degraded by violence that killing for professed ideals—usually God, fatherland, or some mixture of the two—comes to be an end in itself, a perverse validation of purpose. I kill, therefore I am. Over the years, I have spent a great deal of time with people who joined revolutions in the belief that their efforts, even their sacrifice, might bring about a better life for all. Many of them have been tortured, thrown in prison, gunned down, stabbed—in some cases by other would-be revolutionaries.
It has been nearly three years since Muammar Qaddafi’s regime collapsed, after months of fitful combat between his militias and a patchwork army of students, shopkeepers, and jihadis who gathered to depose him. Like the other protest movements of the Arab Spring, the Libyan uprising was inspired by the ouster of the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali, and by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, in Egypt. Most of those revolts did not end well. Just as Egypt’s revolution has been hijacked by the same military that upheld Mubarak’s corrupt power, Libya’s revolution, too, has come asunder. Ever since Qaddafi died—run to ground, in October of 2011, by a mob of fighters who stabbed, beat, and shot him—Libya has degenerated into murderous chaos, with dozens of armed militia groups competing for turf and power, and a central government too weak to impose the rule of law.
As the revolution was just gathering force, Bugaighis’s brother-in-law, a businessman named Mustafa Gheriani, had recently returned to Benghazi after years of émigré life in Michigan. He was cautiously optimistic, but also fretful. “The people here are looking to the West, not to some kind of socialist or other extreme system—that’s what we had here before,” he told me. “But, if they become disappointed with the West, they may become easy prey for extremists.” Gheriani said that the new Libyan state would be led not by angry mobs or by religious extremists but by “Western-educated intellectuals,” like him. It was his version of a better life, and even then it was hard to imagine it coming true. As I wrote in 2011, “Whether this was wishful thinking, of which there has been a great deal here in recent weeks, was uncertain. After forty-two years of Muammar Qaddafi—his cruelty, his megalomaniacal presumptions of leadership in Africa and the Arab world, his oracular ramblings—Libyans didn’t know what their country was, much less what it would be.”
They still don’t. But with the murder of Salwa Bugaighis they may now have a better, and sadder, idea.