Arab Spring Cartoon: The Libyan Game

In 2011, we knew the transition to a democratic Libya would be complicated. Ten years on, we can see it was a failure.

[Copyright: Khalid Albaih]

In 2011, Khalid Albaih’s cartoons about the Arab Spring went viral across the Middle East and North Africa. In this series for Al Jazeera, he revisits some of his work, reflecting on the difference the last decade has made for people in the region.

I grew up in Doha not knowing much about Libya except for Muammar Gaddafi, whose popstar-like attitude – expressed in his outlandish fashion choices and female bodyguards – made him the Michael Jackson of politics in the region. To me, he was Saddam Hussain with a fashion sense and more kids.

Gaddafi had a firm grip on power for 40 years. Despite his support for revolutionary groups and ideas abroad, such as The Black Panthers and Polisario Front, in Libya, Gaddafi was brutal to those who opposed him.

For years, Libya’s youth were perceived as being apolitical, largely because of how Gaddafi regarded his enemies and because the country was considered financially stable compared with the rest of the Arab world.

But in early February 2011, they proved the world wrong. Libya had been touched by the same flames of anger that ignited the Arab Spring in Tunisia a few months earlier. And it turned out that being financially comfortable did not substitute for freedom.

The country fearlessly rose up against Gaddafi, sounding the alarm for the dictators in the region: if the people of Libya were not scared of Gaddafi, it meant none of them was safe either. I still believe that Libya’s protests were the catalyst for regional governments to turn to extreme violence as a way to quell the uprisings.

In early 2011, I remember watching the grainy mobile phone footage on Al Jazeera of protesters throwing their shoes at a cartoon of Gaddafi graffitied onto a wall. The cartoon’s existence was enough to show how much the public’s fear of him had been broken. It being street art meant that someone dared to risk their lives to create it. The fact that the artist had the time to draw it and that people were protesting and filming it clearly indicated that the revolution was real.

Then, what came next happened too fast: the NATO-led air-intervention, and the death of Gaddafi at the hands of the rebels in October 2011. But the fighting never stopped because, from the army to the judicial system, there were no independent institutions in the country, and unity between the Libyan tribal society was weak. It was a fact that, sadly, Gaddafi was Libya.

The transition to a new democratic Libya would be complicated. That is what this #khartoon I drew back in 2011 was about.

Today, in 2021, we can see that the democratic transition was a failure.

Libya, as a unified state, ultimately collapsed in 2014. Meanwhile, the distribution of Gaddafi’s arsenal between local geopolitical backed factions, the refugee crisis, human trafficking and the restored slave trade, ISIL (ISIS), and the failure to unite the fighting fractions have made the situation more complicated still.

Ten years on, the situation in Libya is still a Rubik’s cube of complexity – a game being played, a puzzle that remains unsolved. Yet hope always remains. The Spring will visit again.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.