Last Friday marked one year since the start of the Libyan revolution. It was impossible to forget the date: for the last six months I – and many proud Libyans and other enthusiastic foreigners inspired by events in Libya – have been wearing a red, black and green bracelet with 17 February written across it.
Nobody knew quite what to expect from the first anniversary. Some people were nervous that any remaining Qadhafi supporters might try to disrupt the day; others thought there might be demonstrations in protest at some of the continued economic, political and security challenges facing Libya. There were also concerns that the celebrations might get out of hand, and that people could be injured or killed by celebratory firing (as happened far too frequently last autumn).
But in the end, Libya once again exceeded expectations. The mood in Tripoli, Benghazi and other cities was overwhelmingly festive. After a sleepy start to Friday morning, Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli began to fill up with young people and families eager to celebrate, sing, dance and try out the bouncy castles set up in the square.
The colours of the new Libya were everywhere – women had turned flags into headscarves, men were wearing revolutionary themed hats, and children were carrying and waving balloons. Mixed in with the red, black and green of the new Libyan flag were the blue, green and yellow of the Amazigh flag – a welcome sign that non-Arab Libyans, so long discriminated against by Qadhafi, are now truly part of the new Libya.
The police and revolutionary militias responsible for security did a good job. The roads leading to the square were blocked off, and there were lots of checkpoints throughout the city – although they did cause long traffic jams!
The revellers did not seem to mind and used the time to hang out of their car windows waving flags and to honk their horns to the rhythm of the popular chant “lift your head up high, you are a free Libyan”. More impressively, there was almost no celebratory firing, and the only sounds to be heard were fireworks and singing.
At 9pm hundreds of paper lanterns were released into the air, each accompanied by a wish. The effect was magical, as lanterns mixed with fireworks to illuminate the night sky over the square.
I thought it was also a perfect way to sum up an anniversary full of hope. There are still many problems and challenges in Libya – small frustrations in daily life, bigger worries about security, huge changes needed to ensure that Libya really does become a stable and democratic country – and Friday’s celebrations were not trying to pretend otherwise.
But for the first time in over forty years Libyans are free to wish and hope for a better future knowing that they will have a say in what that future looks like and a real part to play in building it.
The crowds in Martyrs’ Square on Friday were there to celebrate these new opportunities; and I felt honoured to be there with them, and proud that Britain will keep supporting Libya through the hard work that is to come.