In Libya, joining a militia has simply become a job for many recruits – one with its economic advantages that have made disarmament difficult. Picture: Mahmud Turkia
In Libya, joining a militia has simply become a job for many recruits – one with its economic advantages that have made disarmament difficult. Picture: Mahmud Turkia

They share an arid 491km border, but the fortunes of Tunisia and Libya diverged so dramatically in the wake of the Arab Spring that they seem to inhabit different worlds.

Tunisia was the epicentre of the pro-democracy earthquake that shook the foundations of the Arab world. When street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself on December 27 2010, in protest at his public humiliation at the hands of a petty official who confiscated his wares, he sparked a movement that would force longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile, and a broader regional uprising.

Though research has shown the Arab Spring revolts were primarily about attaining dignity rather than democracy, Tunisia today boasts the only full democracy in the region. In contrast, its huge eastern neighbour Libya — whose people rose in revolt against "Brother Leader" Muammar Gaddafi just 34 days after Ben Ali beat his hasty retreat — is a chaotic mirror of the bloody Syrian civil war.

For one Tunis resident, speaking on the cobbled streets of the city’s white-walled, blue-balconied medina (old town), the difference is that "Libya has gas and oil; in Tunisia, we have beer".

In part, that may be true. Algerian analyst Faten Aggad-Clerx tells the FM that while both countries had been autocratic, the Western embargo against Libya from 1988 to 2003 forced it deep into an oil-enabled isolation, whereas Tunisia’s reliance on tourism meant it remained open to Western influence.

On top of that, she says, "Libya is fundamentally a tribal society with conservative leanings; Tunisia is more homogeneous".

And while Tunisia had a pre-existing domestic political opposition that enabled a relatively smooth post-Spring transition, Libya’s opposition was mostly in exile, so the rapid onset of civil war prevented it from helping to build a stable new dispensation.

Ebrahim Deen, a researcher for the Afro-Middle East Centre in Joburg, says Tunisia’s "Jasmine Revolution" — which is still in progress — was, similar to SA’s, a guided transition. Deen points to strong union and civil society traditions, little outside interference, and a mild democratic-participatory Islam, as crystallised by intellectual Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s first democratic ruling party.

While powerful old business interests and Ben Ali’s patriarchy — "The Family" — remain largely intact, in Tunisia ballots outweigh bullets.

Lacking such stabilisers, and with the remnant internal opposition’s tendency to take up arms, Libya’s revolutionaries swiftly militarised. Those militias forced a "political isolation law" on parliament in 2013, which hollowed out institutions of skills associated with Gaddafi-era civil servants, especially in the security and justice sectors. The resulting vacuum has been filled with arms, increasingly supplied by Egypt and the Emirates, while attempts to suppress political Islam have driven many faithful into the arms of the extremists.

Meanwhile, the dangers posed by the war turned other educated and politically active Libyans towards safer, apolitical pursuits.

In Tunisia, a few bloody Salafist terror attempts to unsettle the peace patently failed: the country’s race groups — Arab, Amazigh, black and European — mingle easily on its beaches. And the French and other expats flooding Tunis lend the city a cosmopolitan air.

Yet, Aggad-Clerx warns, though "Tunisian society is more open and tolerant as a result of its history, [the country] had the highest number of IS [Islamic State] foreign fighters of the region".

In Tunisia, the country’s race groups — Arab, Amazigh, checked black, and European — mingle easily on its beaches. Picture: Nicolas Thibaut
In Tunisia, the country’s race groups — Arab, Amazigh, checked black, and European — mingle easily on its beaches. Picture: Nicolas Thibaut

A 21-hour drive southeast of Tunis into the depths of the Libyan bled — the outback — lies the provincial capital of Sabha, its 96,000 inhabitants baking in the Saharan heat.

The city, with its vital air force base, was seized at the end of January by forces aligned with the rebel government of Tobruk-based "field marshal" Khalifa Belqasim Haftar. He now controls almost the entire country, except for a small slice towards the north that’s run by IS extremists, and the remaining UN-recognised government enclaves mostly clustered around the beleaguered capital, Tripoli.

A surgeon from Sabha shows the FM cellphone footage of civilians, armed with AK47s, firing arbitrarily into the air during the city’s rush hour. "Everyone has weapons, even the women," he says. "About 60 people are killed every day."

The proliferation of arms among the populace is so severe that Libya has become a major regional disrupter — and an enabler of criminal syndicates as far afield as the West African coast.

Deen notes that, in the early phases of the Libyan revolution, joining a militia was a political or ideological decision. Now, he says, it has simply become a job for many — one with economic advantages that have made disarmament far harder to achieve. A 2015 attempt to demobilise the militias and re-empower local authorities had little success.

Deen argues for a "two-track" solution: "a corporate political ceasefire at the top", and "an agreement at the bottom, with local councils reactivated".

But with the laurels of Tripoli possibly within his grasp, Haftar has little reason to negotiate.

In Sabha, racial tensions run high between the Arab majority and the minorities (Tuareg nomads and Tebu tribesmen). Aggad-Clerx says the root of this lies in the old coastal elites, who differentiated their "Arab" identity from the "dark continent" to the south, where the nexus of race, culture and language was seen as alien.

This, Deen stresses, was worsened by Gaddafi’s reliance on foreign black mercenaries — often drawn from Sudan and South Sudan — and the new human trafficking trade, primarily of black migrants from Niger and Nigeria, via the porous borders of Libya, into Italy and onwards into the rest of Europe.

Everyone has weapons, even the women. About 60 people are killed every day

With so many Tebu troops in Gaddafi’s forces, the Tebu are today seen as holdouts of the old regime, and Deen says many Tebu themselves still orient towards the Gaddafists as they, alone, offer protection from persecution.

"A truly democratic election would see the Gaddafists play a large role in the parliament," he says, but their forcible exclusion means arming themselves is their sole resort.

An indigo-robed Tuareg journalist, who requests anonymity, is particularly concerned about racism directed at migrants from countries like Chad who are not allowed identity documents.

Thousands of them have languished for decades without access to basic services, such as emergency care, because they are undocumented.

Libya’s inability to police its southern border combines with the traditional stateless nomadism of many tribes to produce a fluid and volatile confusion of identities that is seen by many urban northerners as dangerously anti-patriotic. An additional fissure is between the westerners of Tripoli, who are written off by easterners as "croissants", softened by French influence.

The westerners, in turn, often despise those in the east of Benghazi as "bean-eaters," under the sway of neighbouring Egyptians. Common slurs are ahraq, which means burnt, and the pejorative abd, which means slave.

"Old Arabs tell their grandchildren: ‘If you see a black person, you must kill them,’" the surgeon from Sabha says.

Under Gaddafi’s Arab supremacist regime, all cultures deemed to be "non-Libyan" were brutally suppressed: Jews were driven into exile or into hiding, artefacts and musical instruments from cultures designated as foreign were destroyed.

The irony, the surgeon says, is that the forebears of many Arabs such as himself, while originating in the Persian Gulf, had become totally assimilated over the centuries — so it’s actually from the Tuareg, Tebu, Amazigh and Jews that true Libyan culture emerged. DNA studies have shown that, genetically, most Libyan "Arabs" are in fact Arabised and Islamicised Amazigh.

The collapse of Gaddafi’s iron rule unleashed many freshly armed reactionary forces but, initially at least, there was a flowering of the arts. Exhibitions in Tripoli, Malta, London and Paris drew widespread praise.

A Benghazi musician recalls how, for five months, there were mass concerts at which all races, ages, genders, and faiths mixed — but a "family-orientated" backlash driven by militia using Islam as camouflage quickly ended that.

Libya’s springtime was brief.

Not that Tunisia, seen as a lighthouse of tolerance in the region, is without its troubles.

What it means

While Libya’s oil economy allowed isolation, Tunisia’s dependence on tourism left it more open to external influence

Meriam Bousselmi studied law because she "wanted to become the president of the republic". She gave that up and went into the theatre instead, she says, because she realised how dirty politics is.

Though the country’s roads are smoothly paved and the lights stay on, corruption is endemic. Tunisia has become a tax hideout, and economic growth hit a three-year low in the first quarter of 2019 as industrial and agricultural output fell.

Tunisian freelance correspondent and producer Radhouane Addala said in a recent debate that the "progressives" who are now in power are "more authoritarian than the Islamists".

Deen notes that institutional transformation has been slow, and that many promised reforms — initiating a type of truth commission, for example — have been unaccountably delayed.

Meanwhile, the country’s youth chafes at joblessness and attempts by conservatives to curb their hard-won freedoms.

A particular grievance is the gerontocracy that clings to power: Tunisia’s first popularly elected president, Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi, was 92 when he died on July 25. And yet, among the contenders who lined up to replace him is the first openly gay presidential candidate in the Arab world: lawyer Mounir Baatour, 48.

Tunisia today could not be more different than Libya.