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.”
That seems to be the terrible upshot of the past decade and more – that gangs of zealots are even worse than dictators, and that dictators may at some times in some places be the only alternative to gangs of zealots. I would so much prefer that not to be true.
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.
I don’t like armed militia groups. How lucky I am not to have to live among them.