In late February 2011, Nizar Mhani, a young hospital doctor in Cardiff, emailed his boss to say he’d be off work for a while. He was sorry for the inconvenience, but it was urgent.
Revolution was under way in Libya , his country of birth, and he was off to help topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. He’d be back as soon as he could.
“I told them I couldn't just sit watching when my country was at stake, and then I got on the train straight to Gatwick for a flight to Tripoli,” remembers Mr Mhani, now 39. “Beyond that, I had no idea what I was doing.”
The following day, he touched down in Tripoli – part of an intrepid influx of British-Libyan volunteers, most of whom, like him, were enthusiastic amateurs rather than seasoned freedom fighters.
From Brighton-based cafe owners to Scouse-accented engineers, they formed a revolutionary Dad’s Army , treating the wounded, ferrying aid supplies, and manning artillery guns with just a few hours’ training.
To reporters like myself covering the war, their cheerful heroism seemed a sign that this, of all wars, was one that might end happily. Gaddafi, after all, was a cartoonish, psychotic monster whom even fellow despots shunned.
If this wasn’t a just revolution, it was hard to think of one that was. Which makes it all the sadder, then, that 10 years on, Libya has gone from being the poster-boy of the Arab Spring uprisings to the cautionary tale.
Today it is in a state of civil war , lorded over not just by one strongman but by many – some of them the liberation heroes of yesterday.
Some 30,000 people have died, many in battles waged long after Gaddafi’s downfall . And in the chaos that has ensued, the oil-rich north African state has become a proxy arena for regional powers, arming Libya’s myriad factions with weapons and mercenaries.
For a nation that fought so hard to become master of its destiny, it is a grim legacy. “The problems have become so complex that even trying to understand what is going on now is difficult,” says Mr Mhani, now back working for the NHS in Wales. “But what is clear is that it is an absolute mess. You will even hear people say now that they wish the revolution had never happened.”
Now, as in Gaddafi’s time, all too many Britons associate Libya with terrorism – thanks partly to the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi , who is thought to have honed his skills there.
Which is why, a decade on, it is worth remembering the bravery of the young British Libyans who joined the uprising – at a time when there was every chance they would end up dead or in Gaddafi’s jails.
Indeed, when the Arab Spring revolutions toppled leaders first in Tunisia and then in Egypt, few predicted Libya would follow. Gaddafi, who had been power for 42 years, seemed too strong, too feared.
His people, who enjoyed reasonable living standards thanks to Libya’s oil wealth, didn’t seem to think it was worth the risk.
But by early February 2011, crowds were protesting nationwide – despite Gaddafi’s troops massacring some with machine-gun fire.
For Mr Mhani, the final straw came on Feb 20, when Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, made a televised national address.
Saif was long seen as Gaddafi’s heir apparent – a more moderate, educated figure who might steer the country towards democracy.
Far from giving concessions, as many hoped he might, he warned the protesters that the regime would fight to the "last bullet".
“All we got was a bloody, threatening address, and from that moment on I was in a fog of war, where you aren’t really in control of your actions,” says Mr Mhani. “I remember standing up, going into my bedroom and just sweeping clothes into a bag before getting on the train to Gatwick.”
Arriving in Tripoli – where he still had relatives – Mr Mhani half-expected to be arrested on the spot. Then he realised the regime already had its hands full.
Protesters were on the streets, anti-Gaddafi graffiti was on the walls.
“It was amazing. I remembered how years before, a tiny bit of anti-Gaddafi graffiti at the university in Tripoli saw it shut for a whole week.” Rather than picking up a gun, Mr Mhani focused on activism, working with cousins to set up the "Free Generation Movement".
They broadcast news of the revolution with a satellite dish “borrowed” from a government ministry building. And they carried out risky propaganda stunts, setting a massive poster of Gaddafi ablaze downtown.
By July, he was on the run from the secret police, with his sister and several other relatives under arrest.
The regime, though, was fast crumbling, and by that October, Gaddafi was dead. It seemed like job done. Mr Mhani returned home to the UK, mindful of a court summons for unpaid bills, and NHS colleagues who were still covering his absence.
“The mistake, with hindsight was thinking that was the end of the journey, and that we would just turn into a prosperous, democratic nation,” he says. “It felt like the country was in capable hands, and a lot of people just took their feet off the gas.”
So too, arguably, did Western leaders, who had given the revolutionaries armed back-up, but were now minded to leave them to it.
The post-Gaddafi Libyan Transitional National Council, packed with articulate, pro-Western ex-revolutionaries, didn’t want foreign peacekeepers on Libya’s soil anyway. And after the debacles of military intervention in Iraq, few Western leaders were inclined to argue.
With Libya’s oil wealth and post-revolutionary euphoria, the path to a prosperous, stable democracy seemed straightforward.
It wasn’t. The militias who’d formed to fight Gaddafi proved reluctant to disarm, drifting into crime and racketeering. Islamic extremists gained strength, storming the US embassy in Benghazi and killing its ambassador, Chris Stevens.
By the time I visited Tripoli again in 2013, assassinations and kidnappings were rife. A renegade militia even abducted the then prime minister, Ali Zeidan, from his bed, holding him for six hours .
Disputed elections in 2014 then plunged the country into civil war, pitting a UN-backed government in Tripoli against an eastern power bloc backed by Khalifa Haftar, an ageing general.
In the no-mans’ land between, Gaddafi’s home city of Sirte fell to Islamic State, giving the terrorists a base across the Mediterranean from Europe.
Mr Mhani, who was still visiting regularly to support civil society projects, had thought Libya might take a decade to achieve stability. Now, even that looked optimistic.
“It was becoming clear what 42 years of dictatorial rule under Gaddafi had done,” he says. “We presumed that democracy was simply an event at the ballot box, when in fact there’s so much more to it. A free press, pluralism of ideas – all these things were absent.”
He remembers a telling encounter with a prominent rebel leader not long after Gaddafi’s fall, who told him that all remaining Gaddafi supporters had to be killed.
“There was an awkward silence, and then I said: ‘No, we have to accept all views, we didn’t depose one dictator to become dictators ourselves’. It made me realise that if even some of the flagbearers of the revolution thought that way, we had a task on our hands.”
From 2014 onwards, that task became even harder. Human rights groups that criticised the militias were getting attacked, and several of Mr Mhani’s own family in Libya had to flee.
Increasingly, the job of keeping Libya together politically fell to foreign diplomats – among them Peter Millett, Britain’s ambassador to Tripoli from 2015-18.
Despite his title, at first he was not even based in the Libyan capital, which his security advisors deemed too dangerous. Instead, he spent much of his time at UN-backed peace talks in Morocco, persuading Libya’s rival eastern and western governments to power-share.
It was not easy, as both sides saw each other as Libya’s worst nightmare. Haftar, a secular army officer who defected from Gaddafi's regime in the 1980s, insisted the Tripoli government was stuffed with Islamist radicals. The Tripoli government, in turn, saw Haftar as a Gaddafi-style dictator in the making.
There was truth – and lies – in both versions, although as Mr Millett recalls, the one thing the two sides had in common was a reluctance to listen to each other.
“I remember an occasion where one delegation were refusing to co-operate and went out shopping in Casablanca instead, so we read the riot act to them, threatening them with sanctions. It was a bluff, as I don’t think we had the immediate legal powers to do it, but they were being quite childish. Libya had had no history of democracy, and they simply weren't used to debate and compromise.”
Gen Haftar himself, Mr Millett says, illustrates the trade-off many Libyans are now willing to make between security and freedom.
By 2017, the general had routed the Islamists who had killed the US ambassador in Benghazi, imposing a security largely absent in Tripoli. But during a meeting with Gen Haftar that year – which the general began by reeling off a list of no fewer than 32 points he wanted to make – Mr Millett did not sense he was much of a democrat.
“He came across like a warlord – his view seemed very much that security came first and politics second,” Mr Millett recalls. “We favoured his efforts against terrorism, but allowing him complete political control wasn’t something we could accept.”
In the end, it was not Gen Haftar’s forces, but militias loyal to Tripoli that delivered the decisive blow against Libya’s Islamic extremists, pushing Islamic State from Sirte during a six-month battle in late 2016.
More than 700 volunteers died in the operation – proof that Libya’s militias still have no shortage of courage when it matters.
The problem, though, has been what to do with them in peacetime. Ever since the revolution, the government has paid militia members a stipend in gratitude for their service, only for the numbers claiming such status to inflate massively.
Today, there are believed to be up to 200,000 – all entitled to both a wage and a gun. “Ending that is key to dismantling the militias' powers, but it’s going to be really difficult,” Mr Millett says. “How do you wean young men off the drug of an easy salary?”
Ominously, the militiamen are no longer the only guns for hire in Libya. In the past two years, the country has been flooded with foreign mercenaries, most sent in by Russia and Turkey, which are backing Libya’s eastern and western factions respectively.
During his failed bid last year to take Tripoli, Gen Haftar used mercenaries from Russia’s Kremlin-linked Wagner Group.
The Tripoli government, meanwhile, is now backed by thousands of Syrian mercenaries, trained by Turkey.
Both Moscow and Ankara are also sending in vast quantities of high-tech drone weapons, turning Libya into a testing ground for 21st-century war. It is easy for the West to tut, but the reality is that Russia and Turkey are increasingly calling the shots in Libya, rather than the UN or US.
“The Libyan factions pay attention to whoever is providing them with weapons: if the West doesn’t do that, it loses its seat at the table,” said one analyst.
Today, Mr Mhani is working flat out as part of the NHS response to Covid. He does have WhatsApp chats, though, with old friends from the revolutionary days, debating where it went wrong.
Yes, Mr Mhani says, the West might have helped more to rebuild Libya politically. But he feels it is Libyans themselves who must take responsibility for how things are now. It was them, after all, who did all the fighting and dying during the revolution.
And while that may have shown them at their bravest and best, it has also exposed shortcomings. “It has revealed flaws we didn’t see – about the way we engage with each other, and how we stifle opinions,” Mr Mhani says. “Our history has played a part – with dictatorship under Gaddafi, and colonialism before then, we have never been masters of our own destiny."
Still, he has no regrets that Gaddafi was toppled, and is still "hopeful” that the revolution will one day succeed. That request for time off work, in other words, was worth it.
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