TRIPOLI— Libya’s leaders are watching nervously the turmoil in neighboring Tunisia, fearing it may foreshadow trouble for them too.
Facing similar Arab Spring challenges since they ousted their dictators, Libya and Tunisia have been establishing closer ties, trying to learn from each other. But the Libyan government is worried that nationwide demonstrations planned for later this week might turn unruly. The protests have been timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the uprising that toppled Moammar Gadhafi and ended his 42-year-long dictatorship.
Mother-of-three Holima Elhaj said Libyans are not in a celebratory mood in the run-up to February 17 -- the anniversary of the revolution.
“Because this revolution has turned out to be, has turned into something they didn’t expect," she said. "The passion they felt about changing their lives, about changing their living situation they don’t see a difference. Some people say things are worse. When you need to get something done, you need to bribe more people now it seems," Elhaj said. "Nothing seems to be better. There is nothing you can feel that’s different. A lot of people say it is just faces that have changed.”
Exasperation has been building at the slow pace of change, from reforming a corrupt Gadhafi-era bureaucracy to repairing crumbling schools, hospitals and a dilapidated infrastructure
“The main point here is that Libyans, they have been patient not for two years," said Hussam Zagaar, a marketing director in Tripoli and a former government adviser. "Libyans have been patient for 44 years now. Gadhafi came up with that system where every five to ten years he came up with new promises and none of that happened. We keep on going through this empty circle, as we say here in Libya.”
The country hasn’t experienced any targeted political murders like Tunisia, which witnessed the killing of an opposition leader last week.
But there have been assassinations recently in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, mainly of security personnel. And the government has made little progress on forming a national army to replace the disorderly revolutionary militias it has to rely on for security.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has been urging Libyans to understand it is going to take time to fix the mess left by Gadhafi's reign.
Patience, though, is wearing thin -- especially in Benghazi, where last September an assault by radical Islamists on the U.S. consulate led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
“Benghazi is the land of revolution," Zagaar said. "Well, God Bless them. They are in a worse situation than Tripoli.”
The biggest fear this week is that radical Islamists or disgruntled revolutionary militiamen may hijack Libya's anniversary protests.
Following threats from radical Islamists against westerners, most international airlines have suspended flights this week.
The U.S. Embassy is warning it won’t be able to offer much assistance in an emergency. And European governments have urged their citizens not to travel to Libya.