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Celebrations in Tripoli Offer Some Good News From Libya

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Two nights ago, on the 20th day of Ramadan, I joined several thousand Libyans celebrating in Tripoli's Martyrs' Square. On a stage near the old castle wall where Muammar Gaddafi delivered some of his infamous rambling speeches a children's choir performed a continuous loop of the national anthem Gaddafi replaced, and new revolutionary icons shared their stories with a jubilant crowd snacking on candyfloss and popcorn. The red, green, and black of the flag that has become the dominant symbol of the revolution was everywhere.

Mohammed and Mahmoud joined me on the Square. Of the many flags on display, theirs was far from the brightest. It looked distinctly weathered. Mahmoud explained to me that this was because it had lain buried deep in his family's back garden for a full eight months. His mother had sewn it as soon as the revolution took hold in Libya's eastern towns, but they had not dared keep it in the house as long as Gaddafi and his supporters retained control of Tripoli. Then, on the 20th day of Ramadan last year, Tripoli fell to the revolutionaries, and hundreds of flags like it were retrieved from their hiding places in celebration.

Libya is still in the midst of the transition the revolution sparked. In reality it is going through a number of different transitions that, by necessity, are happening all at once. Evidence of the transition from a period of civil war to a fragile peace is all around. The scars of bullets and mortars are easy to spot, and many of the revolutionary brigades can still be seen out and about with their weapons and improvised uniforms. There is also an ongoing of transition from dictatorship to democracy. This time last year most Libyans had never participated in a democratic election. Now most have voted in at least one national election, with many also partaking in local elections. Finally, there is a much needed transition from the chaotic and often contradictory system of governance that was the peculiar passion of Gaddafi towards what will hopefully one day soon look more like the organised, efficient, and transparent state Libyans want.

These transitions have not been without their problems. The periodic eruption of violence in all of Libya's major cities has shaken confidence in the security services as major government offices and institutions have come under attack. Several well-publicised incidents have also targeted international organisations, with the latest forcing the Red Cross to pull out of both Benghazi and Misurata where they were providing much needed humanitarian assistance to some of the communities most affected by the conflict. The transitional justice process has also been slow to develop, with thousands still in detention awaiting trial and the investigation and prosecution of many major cases progressing slowly.

Much of the coverage of Libya's transition does, however, omit the fact that a great deal of progress has been made. Real problems remain, but the Tripoli I saw on the anniversary of its liberation was very different from the Tripoli I saw just six months ago. Martyrs' Square was full not only of young men, but also women and children, and the cracks and bangs essential to any local celebration are now largely the result of fireworks rather than celebratory gunfire. During the celebrations I saw very few weapons, and none fired in the air, suggesting a series of public awareness campaigns have found a measure of success. A few days before I even saw a local dry-cleaner delivering a crisply pressed camouflage shirt on a hanger, suggesting its owner now wears it more out of pride or habit than because he expects his fight to continue.

Most importantly, as celebrations were unfolding on Martyr's Square, a few miles down the road Libya was acting out its first peaceful transfer of power in its modern history. At the same hotel where just over a year earlier Saif al-Islam Gaddafi made one of his last defiant public appearances as a free man, and where in March 2011 the courageous Iman al-Obeidi burst in to tell the international press corps of her own brutal rape by Gaddafi troops, the National Transition Council (NTC) dissolved itself and transferred power to a newly elected national assembly.

It was no doubt a convenient evening for the NTC to do so. Frustration with the NTC has been growing steadily over the last few months, but any celebrations marking its dissolution were conveniently indistinguishable from those remembering Tripoli's liberation. Some embarrassing mistakes aside, the transfer of power was also entirely peaceful, and the new national assembly has since met several times and had already elected its President.

Libya clearly has some very serious challenges ahead of it, not least in terms of securing the country and finding some means of addressing the injustices and crimes of its past. In addition to his flag, Mahmoud also wore a t-shirt with a picture of a young man as he celebrated. The young man was his cousin and one of the many young men killed during the revolution. Many more like him were being remembered on t-shirts and banners, and by a candle light vigil organised by local civil society. The victory being celebrated in Tripoli one year on came at a high cost, and Libyans will no doubt be anxious to see more tangible improvements in their lives very soon.

Libya is much more than the violence that is most frequently the subject of stories from the country, and if the energy and enthusiasm on display a few nights ago can be sustained, there are, however, a number reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for its ongoing transitions.