Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's killing did not bring democracy to Libya but created more divisions and mismanagement, which makes some miss the days of the dictator.
Fatih Azakli, a young Turkish real estate developer, worked with a Libyan company that was mostly funded by the Libyan government in 2011, several months before the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's 42-year rule came to a brutal end on October 20.
As the tremors of the Arab Spring started to shake things up in Egypt and Tunisia, Azakli was unsure whether Gaddafi would survive the wave of dissent. There were rumours on Facebook that some Libyans had stepped onto the streets on February 15, 2011 to protest the arrest of Libyan human rights activist Fethi Tarbel in Benghazi.
“I heard the news about the protest [related to Fethi Tarbel] from my administrative services supervisor,” said Azakli, who back then was a CEO of a Libyan-Turkish construction company called Libya TurkMall CC.
Azakli oversaw the construction of the first shopping centre in the heartland of Tripoli, Libya’s capital.
He recalls a conversation with one of his Libyan counterparts sometime in February 2011, when protests in Benghazi had yet to gain major momentum. His Libyan colleague discarded the news of protests as a 'rumour' saying Libya is a small country and street agitations against Gaddafi wouldn't change much.
But mass agitations had weakened the governments in the neighbouring countries Tunisia and Egypt.
“When we looked right, it was red [referring to the bloodbath by police brutality]. When we looked left, it was also red. Libya was still green at that time,” Azakli told TRT World.
Yet the 32-year-old Turkish CEO, who at that time managed 250 employees in Libya, began to sense discomfort.
Seven years have passed since Gaddafi was killed by a mob that included members of a militia on October 20, 2011. Ever since, the power vacuum coupled with political divisions has plagued Libya. The UN backed and Tripoli based Government of National Accord (GNA) is ruling the western parts of the country, while the rival interim government has taken control over the eastern territory, decimating the economy and public services and causing the internal displacement of more than 200,000 people.
Gaddafi's political stranglehold unravelled in Benghazi right from the day when people protested against the arrest of rights activist Tarbel, which many Libyans saw as a mere obstruction of law and order. The second most populous city in Libya, Benghazi, had a long list of grievances against Gaddafi from being neglected to lack of investments. Tarbel's detention triggered the uprising against Gaddafi and soon after Benghazi became a rebel-held city.
Witnessing the fast changing events, Azakli started to worry for his company staff, most of whom were Turkish citizens, and for his family as well. Azakli and his brother Ahmet both lived in Libya with their families.
Besides that, some big money was at stake. Azakli was managing an investment fund worth 190 million euros, which was half-owned by a Turkish company and half-owned by a Libyan state fund.
“For the first site of construction, we poured a 65,000 metre square concrete,” Azakli said.
In the second phase, the company wanted to build a shopping centre. Both the projects were supported by the joint investment fund overseen by Azakli.
Educated in both Turkey’s prestigious Bosphorus University and America’s University of North Carolina, Azakli began to think about emergency plans.
Azakli consulted some officials at Turkish embassy in Tripoli and some Libyan political operatives. He sought assurances from them that protests in Benghazi would not morph into sectarian riots of sorts, or plunge the country into chaos.
The officials from both the Turkish and Libyan side ruled out the possibility of civil war.
On February 10, a week before a full-fledged uprising began against Gaddafi’s rule, he sent the families of some employees back to Turkey with the company’s valuable paperwork. The move came as a surprise to his colleagues at the company's Istanbul headquarters.
A week before the uprising, Gaddafi came across as an invincible man. A pro-Gaddafi rally was held in Tripoli and several Libyan newspapers ran headlines like “Allah, Libya, and Muammar.”
“Some of the Libyan security officers came to our office to warn us that Gaddafi will hold a youth meeting in the stadium to express his disgust about growing corruption in the country,” Azakli said.
Between February 17 and 20, however, things got out of control in Libya. Gaddafi's forces opened fire on protesters, killing at least 200 people. Azakli and his brother Ahmet followed the events via Twitter.
The next day Azakli got a phone call from the top manager of his company’s Libyan partner, sternly warning him that if his employees quit, it would be understood as support to anti-Gaddafi opposition.
But Azakli was lucky to have a Libyan confidant, Emad al Ganga, the project manager of Oyia Tourism Investment Company, which was a subsidiary of Economics Social Development Fund of Libya, being part of the Turkish-Libyan joint venture. Emad was also a nephew of Bel Qassem al Ganga, one of the most powerful generals of Gaddafi. Emad and Azakli met on February 19.
General Ganga passed away in 2012 due to sickness.
In a grief-stricken voice, Emad told his Turkish friend to leave Libya as soon as possible. “One of my closest friends who was an air-conditioning fixer was shot in the head in Benghazi. He was not a militant or a leftist or a rebel, but he was still killed,” Emad told Azakli.
Emad, who's a wealthy businessman, also told him what Ganga, his uncle, thought about the situation.
Gaddafi, according to Emad, had warned Ganga of dire consequences if protests spilt over to a city named Zawiye, which is only a 40-minute drive from the capital. Gaddafi gave him 48 hours to keep the protesters at bay, Emad said.
Following Gaddafi’s orders, Ganga held meetings with the city’s elders. The elders categorically refused to take any responsibility saying it was a leaderless youth movement, in which the older generation had no control over the younger ones.
“Young people were against Gaddafi. People were tired of him," Emad told TRT World.
On February 20, a day after Azakli's meeting with Emad, Benghazi and Tripoli were full of large crowds, protesting against Gaddafi.
“People began stocking food and other essential materials. They stood in long lines outside gas stations. Our cell phones were also off,” Azakli said, recalling the chaos.
Azakli launched an evacuation operation for all his company employees who were in Libya. He paid all the company debts valued to two million euros to his Libyan counterparts before taking a flight to Turkey on February 22.
A good dictator?
Under Gaddafi, Libya, an oil-rich country, faced several sanctions from the US and its allies. It also survived a US bombing campaign in 1986 because the Libyan dictator had allegedly supported some foreign militant groups. Because of border conflicts, he also led some unsuccessful military campaigns against its neighbours, Chad and Egypt.
With Gaddafi gone and the country slipping into an endless cycle of civil war, many wonder whether the iron-fisted ruler was better for the country than several militias running amok.
“He certainly had a raw power,” Emad said, adding that he bullied anybody he thought necessary to maintain his grip on power.
“But after his killing, a thousand Gaddafis have emerged in Libya. We just needed one Gaddafi.”
Emad said he dreamt of making Libya like Dubai with glittering high rises and fancy hotels. With the ongoing civil war shattering his dreams, he now plans to buy an apartment in Istanbul.
“There is no home left,” he said in a desperate voice.