IT was time of revolution. Looking back now, it’s hard to imagine that 10 years have passed. The day of February 17, a decade ago yesterday, Libyans now remember as the “Day of Revolt”. I was in neighbouring Egypt at the time, already covering what would become known as the Arab Spring uprisings.

Within a matter of days, I would find myself in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, where the first protests against the 40-year dictatorship of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi were growing.

My memories of those times are among some of the most indelible of my many years as a foreign correspondent. As always it was those ordinary – or should I say extraordinary – people that I met that stick most in my mind.

Like Republican-held Madrid or Barcelona during Spain’s civil war of the 1930s, in Benghazi every section of society has been mobilised to defend the rebel cause. Workers, students, youth and women’s groups as well as expatriate Libyans who had returned to the country made up the revolutionary ranks.

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“When you breathe freedom, you are not afraid for your children,” I remember schoolteacher Mabsota Najm telling me, her five-year-old daughter Raghad clinging to her mother’s hand.

“The days of living a random life are over, the days of having poor education for my daughter are over.”

As an outsider in Benghazi and other rebel-held areas, it was difficult not to be touched by the optimism and sense of basic decency espoused by the people I met. At times, their revolutionary zeal was infectious, the dangers and violence they faced shrugged off with an acceptance born in part from an impressive commitment and part touching political naivety.

I recall once having journeyed across the seemingly endless dun-coloured Sahara Desert landscape, pulling over on the outskirts of a town called Ras Lanuf.

My driver wanted to siphon diesel from a truck that lay in the middle of the road, crippled and sunken on its shredded shot-out tyres. From out of nowhere a young rebel soldier dressed in khaki fatigues, black beret, beard and sunglasses and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle appeared as if he’d just stepped straight from the annals of the Cuban revolution. “Gaddafi’s boys drove past and shot it up,” he told us nonchalantly, pointing to the bullet-riddled truck and grinning like he’d never been happier. Just by looking at him you were left in no doubt that he and his fellow revolutionaries believed they would win.

Marking yesterday’s 10th anniversary of the revolution, I couldn’t help thinking again of that young man and wondering where he might be now; dead, or alive? What too had now become of the hopes for a better future he and others like him had during those tumultuous times?

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With its oil wealth and immediate post-revolutionary euphoria, the prospects at first looked good, but the West was to fail those Libyans seeking something better.

Willing enough to provide support in the overthrow of Gaddafi, the West and international community was less than willing to help rebuild Libya. It duly allowed factionalism to prevail and a political vacuum meaning Libya today remains a fractured country where shell and shrapnel holes scar its cities.

Such chaos suited many, armed militias, racketeers, smugglers, human traffickers, Islamic State (IS) group terrorists and big political brokers who wanted power for themselves.

The latter “big players” more recently pitched General Khalifa Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) against forces loyal to the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

During the 15-month civil war that ensued, General Hafter had help from Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. During his failed bid last year to take the Libyan capital Tripoli, Haftar even used mercenaries from Russia’s Kremlin-linked Wagner Group.

The other side had its backers too of course, with Turkey ramping up its support for the Government of National Accord and Ankara making sure it had enough advanced weaponry, logistical support, and even veteran rebel fighters from Syria.

Yes, everyone wanted to help Libya, but only to fight. Peace, it seems, was not in their interests. Speaking to Libyans these past few years, repeatedly they would make the point that the presence of powerful foreign forces backing their preferred partner was the biggest obstacle to peace in their country.

Until a few months ago, it would have been almost unimaginable that Libya’s myriad power brokers and representatives from the country’s many regional factions and tribes could agree on peace, let alone a new leadership for the country

But for the first time in too long, Libya has had some good news after the UN last week backed a new effort to unite Libya’s warring sides through an interim government and national elections at the end of the year.

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The appointment of the Government of National Unity (GNU) ostensibly breaks the political deadlock of the past five years, but many ordinary Libyans remain sceptical, saying they have been here before.

Putting aside for a moment the obvious challenges that remain, what matters now is that this diplomatic momentum is maintained. The Libyans themselves of course have a responsibility in this capacity, but so too does the international community which needs to act quickly and give all the support that it can. Yes, the GNU has a very limited mandate and yes, expectations are low among many. But the international community cannot afford to make the same mistake twice over Libya by squandering the most promising moment the country has had in years in terms of moving forward out of chaos towards stability.

In the Libyan capital Tripoli and elsewhere yesterday, people gathered amid tight security in streets cleaned and decorated as part of what was a bittersweet marking of the 10th anniversary of the “Day of Revolt”.

“This revolution is not a revolution of starving people or those who want money, this revolution is one of free souls,” Mohammed Sallah, a 23-year-old medical student-turned-revolutionary told me on the streets of Benghazi all those years ago.

Here’s hoping Libyans can perhaps now usher in the second post-revolutionary decade with renewed hope of peace, stability, and as free souls.