Battle for the New Libya

Posted on May 25, 2011

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[I wrote this for my final portfolio at Sheffield. Many thanks to Abdul Zubia, Iram Ramzan and Ahmed Sawalem for their help and contributions. EB.]

“Libya was the only country they couldn’t divide”, says Abdulrauf Zubia, 22, a Misurata-born Libyan living in Manchester. “Compared to other Arab countries, Libya is the one country where they’re all Arabs, all Muslims, and thirdly, they’re all Sunnis. Because of Gaddafi, we don’t have any political parties – so there’s no divisions”.

This is the belief, and nation, that the Libyan people will inherit in “the new Libya”. For the first time, it will truly be their own.

Since the catalytic protests of February 17, Libya has united against a common enemy – Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Men, women and children started this revolution and the rebel movement has taken it to the very toe-caps of Gaddafi’s brutal military.

But Libya was never supposed to happen like this. The Arab Spring ripped through Tunisia and Egypt, deposing their long-time oppressors, in a matter of two months as the rest of the world looked on in amazement.

Before long this abstract revolutionary tsunami had rumbled onto Tripoli, the home of a repressive 42-year dictatorship built on oil, arms and corruption.

Colonel Gaddafi seized power from King Idris on October 7, 1969 in a military coup d’etat. Since then he has done little for the population, despite inheriting a country with the fifth largest oil reserve in the world. “What’s Gaddafi done for the country?” Abdul asks. “For someone who’s been in power for 42 years, they should have elevated the country. Forty-two years is ridiculous. For a country that’s really, really rich; technically speaking, all Libyans should be millionaires.”

But of course, Libyans are not all millionaires. The country is dogged by a lack of infrastructure and inequality in the face of the vast wealth the Gaddafi dynasty has amassed for itself through oil, arms dealing and other business ventures. While Abdul’s family have also benefited from a life in self-exile, other Libyans may not be so lucky. “Education is rubbish, healthcare is rubbish, jurisdiction and the law, infrastructure, there’s nothing there. So where’s this money being invested?” he asks.

But pre-revolutionary Libya was never just about money. Gaddafi also boasts an impressive record of state-sponsored terrorism and humanitarian crimes, proving himself time and again since the February 17 revolution. On June 29, 1996 Gaddafi ordered the execution of over 1200 people in Abu Selim prison, detained for their opinions and exercise of free speech. It is these crimes against humanity, many others with it, that the Hague’s International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Gaddafi on May 17.

Abdul, meanwhile, speaks from experience. His grandfather worked at Misurata Central School where Gaddafi was then studying. His uncle, Mohammed Zubia, is English professor at October 7th university, also in Misurata, and has met Gaddafi before. So, Abdul says, “on a personal level my family know Gaddafi well.” That doesn’t mean the Zubia family haven’t been affected by their so-called “Brother Leader”. Abdul’s father, Jamal, was shot three times in the thigh by Gadaffi’s men after returning to his former university to protest against the regime. Jamal still bears the scars from his escape.

It was with the death of Tim Hetherington, Vanity Fair journalist and award-winning filmmaker, on April 20 this year, that the war in Libya hit home here. A controversial intervention has led many to suggest Libya is a new Iraq.

Iram Ramzan, 23, from Oldham, is currently studying a National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) course at News Associates, Manchester.

“There are Western interests, of course”, she says. “If you think about it the Libyan people will probably lose their sovereignty.” Libya’s new transitional government seeks to represent its people in a way Gaddafi never will, but the grand tradition of Western “liberal interventionism” may bind Libya economically and politically after Gaddafi has gone.

But why Libya? Syria and Bahrain were ignited by the Arab Spring; struggles continue there. Oil perhaps? “The Western powers say they’re there to protect people but still people are dying”, Iram says. “Gaddafi’s forces are using land more than air to attack people, and so the no-fly zone looks more like a declaration of actual war than protection.” The no-fly zone was ordered on March 17, to stop Gaddafi air strikes on rebels and civilians.

“There’s not a no-fly zone over Egypt, Syria, Bahrain – how do you decide what the acceptable number of deaths is before you send help to people?”

Iram finds the British press coverage of Libya disconcerting too. “There’s a lot we’re not seeing in the news today”, she says. “We keep hearing ‘an unnamed spokesperson said’ – we don’t know who’s saying these things, so it’s difficult to know exactly what’s going on.”

Social media has filled in some of the gaps. A video began circulating on Twitter, around May 15, showing African pro-Gaddafi mercenaries torturing Libyan rebels. One man threatens a rebel lying on the floor with a machine-gun. Another man lies inert, his clothes stained with blood and bodily fluids. This is an image of the old Libya.

Gaddafi has used mercenaries from across Africa in his fight against the revolution. “A lot of these mercenaries are not Libyans”, Abdul says. “They’re Mauritanians, Algerians, Egyptians, Syrians. The rebels caught two women, snipers in Misurata, who were from Colombia.” Rebel spokespeople have since claimed these women were members of the country’s Marxist guerrilla group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Worse still, Libyans have been billeted, by force, to defend the regime. Abdul says that the Gaddafi cause is built on violence as well as dirty money. “Someone comes from a neighbouring city, they come to your house, take all the men out and say that they’ll give you money but that if you don’t fight they’ll kill your family – you don’t have any option.” One man was found dead in Misurata with “I am sorry Misurata, it is out of my hands” cut into his arm with a knife.

This is the government the rebels are fighting against; ruthless, corrupt, power-hungry and filthy rich.

Ahmed Sawalem, 27, is a business analyst at HSBC in The City, London. After the outbreak of revolution in Libya, he and two others established the Libyan Youth Movement – an online information service on Twitter to open up the Gaddafi “black-box”, and educate the outside world on events inside the country. Ahmed believes social media has played a much more pivotal role in Libya than in Egypt’s “Twitter Revolution”.

“We have a purpose – to get the message out using the Twitter account we have, and show people what the country stands for,” Ahmed says. Libyan Youth Movement now has around 35,000 followers on Twitter, in part through the group’s emphasis on “credible and honest” coverage. “That’s how we got our audience. What we’re tweeting is the real-life situation.”

Ahmed has recently returned from Misurata, where he witnessed this real-life situation first-hand. “I’ve experienced the bombing myself – I don’t know if that’s a fortunate, or unfortunate pleasure”, he half-laughs. “I’m 27-years-old, so think of someone who’s five, or fourteen. When the shelling starts, you don’t sleep.”

The city may have been liberated from Gaddafi’s forces, but the inevitable problems of poverty, aid and food distribution, poverty have already set in. Ahmed says there is a minimum of eight families per house in Misurata because of damaged or destroyed homes across the city.  “If it wasn’t for the port, Misurata would be finished”, he says.

Yet still Ahmed shares the iron-cast hope and determination of many in Libya. “I’m very optimistic. I always have been. There was only ever one way – that Gaddafi must go. We either win or we die”, he says.

Abdul too was taken aback by people’s resolve there. Gaddafi’s government offered huge pay-outs of 150,000 Libyan dinar (over £76,000) to the people of Misurata to stop them rebelling. But, Abdul says, “When you offer them money they will say: ‘Money doesn’t mean anything to us.’ Our cause is not for money, it’s because we want freedom in the city of Misurata, and in Libya generally.”

The Libyan Transitional Government was established in the East, in Benghazi, out of the mire of Gaddafi’s loosening grip on power, declaring itself the “political face of the revolution”. Already officially recognised by France, Qatar and others, the Council has proclaimed an eight-point plan for a post-Gaddafi Libya including a constitution, free and fair elections, recognition of human rights and intellectual and political pluralism. These are rights long-denied to the people of Libya under Gaddafi, and for the first time, they may be realised. “This generation, after 42 years, have decided they want a change”, Abdul says. “This youth have so much potential and people want to see the fruits of this potential, to see it blossom into something, and to see the country get better.”

Follow Libyan Youth Movement on Twitter @shabablibya.

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Posted in: Politics