'More than 40 years later, it is immensely moving to see — and share — the delight of the countless brave Libyans whose revolution is bringing this unspeakable regime to an end'
Dr Rida ben Fayed, a Libyan orthopaedic surgeon back from Denver, Colorado, introduces his team like an announcer rallying the audience at a live Hendrix concert.
“We’ve got Ahmed on ground information, Walid on IT, Abdullah on medical supplies, Majdi on press, Ahmed on logistics, Colonel Farah on air defence, Colonel Sanusi on naval affairs…”
Midnight in Tobruk and the daily digital diwan is in full swing. Around 20 men, cross-legged on cushions, are gathered in a ground-floor sitting-room. There’s no one on drums tonight, but that doesn’t mean there’s no music. From a bedroom in Manchester a Libyan girl is singing live online about the Libyan fight for freedom. Smoke, laughter and revolution in the air. Tiny glasses of tea so sweet they remind you why diabetes is endemic in the Arab world. Surfing across satellite news channels.
These men are doctors, engineers, businessmen, human rights activists, military types, many from abroad, others entirely home-grown. Half have laptops. Facebook and Twitter to the fore. The familiar underwater jangle of an incoming Skype call regularly punctuates the hubbub. My neighbour is editing a video cartoon mocking a typical, fist-pumping Gaddafi harangue. Others upload and download photos, coordinate medical supplies, pass on information to colleagues across Libya. A former colonel is planning a dangerous 50-hour mission on a fishing boat to take weapons to opposition forces in the besieged city of Misrata.
“This is our digital operations room,” says Dr Rida with pride. “We’re all volunteers.” He thrusts a laptop and a pair of headphones into my hands. “Here, speak to Perdita in Benghazi. She can tell you what she thinks about all the reporting on al-Qaeda infiltrating the Libyan revolution. Her husband was killed three weeks ago by Gaddafi’s forces. She’s eight months pregnant.”
Perdita’s husband, Mohammed Nabbous, was the 28-year-old founder of Libya al Hurra (Free Libya) television station in Benghazi. He was shot in the head by Gaddafi’s forces on March 19, barely a month after the channel was launched, after transmitting videos and pictures of regime forces suppressing the uprising with indiscriminate brutality.
A young voice cuts through the ether, dignified and precise. How many more women have lost their husbands to the widow-maker since Nabbous’s assassination? Perdita’s first experience of life after Gaddafi, what it could be like in the future, was intoxicating. “When Benghazi was liberated, we started rebuilding our city. We started to live, to be free for the first time in our lives. Women have taken up positions in the media and are looked up to. We are living in a totally different atmosphere. For us to go back to how it was before is impossible.” She says the first time Gaddafi mentioned the al-Qaeda threat in Libya during the uprising, everyone laughed. Libyans are used to the lies of “The Great Thinker”. They have had to listen to them for 41 years, seven months and counting.
There’s fierceness in Perdita’s new-found freedom. Like thousands of her fellow Libyans since February, she has already paid a savage price for this challenge to the regime. “It was my husband’s dream that our son would be born in a free Libya. Now I’m going to do everything in my power to support the revolution and make this dream come true.”
Foreign visitors in eastern Libya, especially those from the UK, US, France and Qatar, receive daily, often exuberant, expressions of gratitude for their countries’ support. Travelling to Libya for more than 20 years, I have always been humbled by the hospitality of its people. In the 19th century, British explorers and campaigners against the Saharan slave trade remarked upon the same trait. I was constantly struck by this self-denying generosity years later, during a 1,500-mile journey by camel across the Libyan Sahara. The only sour note came from Gaddafi’s security thugs, uneducated, intimidating cowards who arrested us for a week in the storied desert oasis of Kufra. My father, who used to do business in Libya in the Eighties and Nineties, died a decade ago after introducing me to this fabulous country. A great Libyan family friend, whose family’s whereabouts and security in Tripoli are unknown as Standpoint goes to press, still calls my mother regularly to ask after my family. This is what Libyans are like.
Dawn in Tobruk. Under a sliding sky we plunge south on the desert road that leads only to Jaghbub, the remote oasis town, once impenetrable to foreigners, that was the former seat of the Sanusi Order. The Sanusi story — compelling, romantic, ultimately tragic — began in the Arabian desert, where in 1837 Sheikh Mohammed ibn Ali as Sanusi, known as the Grand Sanusi, established an Islamic revivalist movement, a fiercely orthodox order of Sufis.
It quickly spread to North Africa and seeped as far west as Senegal, through a network of zawias or religious lodges. The first zawia in Libya was founded at Baida in 1844. In 1856, the Grand Sanusi founded one at Jaghbub. In time it grew into Africa’s second greatest university, after Cairo’s Al Azhar. The Sanusis derived strength, respect and affluence from their role mediating tribal and trade disputes in the Sahara in the days of the desert slave trade, and for providing education for the unschooled masses.
The sun rises, blazes overhead. The road runs across the desert like a pasted ribbon, blurring off in the distance into a pool of steaming mercury. After an hour, a black smudge drifts in and out of sight on this sun-bludgeoned plateau. The tall, triple- barbed-wire fence, a surreally disfiguring structure amid these wide horizons, was constructed in 1931 by General Rodolfo Graziani, despatched by Mussolini to bring Western civilisation to Italy’s “Fourth Shore”. Libyans called him Butcher Graziani. Rome preferred Pacificatore della Libia. This was, in the Italian’s words, “una guerra senza quartiere”. Graziani herded tribesmen into desert concentration camps behind barbed wire and machine guns, poisoned their wells, condemned men to excruciating deaths in roasting salt pans, and dropped canisters of poison gas on to desert oases. Between 40,000 and 70,000 were killed.
Sanusi fighters led the heroic, doomed resistance to the Fascist occupation under their charismatic chief Omar al Mukhtar. He was captured in 1931 and, after a 30-minute show trial, hanged in front of 20,000 tribesmen. Today his face appears on flags, street hoardings and car stickers throughout eastern Libya, a symbol of the post-Gaddafi order. His call to arms: “We will never surrender. Victory or death.” The picture of a handsome old man in profile, with white beard and white skullcap, was taken by Mukhtar’s Italian captors. Jaghbub is an unremarkable little cluster of concrete houses. Its heart is an extraordinary expanse of rubble laid bare beneath a pitiless sun. Shattered blocks of white stone, smashed slabs of marble, sections of date-palm trunks, ancient nails, rusting spikes of wire. This is all that remains of the great zawia, architectural jewel of the oasis, that Gaddafi razed in 1988. The local preacher, Sheikh Mohammed Sanusi, a follower rather than a family member, says it took bulldozers 11 days to destroy everything within a compound measuring 47,000 square metres. “Then they finished it off with 17 explosives.”
For Gaddafi, the Sanusi name was anathema, forever associated with the benign, if somewhat ineffectual, pro-Western monarchy of King Idris Sanusi, which he overthrew in the military coup of September 1, 1969. He had the body of the Grand Sanusi disinterred and removed to an unknown location. The sheikh says the body was miraculously preserved.
The interview with Sheikh Mohammed, a trim, slightly stooped figure of 76, begins awkwardly. He reprimands Christians and Jews for their supposed scriptural inconsistency, invites me to read the Koran, convert to Islam and earn my place in paradise. Some traditions live on. When the Egyptian diplomat, explorer and writer Ahmed Hassanein Bey travelled across the Libyan desert during an epic, 2,200-mile journey by camel in 1923, he described the order as “an ascetic confraternity […] intolerant of any intercourse with Jew, Christian or infidel”.
As Libyans ponder a future without Gaddafi, some wonder whether a constitutional monarchy might yet return, using the widely praised 1951 constitution as some sort of basis for a future settlement. This was the document, drawn up with the UN’s assistance, with which Libya declared independence as a democratic, federal and sovereign nation with a constitutional monarchy and bicameral parliament.
The sheikh shakes his head. “After King Idris, the Sanusi family involvement in politics is over. No more king.” The otherworldly veteran would rather relate famous miracles of the Grand Sanusi and the Prophet Muhammad than discuss the Libyan revolution. “I don’t care about Gaddafi or politics. I am only interested in God.” In Tobruk’s digital diwan, opinions range from an emphatic “No way” to “It’s up to the people to decide”, a line also taken by the exiled, London-based Crown Prince Mohammed Sanusi.
The next day we arrow fast down the coastal road towards Benghazi, headquarters of liberated Libya, along a shoreline that has seen a succession of foreign invaders come and go across the millennia. The Greeks were the first, Herodotus tells us in his swashbuckling masterpiece Histories, when a settlement was founded at Cyrene in 630 BC, following divine instruction from the oracle at Delphi. Berenice, the Benghazi of today, followed four centuries later, around 250 BC.
As Gaddafi has never tired of reminding his countrymen — one of the few things with which they would agree — the history of Libya is a relentless procession of colonial invasions and occupations. After the Greeks came the Romans and the foundation of provincia Tripolitania —province of the three cities of Sabratha, Leptis Magna and Oea (as Romans knew Tripoli) — created by the Emperor Diocletian in 284 AD. Then there were the Arabs who surged across North Africa in the mid-seventh century, whose Islamising influence proved longest lasting of any invader. The firebrands of Islam were succeeded in turn by the stultifying embrace of the Ottomans (1551-1911) and the wretched, blood-filled interlude of the Italians (1911-1943). During the fighting in the Western Desert in the Second World War, the Germans, French and British joined the fray until independence was achieved at last in 1951. After 18 years of monarchy, during which time Libyans of a certain age will tell you there was just one execution, the Gaddafi occupation began.
Canine carcasses line the road at intervals. I count five between Tobruk and Benghazi. Dead dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Mad Dog and his puppies snarl 800 miles to the west. The road winds through the astonishingly beautiful, verdant landscape of the Jebel Akhdar, the Green Mountains, and at once one understands the invaders’ age-old, land-grabbing appetite, from ancient Greeks to the Italians who saw in Cyrenaica’s fine red soil and fertile fields a Tuscany on African shores. With rolling slopes, slanting cypresses and enchanted orchards and citrus groves, it is hard to imagine that such a gentle environment, with shades of pastoral Italy or carefree Switzerland, could belong to a dictatorship.
Through the city of Derna, piled on to the shoreline like a shipwreck, and the outpouring of roadside graffiti, daubed in English, French and Arabic: “We are freedom addicts not drugs”; “No to extremism”; “Yes to pluralism”; “Libya is a unified country, Tripoli is our capital”; “Our struggle is for democracy”.
At the next town of Baida a banner hangs from a partially burned-out former regime building on the far side of the square: “Tout le monde doit savoir que les insurges Libyens n’appartiennent pas à Al Qaida. Nous nous sommes sacrifiés pour la liberté.” Opposite is an open-sided crimson tent whose sides are covered with photos and stories of the many victims of Gaddafi’s serial outrages, from this latest conflict and the wars he sent Libyans to fight across the continent in exercises in lunatic adventurism. Here are the dead from Chad, Egypt, Algeria, Uganda and the ongoing revolution. Cartoons of Gaddafi strapped to a rocket, as devil-horned, forked-tailed monster. This is the beginning of the long reckoning ahead.
A group of young men Bluetooth me photos of the recent protests in quickfire succession. One plays a mobile-phone video which he says shows Khamis Gaddafi, who runs his own brigade of killers, training African mercenaries. Hapless black recruits approach a table where they are cuffed over the head and forced to eat large chunks of dog flesh. One by one, they grimace, retch and vomit. Then they are shoved across to the back of a truck and made to French-kiss the dogs’ severed heads.
Night-time in Benghazi. City lights twinkle, doubled in the dark waters of Benghazi Lake. Until a few weeks ago it was known as July 23 Lake, in honour of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 military coup in Egypt. Soon Libyans may call it February 17 Lake.
Precise details of the post-Gaddafi government to come are yet to emerge, understandable amid the chaos and Twitterfog of war in the west. The quietly spoken Mohammed Fanoush, former director of the National Library in Benghazi, is the local director of communications. He says the National Transitional Council (NTC) is working on a proposal for a new constitution, to be drafted by an elected committee and then submitted to Libyans in a future referendum. No one envisages a five-year government of national unity or anything so protracted.
“I used to be optimistic, even in the darkest days,” Fanoush says. “My brother was hanged in the streets. We were always determined to get rid of Gaddafi but we worried it would take 20 years or more. Now things are changing immensely, and quickly.”
Underpinning his confidence in the future is a demographic quirk, an unexpected consequence of dictatorship. “Unintentionally, Gaddafi did us a great favour by emptying the country of its people. We have 100,000 intellectuals, professionals and young people who left Libya to live and work all over the world. They have expertise in so many areas and now they’re coming back.” I recall a cigarette break on the road to Benghazi when a Libyan stranger offered to translate for an impromptu conversation with a rebel soldier manning a checkpoint. He was a PhD student studying biology from Sheffield. To tread the corridors of provisional power in Benghazi is to encounter an inspiring corps of Western-educated doctors and lawyers, engineers, human rights activists, businessmen, former political prisoners. Unlike in Iraq, where fears of the returning diaspora’s venality were all too often justified in displays of brazen klepto-cracy, so far the attitude towards the stream of exiles appears overwhelmingly positive. If revolutions could be won on goodwill alone, this one would have triumphed already.
Dr Abdulkadr al Gnein, a hyperactive Danny DeVito lookalike, returned from Ottawa a year ago, sensing the end of the Gaddafi regime. Nowadays he’s busy helping fund the opposition, setting up a humanitarian NGO, arranging medical supplies and assisting the media.
He says Gaddafi crossed a “red line” with Iman al Obeidi, the law student who burst into the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli and publicly declared she had been gang-raped by Gaddafi’s men. “Women and children are sacred here. This united everyone in Libya against Gaddafi. Every free city in the west accepts the Council is the legitimate government of Libya. We won’t be split.”
The unquestioned chief of the political prisoners, a godfather of the Libyan revolution, is Haj Ahmed Zubair Sanusi, the world’s longest-serving political prisoner. Now 77, he spent 31 years in prison from 1970-2001. His greatest crime was his surname. Libyans may not want another constitutional monarchy, but their respect for the family’s distinguished reputation endures.
We meet in a VIP suite in Al Fadhil Palace, where members of the NTC gather daily. Acres of white sheets on a kingsize bed. A tasselfest of sumptuous soft furnishings. Every bit of furniture in sight is covered in the sparkling decoration so beloved of Arab furniture designers. It is as far removed from his prison cell as possible.
Ahmed Zubair says his death sentence was never commuted during this unfathomable captivity. “Every time a door opened, I never knew if it was going to be someone taking me to my execution,” he says, unbowed in pinstripe suit and tie. The work ahead is immense. “Now we are trying to build a new country under the rule of law. We are united. Tripoli is our capital, Benghazi is our city. It will be difficult after 42 years of Gaddafi. It will take a long time. But the Libyan spirit is there. The people understand. They can wait.” A friend suggests that with his uniquely painful backstory, Haj Ahmed would be the perfect successor to Gaddafi. A Mandela moment in the offing? Benghazis still smart from the violence meted out by Gaddafi’s forces on March 19, the final catalyst for Nato’s more muscular intervention. Adel Ibrahim, a Benghazi hotelier who owns the Al Fadhil Palace, has a ringside seat at the revolution.
“You know what Gaddafi told the soldiers before they attacked? ‘Kill every man under 50 and the women are yours. Do whatever you want with them’.” He describes a confrontation he witnessed on the streets. “Three men walked up to a machine-gunner with their arms outstretched. The first man said, ‘Shoot me’. The soldier shot him dead. Then the second went up and said the same thing. The soldier shot him in the knees, then the chest. Dead. Then the third man came up, arms open wide. The soldier dropped his gun, turned round and fled.”
At this stage, the al-Qaeda threat appears negligible. Gaddafi poses a far greater menace, both to his people and to the West, whose credibility diminishes with every day he is allowed to remain in power. Noman Benotman, a former senior member of the jihadist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, says al-Qaeda has no “real presence” and “few, if any, active operatives” in Libya. Dr George Joffé, Middle East and North Africa expert at Cambridge University, argues that fears of a significant al-Qaeda presence in Libya are “totally” overblown. “I think al-Qaeda has been completely marginalised by the recent upheavals in the region,” says the terrorism expert Peter Bergen, a programme director at the New America Foundation. “No one’s burning American or Israeli flags or carrying placards of Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda is losing the battle of ideas in the Muslim world.” When Gaddafi is gone, it is only a matter of time before the enormity of the crimes his regime committed over four decades is revealed. History’s verdict will not set much store by former Labour Party MP Tam Dalyell’s 1993 prediction: “I believe that in the 21st century, Colonel Gaddafi’s government will come to be seen as one of the most effective ‘ecologically imaginative governments’ of the 20th century.” Nor will it agree with Gaddafi’s delusional braggadocio of 1987: “History should show that if there was any mould, I have contributed towards its destruction. If there has been any shackle binding the Libyan people, I have participated in its demolition until the Libyan people have become free.”
Instead, future historians, less distracted by his eccentricity and sartorial pomp, less seduced by Libya’s black gold, will elevate Gaddafi to the top tier of 20th-century tyrants. His regime vies with Saddam Hussein’s for murderous supremacy.
A new and very different Libya will emerge after Gaddafi. However great the uncertainty, whatever the risks of an east-west split, however vicious the predictable tribal disputes that will follow his departure, the prospect of any future government — or even governments if Libya became two Libyas — being worse than this regime is unthinkable.
The country has the potential to become a model for North Africa and the Middle East, open to the world after its traumatic removal from the community of nations. The foundations for success, which will be a tumultuous test of will, can quickly be discerned. Rich in oil, with a tiny population of seven million, Libya has been blessed by nature with favourable resources, demographics and geography, yet under Gaddafi a third of the population lives at or below the national poverty line. Libyans do not have the devastating Sunni-Shia divide, with the resulting bursts of bloodshed that have plagued Baghdad, City of Peace, ever since it was founded by the Abbasid caliph Mansur in 762. The flow of talented, highly educated Libyans returning from exile could become a stampede.
If the words of politicians in the liberated east of Libya are anything to go by as harbingers of a settlement emerging from the wreckage of Gaddafi’s Libya, the desire for national unity is formidable and the aspiration to build a modern nation sincere. That said, expectations, will be unrealistic and major disappointment is inevitable. Many Libyans isolated from the world since 1969 will equate more democratic governance with full employment and a short path to riches generated from the lake of oil on which the country sits. At present it produces around 1.6 million barrels a day, though after Gaddafi’s attacks on eastern oil installations and the mass exodus of expatriate workers this has slowed to a trickle. Failure to see quick benefits will destabilise the fledgling state. Any new government will therefore need to communicate to its people a realistic assessment of the many challenges ahead. You do not quickly recover from the scorched-earth abuse that has been the hallmark of the Gaddafi regime. “As for the future, with no formal mechanism in place to ensure a smooth transition of power, the post-Gaddafi era, whenever it occurs, can be expected to be a time of considerable tension and uncertainty, with numerous socio-economic and political groups vying for power,” writes Ronald Bruce St John in his 2008 history, Libya: From Colony to Independence. It is difficult to counter such an argument. Ultimately what will be needed, both to remove Gaddafi in the short term and rebuild the country in the long term, is something Libyans have had to demonstrate for far too long already. A senior army officer taken prisoner in Benghazi, terrified for the lives of his family in Tripoli, puts it in one word: “Patience.”
By complete coincidence, my father bumped into Gaddafi on the day of the military coup in which he dethroned King Idris and seized power. It was a year before I was born. The then 27-year-old army captain eyeballed him and gave a brusque warning to get out of town. “You better leave Tripoli before you get killed,” he shouted. “This is a revolution!”
More than 41 years later, it is immensely moving to see — and share — the delight of the countless brave Libyans whose revolution is bringing this unspeakable regime to an end.