Libyan Voices

Revolution! Catching up with an excited group of Libyan demonstrators in London, they were burning a couple of Green books outside Downing Street. The wild crowd also set aflame the green flag and replaced it by the old one of the monarchy. Last of their grand gestures, they hung and beat a padded doll representing Gaddafi with a symbolic heavy stick.

Hundreds of Libyans, mostly expats, began to sing the old anthem of the nation and chanted: “Tell Moammer and his sons, that there are men in Libya. Tell his daughter Aicha that we don’t want him anymore. Libya, Libya, Libya, the free. We are united brothers, from Benghazi and Tripoli. The people want the end of this regime.”

Afraid for the future, and worried about the escalating violent means that Gaddafi is resorting to quell dissent, this is what some of them had to say. A few agreed to give their full names but others not.

Sara, 38 said: “I now light a candle each night to give me hope, that the massacres in Tripoli will stop. My brothers (some as young as 14 and 20) and sisters of Benghazi have shown us that they are brave and are leading the way against Gaddafi’s madness. I pray that my elderly parents are safe, who are alone and vulnerable.

“Blood in the hospitals is thrown away, so that protestors die, and they hide the bodies so we cannot show the world media, but the fleeing of his daughter and his daughter in law makes me believe, that we will capture him and hang him soon. It has been a long 42 years of darkness and sadness, hoping and praying that there will be light soon.”

Tasnim Ben Sueied, 27 said: “A great thing that the revolution is in progress, because the Libyan people have been suffering under the hands of this oppressor. However, it is difficult to comprehend and I’m shocked at the silence of the world.”

Jalal Shammam, 46 said: “The future is bright for Libya. We have stood up, once and for all, with one voice to get rid of Gaddafi. My sympathy to the mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers of those who have lost their lives.”

Mohamed Mohsin Gheryani, 36 said: “I am feeling great. Libyans are surrounded with each other, on one ground.”

Ingi Soufraki, 49 said: “I want to go home to visit my mother’s grave. My last visit to Libya was in 1978.”

Hulya Soufraki, 47 said: “Stop the condemnation [international community] and start the action against Gaddafi. We want to try him and then he has to be pulled limb by limb.”

Naziha, 32, who is half Libyan and half English, said: “It is really scary but exciting times to be a Libyan. We’re talking to our families and they are ridiculously scared. It is upsetting to be here and frustrating not to be able to do anything. Phones get dead. We’re watching TV. Because of the violence in Tripoli, they cannot leave their homes. There is little food and no water. The UN Security Council has so far given us a lame response. Libyans though want to do this on their own and anew world awaits for them. Sad and horrible that the bloodshed has had to happen.”

Asma Maguz, 40 said: “I’ve been asked by the press about the oil pipes and oil prices. I’ve never seen anything from Libya’s export profits. We just want him out. Then they asked me how did we, as a Libyan nation, let him rule us for 42 years? It has been three generations now. Was it his money? The ability to brainwash us? No, he found a very simple society in Libya, and in particular in Tripoli. We’re a peaceful and forgiving people, almost passive. Even up until recently, they were ready to believe in his son Saif. But he just threatened and so now, people don’t care. They’re not scared. They have seen the worst, including rapes and killings. He and his family need to be caught and brought to justice.”

Fatima Ahdash, 19 said: “I have mixed feelings. Devastated by the genocide. The first time Libyans can speak up in their country. I am very hopeful that he will step down. It has been 42 years. Enough!”

Rami, 24, and born in the UK: “I am proud and ashamed at the same time. The shame is it took this long and we’ve had to reach the lowest point. But inshallah, he will go. I am looking forward to visiting Libya and to not see his face on the billboards the minute after getting off the plane.”

Laman, 67: “Why are they saying false things? This is a nationalist movement of the Libyan people. It has nothing to do with Al-Qaeda, nothing to do with the Taliban, nor Bin Laden. 42 years of him. Never in my life have I seen someone do this to his own people. America is not involved.”

Marwa, 18 and Noura Elgiathis, 17 said: “We want Gaddafi to die. It is the end. Libyans are speaking out: Libya! Libya! It is so great to be able to shout its name and not be afraid. They want to put him in his Green Square and hang him. Let them torture and execute him. This is the beginning of the end.”

Mohammed Zeiani, 22 said: “We need to get together as Libyans. Please ask everyone to help send money and medical aid to our people. They are going through Egypt and Tunisia. Support us please.”

Hawri Ahmed, from Kurdestan, said: “I am not Libyan but I have friends. We’re here to see that Gaddafi is worse than Saddam. It is time for democracy in Libya.”

Osama Alzuwai, 32 said: “I left in 1997. Gaddafi has put us in prison in Benghazi. He tortured us because we refuse to be under his regime and his committees. I ask all of my family in Kufra, in Jdabia and all the people in the desert to send their own to Gaddafi. We just do not want him in power any more. My hopes are for change. From dictatorship to a democratic country and we can be free to say what we want and what we don’t want. For freedom and our basic human rights.”

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Libya – The Years of Hope, Mustafa Ben-Halim

I owe my dear friend Magda a big thank you for letting me borrow her treasured copy of Mustafa Ben-Halims’s ‘Libya – The Years of Hope’, for it is not easy to come by. Although dense and heavy at 343 pages, it does add an extra dimension to the recent February 17 Libyan Revolution with Ben Halim’s heartfelt recommendations, especially for the younger Libyan generation, when he wrote the book.

Ben-Halim, former Prime Minister of Libya during the Senussi led constitutional monarchy, published the memoirs in 1990, when he was still living in exile under diplomatic protection in the United Kingdom. Written in both Arabic and English, it documents his ten years’ worth of experience in public office and sets the record straight on the Years of Hope – as he describes them.

His goal then was to expose the Gaddafi regime’s “falsification and fabrication of history” and to fill a thirty-year vacuum of information; as well as to answer some of the severe accusations directed at him after the 1969 coup. He was brave and courageous to write this material as Gaddafi was still in power; but, considering last year’s events, Ben Halim must be very glad. He the only surviving ex-premier who witnessed the downfall of the dictatorial regime and it must for him feel like the completion of a full circle.

Not being able in 1990 to rely on important official documents for his time in office – as all were confiscated and locked up – he sets and jogs his memory on British and American official documents published after 30 years from the day of events and on newspaper archives. The former exclude other scripts which need a fifty-year-cut-off before becoming available.

Part personal biography detailing his Derna merchant family background, the childhood influences and education he received in Alexandria, Egypt and qualifying as an Engineer, the greater focus is on his time first as Minister of Public Works (1953-1954), second as Prime Minister (1953-1957), third as Private Councillor to the King (1957-1958) and last as Ambassador to France (1958-1960).

Incidentally, the memoirs offer a wonderful look at the historical dynamics some decades prior to 1951. From the day the Italians landed on the coast in October 1911, to their harsh occupation and punishing military tribunals versus the heroic local resistance movement, to the World Wars, the UN Mandate granting Libya independence, to recognition of the Senussi monarchy; and, finally, to the massive challenges faced by a virgin country that was divided, poor and in need of international political and economic support.

The entries detail the constitutional set-up, the federal institutional system imposed – and the challenges this created – as well as the big constitutional crisis faced by the Mahmoud Muntasir and Muhammad governments. We also read the specific diplomatic problems Ben-Halim had to face and the role he played in extracting and negotiating for financial aid and support from Britain and the US, in helping resolve the border problem of the French in the Fezzan, to proposing reforms to the King which never came into effect and a chapter on the story of oil.

I mostly enjoyed the part on the personality and political inclinations of King Idriss and the dangerous competitive drama that existed between his family members and the Head of the Royal Household, Ibrahim Shelhi. We also read on the assassination of the latter by the former and the awful results of that too. The King is portrayed in an affectionate way as a friend but Ben-Halim also expresses frustration with him for being too easily influenced by his entourage on matters of state and wavering at critical junctures.

There is more on the general political landscape of the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s, the power and position of Egypt and President Jamal Nasser’s hold on popular nationalist Arab sentiments, the question of Israel and the handling of the Suez crisis. Other pages include Libya’s role in the Algerian uprising, the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt and its repercussions, the last years of the Royalist regime and finally the 1969 coup with the false promises then made.

Throughout, Ben Halim’s woes regarding that period are evident when he writes: “The nucleus of a democratic system began to appear. Many deputies performed their patriotic duty in giving direction to the government and calling it to strict account. Anyone who looks fairly at the House records will only feel a deep sadness and regret at the loss of freedom, at the strangling of that nascent democratic experiment, its destruction, repression, despotism and wrongdoing.”

Yet describing the situation a few years later: “I could see the beginnings of the deterioration of the monarchal system, and the spread of corruption which was becoming so overwhelming that it was damaging the props of constitutional rule and the integrity of public servants.”

Ben- Halim ends up paying a heavy price with the fall of the constitutional monarchy. Although he escaped imprisonment and execution by the Gaddafi regime, he was still put on trial in absentia for “corrupting political life by rigging the 1956 elections”. And, after refusing to become a Revolutionary Committee member, he was kidnapped in Beirut, Lebanon in 1973.

Had that attempt succeeded, he would have been forced back to Libya and brutally punished. Luckily, he was saved when the car had an accident and the kidnappers, hired from the Ahmed Jibril Palestinian Group, ran off. There were also several assassination attempts foiled by British Intelligence in the years that followed.

Eventually, Ben-Halim had to accept exile and so sought support and protection from his friend Prince Fahd and the King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. He describes the day when he pledged allegiance: “My raised right hand trembled. I quivered with emotion and could barely hold back the tears. I felt great pain and sadness as I gave up the nationality of my fathers for that of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, even though this is the homeland of the true Arab spirit, the refuge for free Arabs and Muslims, and the site of the Holy sanctuaries. The pain of severance I felt then I would not wish it on my worst enemy.”

Although Ben-Halim book doesn’t answer – and doesn’t claim to answer – all the questions we may have about our country’s history between independence in 1951 to September 1969, they do offer a sincere account of the years when he was Prime Minister and his own assessment and analysis of the political, social and economic forces at play.

Plus, the book should really serve as a reminder of the injustices forced upon those who chose not to sell their souls to the Gaddafi regime post-1969. Today, more than ever, it is essential to study the past in detail, so as not to repeat some mistakes and to ensure we never end up being hostage in our own country without our deserved freedoms.

Note: This article was first published circa February 2012