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Book review: Voices from Libya

Gaddafi's poster being used as a doormat - Photo by AFP
Gaddafi's poster being used as a doormat - Photo by AFP

Historically the Arab Spring might have left its mark by successfully ousting dictators, but not without a legacy of weak new governments and the rise of political Islam. The mechanism of change drawing on civil resistance — strikes, protests, rallies and the use of social media — first came into action, according to reports, more than two years ago on December 17, 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor, set himself on fire, igniting a revolutionary spark in the Middle East.

The success of a new Libya — the country held its first general elections since Muammar Gaddafi’s fall in July 2012 and voted in a new 200-member General National Congress — is what drives the focus for most Middle East experts, noting that in Libya, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, moderates have been voted into government. This might explain Libya’s success post-Arab Spring in the short term. The new government, however, will not only be required to rebuild state institutions and draft a constitution but contain and disband the scores of powerful and armed militias threatening to bring factional rivalries and corruption to the fore in the absence of a coordinated national army and police force. The killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi last year by an Al Qaeda linked group is evidence of these rogue militias, some with associations with Islamist organisations, others operating like mafia groups threatening security. Then there is also the fact that Libya sits on the largest oil reserves in Africa worth $120 billion; something that Gaddafi had effectively used as a bargaining chip with Western governments, as he worked to rehabilitate himself. Though it has been projected that Libya’s GDP could rise by 59 per cent in 2012, there is fear that tribal patronage and regional interests based on decades of oil-based patronage politics could hold the economy back. Only economic reforms would ensure the efficient management of oil reserves, say experts.

Reporting for Channel 4, journalist Lindsey Hilsum made four trips to Libya in 2011 to report the conflict and follow the stories of many Libyans — those who supported Colonel Gaddafi right until the end and those who returned home after decades in exile in the hope that they would contribute to the changes that the revolution might bring.

In Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution, Hilsum not only draws on her reportage of the uprising, but also charts Gaddafi’s historical trajectory, his political projects and socialist, revolutionary appeal and why his philosophies did not endure beyond the Arab Spring. Throughout the book, there is discussion about what led Libyans to dissent against the regime and demand the fall of Gaddafi at all costs; why families of prisoners incarcerated at Abu Salim prison for decades, many hundreds dead and buried in unmarked graves, protested until they got justice; and why educated, exiled professionals returned in the midst of the uprising to take up arms or assist in other ways critical to the development of the opposition as a political force. Many Libyans were angry at the West in the advent of 9/11, accusing the British and Americans of collaborating with the regime by ‘rendering’ dissident Libyans who were tortured by Gaddafi’s men. MI6 and the CIA helped Libya track down their enemies in the West with Mark Allen, the MI6 director, writing that it is “the least we could do,” notes Hilsum.

Sandstorm is fast-paced, descriptive and held together by interviews with ordinary people, rebels, government officials, former Abu Salim prisoners and young activists — all this is evidence of Hilsum’s experience as a television correspondent. Her analysis of the track record of Western governments and their relationship with dictators — something critical to the future of the Arab Spring countries — lends greater context, reminding how Western governments, especially France, the UK and the US, which had once rehabilitated Gaddafi, altered their image of him dramatically when it suited their purpose. His isolation was also in part because he provided the IRA with semtex used in attacks in Ireland and in Britain. Also, his government was financially supportive of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. Yet this strange trajectory from “enemy to friend and back to enemy again had no parallel in modern history,” according to Hilsum, with the British and the Americans conveniently forgetting the olive branch that had at times been extended to a “brutal dictator”. Earlier, former US president Bush had said that “oldhostilities need not continue forever”.

What changed the Libyan landscape for the West in the post 9/11 period is familiar, as in Egypt during the fall of Hosni Mubarak, but reminds us that if the West and Gaddafi shared a symbiotic relationship at the advent of the ‘war on terror’, he too skilfully parlayed his weapons programme and compensation for the Lockerbie bombings for international acceptability. So, in essence, even if his political fortunes swayed with international currents, Gaddafi was a savvy player. But as the chips fell, Libyans suffered the brunt of this vacillating liaison, their country without a proper political infrastructure or identity, an unregulated economy, poverty and poor education and health care. Gaddafi, the last of his generation of Arab dictators, believed that he should remain in his position because he never ruled; it was the people who ruled, and he was simply the guide. From the start, his charisma and control might have won him friends in high places (John McCain tweeted about meeting Gaddafi in Libya in 2009, “Late evening with Col. Gaddafi at his ‘ranch’ in Libya — interesting meeting with an interesting man”) but he would support any group, country or even individual who “challenged what he saw as colonialist or imperial power”. Hilsum meets Mukhtar Nagasa, the son of a diplomat, who had studied The Green Book (the Gaddafi edicts) at school. He tells her that Gaddafi and Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser were “like rock stars to us”. As a work reading somewhere between second-hand socialist ideas and more original ‘thoughts,’ the Green Book, was so fetishised that gigantic versions were constructed in concrete across Libya. For example, it read: “It is... unreasonable for crowds to enter playgrounds and arenas to watch a player or team without participating themselves” — if this decree was carried out, it would have killed off Libya’s sporting life for good.

Gaddafi wasn’t innocent of the allegations against him at home: the massacre at Abu Salim is an example. In 2001, Hilsum writes, even though Abu Salim families were given death certificates from Libyan authorities, they were not informed under what circumstances their relatives died and their bodies were not returned. Gaddafi’s brother-in-law Abdullah al-Sanussi is held responsible for the murder of 1,270 men at the notorious prison but he could not have been put on trial and sacked because he was married to Gaddafi’s wife’s sister, Fatima, explains Razia Sholeh, who spoke fondly of Gaddafi as the “Guide” for whom both she and her husband worked. Hilsum quotes her: “‘We are a family country,’ she said. ‘That’s how it works in Libya.’” According to Razia, if al-Sanussi had been sacked, his tribe would have rebelled. After Gaddafi’s death, Razia, who is also married into the extended family, fled for Tunisia. In 2004, Gaddafi allowed Amnesty International into Libya for the first time and he admitted that “something had happened at the prison”. In the mid-2000s, his son Saif al Islam adopted a moderate stance, forming a charity and development foundation, aware that “human rights were a major problem”.

In Sandstorm, the Brother Leader, as Colonel Gaddafi was also known, comes across as a man who towards the end of his political career inhabited a strange world of a corrupt family dictatorship, where his detractors were tortured and executed in prisons, and abroad and even publicly. As most dictators, he became so eccentric that “by 2011 he seemed like a character from an old movie that no one wanted to see again…his dyed black hair grew longer and wilder, while his face grew more distorted by Botox, like a sinister Middle Eastern Michael Jackson.”

That history taught Libyan leaders little to nothing is the focus of this narrative. Ironically, Libya’s past that had led to the 1969 coup ousting King Idris — also known to have banned political parties and enjoyed reliance on the British and Americans — was no different to the new order patronised by Gaddafi. The outcome of both the monarchy and Gaddafi’s regime was the same: Libyans suffered “years of neglect” without a strong state and economy. For both leaders, Western imperialists played the role of big brother (Gaddafi may have stood his ground more defiantly) when they felt the need to exert geographical influence or renew relations to set up gas exploration projects in North Africa.

The strength of such narrative reporting can be found in the stories Libyans tell. A former aircraft engineer for Libyan Airlines had two sons who both fought in 2011. Hilsum meets him at his Misrata home where he tells her: “I feel ashamed, because my generation was hopeless. No one thought the young people had this courage and wanted to die for this country.”

The reviewer is a staffer at the monthly Herald

Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution


By Lindsey Hilsum

Faber and Faber, London

ISBN 159420506X

288pp. $17.99