Democracy Now! correspondent, reporting from Libya
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on a surprise visit to the Libyan capital of Tripoli today. She is expected to hold talks with the top officials from Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC). Clinton’s visit comes a day after NATO-backed fighters loyal to the NTC claim they have captured most of Bani Walid, one of Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s last remaining strongholds. Eight months into the uprising, Libya is peering into an uncertain future. After 42 years under Gaddafi’s rule, Libyans long repressed under his regime are publicly speaking out. However, even Gaddafi’s most consistent critics say the road ahead is paved with serious challenges. In this exclusive report from inside Libya, Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films speak with former Libyan exiles, Libyan human rights activists, NTC chair Mustafa Abdul Jalil, prisoners held by the rebel forces, and others. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on a surprise visit to the Libyan capital of Tripoli today. She is expected to hold talks with the top officials from Libya’s National Transitional Council, or NTC. Clinton’s visit comes a day after NATO-backed fighters loyal to the NTC claim they captured most of Bani Walid, one of Muammar Gaddafi’s last remaining strongholds.
Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat was in Libya last month and filed this report.
ANJALI KAMAT: Eight months into the uprising, Libya is peering into an uncertain future. After 42 years of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, Libyans long repressed under his regime are publicly speaking out. There’s an overwhelming sense of joy and relief, but even Gaddafi’s most consistent critics say the road ahead is paved with serious challenges.
HASSAN AL-AMIN: You know, after 42 years of Gaddafi’s rule—no institutions, no political culture, no political awareness—things is not going to be easy.
ANJALI KAMAT: Hassan Al-Amin is a longtime dissident who was forced into exile in 1983. He runs the opposition website "Libya al-Mostakbal," or "The Future Libya," from London. This June, he returned to Libya, to his besieged hometown of Misurata for the first time in 28 years.
HASSAN AL-AMIN: I never lost hope. So I always thought that the Libyan people will uprise. I always thought that this regime will end. But I never thought it’s going to be as intense as this, from both sides. I always knew that Gaddafi is not going to give up easily, and he’s going to be brutal, but not as brutal as this. And as I said, I always knew that the Libyan people would uprise and do something, but I never thought it’s going to be so brave, so incredible, so imaginative, so determined.
ANJALI KAMAT: The now-ravaged city of Misurata was the site of the fiercest and longest battles of the uprising. Bullet-ridden buildings and the remnants of Gaddafi’s tanks line the city’s main thoroughfare of Tripoli Street, which was the scene of heavy fighting for months. Hassan says that people in Misurata will not accept any Gaddafi-era officials in the new system.
HASSAN AL-AMIN: This revolution, in its principles, is very clear. It’s about real change, a change in every aspect of this country. So, the Libyan people will never accept anyone who belongs to the old regime to be in any powerful position, political or security position. The widows and the victims of Gaddafi over the 42 years, they don’t want a reminder of this painful experience. This revolution is—continue until we make sure that the aims of this revolution have been realized totally, completely.
ANJALI KAMAT: We traveled into the desert from Misurata to meet with some fighters who were heading to Sirte and Bani Walid.
I’m standing on the highway, east of Misurata. This is the closest we’re going to get to the front lines today. I’m surrounded by a group of heavily armed young fighters, but most of these men had never picked up a weapon six months ago. Today they’re tired of the fighting. They’ve seen a lot of bloodshed, a lot of death. They’re looking forward to a new Libya, a democratic, nonviolent Libya.
One fighter there, Ibrahim, an oil engineer from Misurata, made his distrust of the ruling National Transitional Council very clear.
IBRAHIM: The new leadership of Libya is not coming yet. What we have here is not new leadership. Anyone who worked for Gaddafi for 40 years and never said to him, "Stop," or "What are you doing?" and we don’t want him anymore, because, in the assemblies, we don’t trust him. We don’t think that these guys now who are on the Transitional Council are the leaders. They might have been the leaders in the future, but they are not now. So we hope our country will be much, much better than what we are now, in the future.
ANJALI KAMAT: Many Libyans share Ibrahim’s concerns. In Tripoli, we met Ghaidaa Tawati, a blogger who was arrested in February and charged with inciting people to revolt based on her posts on Facebook. When Tripoli fell from Gaddafi’s control last month, it was a dream come true. But now she’s turned her critical lens onto the new authorities in Libya.
GHAIDAA TAWATI: [translated] I’m very scared of Libya’s future, especially because of two competing strands—Islamist and liberal—trying to take over. We don’t want extremists from any side. I’m worried about all the armed groups and the spread of weapons. I live 700 meters from Bab al-Azizia. The day it was liberated, I saw the weapons being stolen. What will happen to Libya if these are not collected?
ANJALI KAMAT: Ghaidaa fears that old habits die hard. At a recent demonstration in Tripoli, she was attacked by people around her when she began to criticize the National Transitional Council and demand an independent media.
GHAIDAA TAWATI: [translated] I noticed that what used to happen in Gaddafi’s time is happening now in the square. We shouldn’t be making heroes of our leaders. We must hold them accountable. We need an independent media that will act as a watchdog of the leadership. I notice that a lot of people in our new media simply praise the leaders on the council. They’re scared and acting in the same way as they did under Gaddafi. I say to them, "Go out. Breathe in the air of freedom. I want you to speak freely." I don’t want a repeat of what happened during Gaddafi’s time.
ANJALI KAMAT: Libya’s interim government, the National Transitional Council, or NTC, is well aware of the seething discontent over the slow pace of the transition and the persistence of Gaddafi-era officials on and around the council. In August, NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil pledged that all former regime figures would be investigated and tried for their crimes. He even said that he would face trial, given his former position as minister of justice under Gaddafi.
MUSTAFA ABDUL JALIL: [translated] And now I say, with all transparency, that the era of Gaddafi is over.
ANJALI KAMAT: Most Libyans welcomed the chairman’s words and hope to see the changes implemented. We spoke to a former member of the council in Benghazi, a human rights lawyer named Hana El-Gallal. She explained that she resigned from the council a few months ago to hold Libya’s interim authorities to their promises.
HANA EL-GALLAL: At that moment, when I resigned from the new government, everybody was watching Gaddafi and the Gaddafi’s regime. We needed somebody who can work on human rights as an observer of the new government.
ANJALI KAMAT: So far, she says, the NTC has been fairly responsive to popular demands.
HANA EL-GALLAL: When the people comes out refusing, they come back and listen and change. The moment we, the people, the civil society, leave a vacuum, they will go to the old habits. But we are not. We are going to watch. We are going to observe. We are going to say what we want.
ANJALI KAMAT: But the potential troubles go beyond old habits. Given the involvement of NATO and Qatar in the Libyan revolution, some are concerned about their influence on Libya’s transition to a democracy. Hana showed us copies of leaked documents outlining Libya’s future. One, drawn up by the NTC with Western input, warns against purging the system of Gaddafi-era officials in order to avoid an outbreak of violence similar to post-invasion Iraq. Another, from the United Nations, confirms NATO’s ongoing role in Libya beyond the fall of Gaddafi’s regime. She is unhappy about external pressure to create an "inclusive" system in Libya and says it’s futile to compare Libya to Iraq.
HANA EL-GALLAL: And we already have ex-regime people in the NTC and in the executive office, so we are already inclusive in this revolution. But at the same time, just to impose on us ex-regime people that the people don’t want in the street, I think this is beyond anybody’s right to interfere. And what we are looking for is democracy.
ANJALI KAMAT: Hana recalled that during the long stalemate over the summer, many countries, including NATO members like France, were pushing for a negotiated settlement with Gaddafi. This, she says, angered many Libyan activists.
HANA EL-GALLAL: There was some criticism to NATO, but other criticism to ourselves, too, and the criticism to anybody who wanted to negotiate with Gaddafi. So we kept on sending clear messages that no negotiation to Gaddafi, no government shared between us and Gaddafi. This is no ways. This is a red line. I think Libya needs new faces, and it deserves new faces. We don’t need all these faces that have been already related to corruptions and breaking the Libyan dignity.
ANJALI KAMAT: I asked Zahi Mogherbi, a political scientist in Benghazi and adviser to the National Transitional Council, about the leaked documents. Is he worried that NATO and other countries might take control over Libya’s future?
ZAHI MOGHERBI: I think we have to be aware that the NATO, maybe the outside, the international community, has their own strategies and their own interests. Sometimes these interests converge with our interests. Sometimes—sometimes they don’t. The NATO, or even the international community, cannot afford to have a failed state of Libya.
ANJALI KAMAT: He says the biggest challenge is to address the militarization of Libyan society. During the uprising, tens of thousands of men in cities across Libya formed armed brigades to counter Gaddafi. Staggering numbers of heavy weapons, including thousands of surface-to-air missiles, have gone missing. If this is not brought under control quickly, he warns that it may provide a reason for sending in international troops.
ZAHI MOGHERBI: We have to get rid of militias—I mean, to organize them. Either they join the army or the police force, or they go to their civilian work. The arms have to be collected. If we did not succeed in that, the danger is there of having military organization independent and trying to force their way of thinking or way of behavior on the government and the institution. I do feel and I’m afraid that if we fail to do our job, the international community, NATO or others, will intervene.
ANJALI KAMAT: But will Libyans accept this kind of foreign intervention? Hassan Al-Amin in Misurata doesn’t think so.
HASSAN AL-AMIN: We have gone through this painful, bloody revolution with a lot of martyrs, not to hand this country to a foreign power or let any foreign power determine our future and involve itself heavily in our affairs.
ANJALI KAMAT: Hassan says he has little reason to trust the West after their embrace of Gaddafi in the past decade. He was surprised to see the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, leading the charge against Gaddafi this year. He recalled how, just a few years ago, he and other Libyan dissidents were arrested in France while protesting Gaddafi’s red-carpet welcome in Paris.
HASSAN AL-AMIN: Our experience with the West has not always been great. After all, they’re the ones who, not very long ago, had managed to bring back Gaddafi from the fold and put him on the international stage. So, yes, I am concerned. People are concerned. But we are going to be watching the situation very closely, and we will be demanding clarifications from the political leaders about any deals or anything that might affect Libya’s free decision and Libyan unity and so on.
ANJALI KAMAT: On the lucrative contracts in oil and reconstruction that NATO members could stand to gain, Hassan’s response was pragmatic.
HASSAN AL-AMIN: The West will have its interests in Libya. The word "interest" itself is not a bad word. Libyan oil is not—the Libyans are not going to drink it; they’re going to sell it. But that depends on how deals are struck and negotiated.
ANJALI KAMAT: There are conflicting reports about secret deals that have already been concluded and pledges to award contracts to countries that supported the rebel fighters. I took the question straight to the chairman of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil.
Anjali Kamat, Democracy Now!, from the U.S. I was wondering if the National Transitional Council has concluded or promised any contracts with either oil, security or reconstruction companies. And if so, can you tell us with which companies?
MUSTAFA ABDUL JALIL: [translated] There are no agreements, covenants and promises with any companies in this regard.
ANJALI KAMAT: Hassan Al-Amin says he will continue to keep track of what kind of contracts Libya signs with international corporations. But he’s got his hands full with a more immediate challenge: how to deal with local brigades engaging in revenge attacks and arbitrary arrests of people perceived to be supporters of Gaddafi.
HASSAN AL-AMIN: I mean, after all, our struggle with Gaddafi was a human rights struggle. So, for me, this is what I worked for, and this is what I will continue working for. We have to make sure that human rights in Libya are respected.
ANJALI KAMAT: Hassan took us to a low-security prison he’s been monitoring, where some alleged Gaddafi supporters continue to be held as prisoners of war.
We’re in a detention center in Misurata right now. There’s about 250 prisoners here who were captured by rebel forces.
We were asked not to use the prisoners’ real names or show their faces. One man who was eager to share his story is an English teacher from a village near Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte. Like many other prisoners here, he says he volunteered to join Gaddafi’s forces after hearing on state television that foreign fighters had overtaken Misurata and were killing Libyans.
PRISONER 1: [translated] I’m a civilian, not a soldier. I didn’t participate in the war here in Misurata, nor did I kill a single person. We don’t know what our fate will be. Will we be tried in civilian or military courts? None of us has been charged with any crime.
ANJALI KAMAT: Some of the people we’ve spoken to here are worried also that even when they’re released, how they’re going to reintegrate back into Libyan society.
This fear is particularly acute among dark-skinned Libyans who have borne the brunt of revenge attacks and accusations of supporting Gaddafi. This man, a shepherd from southern Libya, was badly beaten up by rebel fighters when he was captured.
PRISONER 2: [translated] I hope the people of Misurata will forgive us and we can forgive them.
ANJALI KAMAT: Another man we spoke to, also from the south, says the revolution has to confront racism.
PRISONER 3: [translated] If your skin is black, you’re not considered Libyan. This is the problem of the revolution. It’s a huge problem. This is racism, don’t you think? Now, isn’t this revolution supposed to be based on freedom?
ANJALI KAMAT: Hassan agrees that racist attitudes towards dark-skinned Libyans, as well as sub-Saharan Africans, needs to change, and those who abuse them must be held accountable. He says he will continue to push for observance of human rights across Libya, particularly with regard to prisoners.
HASSAN AL-AMIN: I assume the majority of them, if not all of them, will be released. There must be some kind of a plan to reintegrate them into society and to educate society about them. And hopefully that’s going to happen.
ANJALI KAMAT: How prisoners and Gaddafi sympathizers are treated will be a litmus test for the new government. Libya’s recent history is haunted by Gaddafi’s brutal treatment of those who opposed him, including the infamous massacre of over 1,200 men at the Abu Salim prison in 1996. It was the arrest of the lawyer fighting for the families of these prisoners that sparked the first protests of the revolution in February.
MOHAMMAD ABU EL-NAJA: Now we are in the courtyard, which we recently called the Tahrir Square.
ANJALI KAMAT: Back in Benghazi, we met another longtime critic of Gaddafi’s rule, Mohammad Abu El-Naja. He was jailed for eight years in Abu Salim, where he was charged with conspiring to attempt a coup against the regime. He talked about the many challenges of reconciliation in a country where almost every family knows someone who was tortured, disappeared or killed by the regime. Mohammad spoke to us standing in front of the courthouse in Benghazi, now a memorial of sorts, plastered with pictures remembering the thousands of victims of the Gaddafi regime, including all those killed during this uprising.
MOHAMMAD ABU EL-NAJA: The biggest crime this regime committed against us was killing our dreams, stealing our hopes, killing our spirits. And we were just dead persons walking. Since I was released, 2006, I was just—I was a dead man walking, you know? On the day of 17 February, when the people were gathering here, a lot, a huge number, and everybody was shouting, "Libya! Libya!" I felt alive again, just like a resurrection, you know? I felt my dreams got back. I felt my hopes back again. So I tell myself, there’s no way back. We got our dreams again, and we will never let go of it. He can kill us all. It doesn’t matter anymore.
ANJALI KAMAT: Over the months since the uprising began, Mohammad’s initial optimism has slightly waned.
MOHAMMAD ABU EL-NAJA: I’m a little bit worried, you know? A lot of us have been worrying for a while. We know that the hardest step is not the revolution; it’s building this country from zero, from scratch—from minus, not from zero, you know. So we’re thinking how—how can the people participate, really participate, in making their decision? We don’t want few people, five or six or 10 people, making decisions for us. That’s our main concern. We want a civil state which respects our culture and our history, and our religion, of course, and the same time which looks forward. We did this revolution. We don’t want to replace a Gaddafi with another. We want to replace the whole system with another system.
ANJALI KAMAT: As one of thousands of former political prisoners jailed and tortured under Gaddafi, Mohammad doesn’t want his former tormentors to go free. But revenge isn’t what he’s looking for, even against Gaddafi himself.
MOHAMMAD ABU EL-NAJA: I don’t wish to get him dead. I wish to get him alive. He should be brought to justice. When we see a true, free Libya, a democratic Libya, we will get our sense of justice, I think. We will be happy. We will feel that our years and our dreams didn’t go for nothing. That’s what will give us just sense of justice.
ANJALI KAMAT: For Democracy Now!, this is Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen, with thanks to Ahmad Shokr.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Professor Noam Chomsky. Stay with us.