In Libya, government and rebel forces remain locked in a deadly stalemate as rebels fight for an end to Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s nearly 42-year rule. We speak with New York Times correspondent and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Anthony Shadid, who covered the conflict between government and rebel forces before he and three colleagues were kidnapped and beaten by Gaddafi’s forces. They were released two weeks ago. We speak with Shadid about the situation in Libya and the popular rebellions rising up across the Middle East and North Africa. "There’s going to be a desire to intervene, I think, as this gets more dangerous and more complicated and more violent, but I think that intervention [by allied forces], that very intervention, could very well make things worse," says Shadid. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to my interview with Anthony Shadid, the Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. Shadid one of four New York Times reporters who were captured together last month in Libya by Gaddafi forces. They were held for almost a week after covering the conflict there between government and rebel forces.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the difference between the rebels and the Gaddafi soldiers? When you were in Benghazi, you were staying in the same place as our colleague, Anjali Kamat, was. So you spent a good amount of time interviewing rebels, as well, and just the general population.
ANTHONY SHADID: Yeah, the rebels are absolutely a disparate group. And I think I met — out in Darnah, which was the seat of an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, I met veterans of the war in Afghanistan. They would describe themselves as Islamists. I think when you go to other places like Bayda or Benghazi, you meet people who would again — I mean, these are terms that we throw around, but would describe themselves as liberal or secular. It’s a broad spectrum that is represented within the opposition, and obviously the unity right now comes in pursuit of overthrowing Colonel Gaddafi. You do wonder what the day after would be like. Or you wonder even, if there is a stalemate, how much problem there is — how many problems they’re going to face in trying to keep cohesion within the ranks of the rebels, within the ranks of the opposition.
One thing that struck me, though, Amy, if you look at other side, is how much — you know, we understood the rebels’ motivations. I mean, it is that broad notion of bringing forth a government that’s somehow accountable, that’s somehow reflective of popular aspiration, that somehow tries to — you know, tries to reckon with this legacy of four decades of, you know, at best, bizarre rule. What struck me, though, in talking to this militia or talking to the soldiers that had taken us captive, was that they also believed in what they were doing. And I was surprised by that. I guess I had heard so much of these speeches by Colonel Gaddafi, and they seemed so ludicrous, and they were ridiculed by people in Benghazi, but when you talked to these fighters with the militia, they very much believed they were fighting al-Qaeda or militant Islamists. And I think more than a few of them also had trouble envisioning Libya without Colonel Gaddafi. In other words, he had been there for 42 years, they were all in their twenties; they had never seen a Libya without him. And the very prospect of Libya continuing, I guess, without him in power seemed disturbing at some level to them.
AMY GOODMAN: Anthony Shadid, can you talk about the moment of your release? What were you understanding at the time, you and your colleagues, and how it happened?
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, we had been kept — and I have to say, once we arrived in Tripoli, we kind of just sprawled out on this — what we later learned was the headquarters for military intelligence. We just kind of sprawled out on the floor. You know, we had been — the beating at the — on the tarmac in Sirte, before we got on this military flight, was pretty rough. And my colleague — even in Tripoli, my colleague Tyler got a pretty rough blow to the head with a gun. Once we — so once we got to this office of military intelligence, we just kind of sprawled out on the floor. They gave us, of all things, milk and mango juice. And, you know, we kind of got our wits back together. And even in that meeting right there, they promised us that we were going to be treated well from then on. And they held their — you know, they met their promise: we were absolutely treated well from then on. We were fed well. You know, the accommodations, it was a detention center, but it was actually quite pleasant.
I think the only thing that was tough to deal with was the boredom, in some ways, that we were trying to figure out what was going to happen to us. We had got — we had watched TV for a few minutes. We knew that we were still missing. But as soon as they saw our reaction to that, they cut the cable. So we didn’t see TV after that, although we had heard that there was a debate over a no-fly zone. And we did worry about the implications of that. I think by the night before we were — or I’d say two nights before we were released, we could hear the anti-aircraft fire. We were in the — what they call Bab al-Azizia, which is the headquarters for Colonel Gaddafi, so we figured that the no-fly zone had been imposed, that there was bombing going on. We did hear the anti-aircraft fire. And I think, you know, four journalists sitting together, they’re just going to let their imaginations run wild. And they did. And we were worried that we would be kept days, weeks, even longer, as — you know, as hostages. Who knows? And again, it reminds me of what happened in Baghdad in 2003. I think a lot of journalists left Baghdad in 2003 because they feared what the Iraqi government would do. In the end, the Iraqi government did nothing to them before it fell. And I think this was a similar situation here.
Again, you could tell from these officials that we talked to in Tripoli that they very much were determined to show that this was a legitimate state, that the state still had prestige, that the state would play by diplomatic rules, essentially. And they did. And our Turkish — the Turkish diplomats who facilitated our release were told, I think, four times that we were about to be freed. The fourth time, we actually were. And Sunday morning, we were taken — we were blindfolded as we left the compound and then taken to the Turkish — well, we were taken to a Libyan office, and then the Turkish embassy. And from there, we were driven to the Tunisian border.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did that feel?
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, it felt — well, you know, I want to say, you know, you felt jubilant or you felt relieved, and I’m not sure that was the feeling. I think it was — I think it was more a feeling of — I don’t think any of us talked all that much, to be honest. I think a lot of us had a lot of guilt over what — you know, the fate of our driver, who was — we still don’t know what has happened to him. We fear the worst. And we talked — that was the subject of a lot of our conversation over those three days in Tripoli. I think a lot of us felt guilt about what we had done to our friends and our families. You know, we didn’t know that anyone was even — we figured the New York Times was going to be paying attention to our case, but we didn’t know that there were going to be efforts beyond that. I think as soon as we got to Tunisia, we realized how much people had tried to help, and I think there was a deep appreciation on all our parts over that.
AMY GOODMAN: Anthony, who was your driver?
ANTHONY SHADID: Our driver was a man named Mohamed Shaglouf, and he — I had — the first day I worked with him was the day that we were captured. He had been working with the photographers earlier. He got out of the car — as we got out of the car on one side when the gun battle started, he got out the other side. And that was the last moment we saw him. You know, we did fear for the worst, but the newspaper has sent in two people to try to determine his whereabouts. His family believes he’s detained. His body has not been recovered, if he was killed. And I think there’s still a search going on to try to find out, you know, what happened to Mohamed.
AMY GOODMAN: What was his profession before he was driving you?
ANTHONY SHADID: He was a student. He was a young student who was 21 years old. And we had been working — we had been staying at his family’s house — actually, not his family, but an uncle who had let us stay at his house. And his brother was also working with us over those days in Benghazi, in Ajdabiya and then further, further west, in Ras Lanuf.
AMY GOODMAN: Anthony Shadid, you mentioned the no-fly zone. You spent time in Benghazi. President Obama’s rationale, there would have been a massacre in Benghazi — what is your sense of it?
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, that’s a tough question. I tell you, if anything — I’ve learned anything over the past couple months, it’s that my power of prediction is really bad. And I feel like I’ve made wrong calls at every turn. I didn’t see a massacre happening in Benghazi, but I could be wrong about that. You know, it was hard for me to see that Colonel Gaddafi would actually try to retake Benghazi itself. My sense was that he was going to try to let it, you know, divide from within, that he was going to send in provocateurs, that there was going to be agitation. I didn’t see a full assault on the city by his soldiers. But I could be wrong about that. I just — you know, I guess my own instinct was that he was going to try to encircle those areas that were rebellious. I know that is the justification for the no-fly zone. You know, whether it was the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do, it’s difficult to say. I don’t see where this goes necessarily.
I mean, I think in some ways we’re — you know, we’ve seen the easy revolutions, if we can call them that, in Egypt and Tunisia. I think Libya, in some ways, is a window on change, that’s going to be — you know, it’s going to be violent, it’s going to take a long time. I think we’re on the right trajectory toward a far healthier, far more vibrant Arab world, but I think Libya is a window on some of the challenges that are going to be out there. It’s an opposition that is very loosely united, if even that. It’s an opposition that hasn’t articulated a vision for the future necessarily, and it doesn’t articulate that vision because it knows the divisions that reside within its ranks. We’re seeing a government that’s utterly unaccountable, that’s determined to hang on. I think we’re already seeing the cracks and fissures within that government that could lead to more fighting as the remnants of the regime try to maintain or try to keep some shred of power.
AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts on this latest news about the possibility of the Gaddafi sons being involved with a future of Libya with the father, well, perhaps stepping away, Muammar Gaddafi?
ANTHONY SHADID: Yeah, it’s hard to imagine, I have to say. And it’s hard to imagine — I mean, who knows what deal some in the opposition might cut, you know, with the sons? But it just — you know, given how entrenched the sons, especially Saif al-Islam, are in the regime, how closely identified they are with the regime — and we have to remember, Saif al-Islam was using some of the most vulgar language, you know, I think mimicking his father, when he was talking about crushing this uprising and crushing the opposition. He does seem too closely identified with the government, for me, to — to me, to be an alternative figure. But, you know, again, I might be wrong about that. I think what’s more likely probably is the sons, you know, perhaps fighting each other, as they try to push the father aside. And again, I think that’s more of a short-term thing. You know, I think we are looking at a far more sweeping change in that country, but I think it’s something that could last — it could take years.
AMY GOODMAN: You covered Iraq for years. Do you see parallels between Saddam Hussein and his sons and Gaddafi and his sons?
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, I think there are some loose parallels, some kind of superficial parallels. I think Saif al-Islam is far more sophisticated in some ways than Saddam’s sons were. I don’t — that’s not praise, by any means. I think just the way he fashions himself and tries to come across.
What strikes me, though, I think, in especially the difference between Iraq and Libya is that, Iraq, there were the institutions of a state, there was the party, however much that was beholden to Saddam in the end. I mean, it did become an instrument of Saddam in that kind of very small clique around him from Tikrit. What strikes me about Libya is just how this idea of perpetual revolution, which, you know, was rhetorical, obviously, but how this idea of perpetual revolution over more than four decades basically just wiped out the institutions that were within Libya. When I was in a town in eastern Libya called Bayda, it was remarkable to me how it wasn’t just the challenge for the opposition to build — you know, to kind of reform or revise the state or to try to create some kind of transition toward a new form of rule; it was how do you construct a state from the very beginning. There was the sense that it was basically managed chaos or managed anarchy for four decades, and they really were starting all over. I think that’s the challenge that the opposition and the rebels are going to face, looking forward. You know, how do you build institutions in a state without them? What kind of institutions — or, I guess, what kind of — what can you rely on to navigate a transition? What is going to be the genesis of this new vision for the country? It really is a wreckage right now, and I think that’s one of the greatest legacies of this — of four decades of Colonel Gaddafi’s rule.
AMY GOODMAN: Anthony Shadid, we last spoke to you in Tunisia, this rolling rebellion that has been taking place — Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya. Can you talk about the different natures of these rebellions, different characters, and also what makes them similar, what you’ve observed?
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, I do think that Egypt and Tunisia were, in some ways, the easy revolutions, and they’re revolutions that are still unfolding, and I think especially Tunisia, where the demands are very pronounced over what kind of change the opposition are — or the revolutionaries want to see in Tunisia. I think Egypt is absolutely still a work in progress, and I think — and it’s a fascinating one. It’s not coincidence that those two countries have, I think, the deepest sense of national identity. The divisions within those countries are not that great, are not that pronounced.
I think when we look at countries elsewhere in the Arab world, it does become much more complicated in some ways. I think in Libya we have that problem that I was just talking about, the lack of any real institutions to navigate a transition. I think when we look at countries like Bahrain, Yemen, and especially Syria, there are divisions — you know, ethnic, sectarian divisions — under the surface that I think frighten a lot of people, and I think especially so in Syria. I think Syria is the country that a lot of people are going to want to watch, that the implications of change there, I think, are as great as the implications were in Egypt. Syria is obviously a much smaller state. It doesn’t have the power or the prestige. It doesn’t have the history of Egypt. But it is at this kind of nexus of interest between Iran, Israel, Hezbollah in Lebanon, in neighboring Lebanon. And I think any change in the calculus there, any change in the arithmetic in Syria is going to have far-reaching impacts across the region.
AMY GOODMAN: You are the Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times. Talk about Lebanon and Jordan.
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, Lebanon — how do you describe Lebanon? It’s so — it’s remarkable to me that amid all this change in the region — and again, it’s hard to overstate how great this change and this transformation is. I think for the first time — absolutely, since I can remember, but perhaps that a lot of people can remember — the region is speaking with an indigenous vocabulary. You know, it’s speaking about its own vision. It’s articulating its own vision. It’s so radically, fundamentally different from the change that was imposed on Iraq through invasion and violence in 2003. This is a remarkable moment, I think, in the history of the modern Arab world, and it’s being articulated in a very forceful, fundamental way, in a way that’s never been done before.
Lebanon almost seems like a sideshow amid all these changes. And I think for a lot of Lebanese it’s difficult to see societies being transformed all around them, and Lebanon is still entrenched in this centuries-old or decades-old — let’s say decades-old — system of rule that in some ways makes the smallest identities the most relevant, you know, form of affiliation. There is an effort, I think, in Lebanon to change that, to get beyond these narrow sectarian identities and create something more — something broader, some broader notion of belonging. But it’s — those efforts are so far hamstrung. There have been a few protests, but they really haven’t gone anywhere.
I think Jordan is going to be more interesting. And again, Jordan, I think, falls in — in some ways, it falls into that arithmetic that Syria still plays by. Jordan is obviously an American ally. You know, you don’t see the American government abandoning the monarchy there anytime soon. But it’s also a complicated society, with its mix of Palestinians and Jordanians. The King, his wife are not popular. You keep thinking that this is going to be one of the places that we’re going to see change, you know, rather quickly, like Algeria, for instance, but it hasn’t happened so far. But again, this is a years-long process, and I think it is going to take years. And, you know, like I said, I think the easy revolutions are over. Now we’re in store for a much more difficult, much more precarious, you know, but no less promising, path toward fundamental change across the region.
AMY GOODMAN: And then can you talk about the U.S. response to these rolling rebellions? President Obama giving the major address he did in Cairo, soon after he was elected, to the Muslim world, and then the responses to the despots who not just Obama, but the administrations before, had shored up for decades, and holding on to the end and then, seeing when it’s inevitable, making the shift. Can you talk about what the role has been?
ANTHONY SHADID: Sure. You know, I have to suggest at the outset, it is — it’s so — you know, as a reporter in Iraq, it so much was about Iraq and America, this conflict between — I mean, obviously, the United States invaded that country, and the society was wrecked over, you know, a truly heartbreaking conflict that went on for years. It did strike me in Egypt, especially in Tahrir Square, when — absolutely there was criticism of U.S. policy, criticism of Israel, but I think fundamentally the narrative that you heard in Tahrir Square was about what kind of Egypt are we going to construct, what kind of Egypt are we going to build, what is our vision for the future, especially vis-à-vis a government that basically kind of, you know — I mean, let’s be blunt, a government that pretty much hated its people. That was remarkable to me. And again, I keep using this phrase, but it was an indigenous vocabulary. It was a narrative that was being articulated on people’s own terms in Cairo and elsewhere.
You know, I think the United States, almost by default, feels like it has to get involved, but you get the sense, being in a place like Tahrir Square, that the less involved they are, the better it’s going to be. I think there is — I think, you know, critics out there would see a level of cynicism on how this is unfolding, in terms of U.S. and Western intervention. I think it’s no coincidence that France and Italy, both with interests in the future of Libya’s oil, were the first to recognize Libya’s opposition government, along with Qatar. And I think there’s — you know, critics are right to point out that we haven’t seen a uniform standard on how American and Western intervention plays across the region. We saw a much more forceful response in Libya compared to what we’ve seen in Yemen or Bahrain, Yemen and Bahrain obviously both being strategic allies to the United States and the West. It is — you know, American intervention has a pretty sad history in the Arab world, and you do wonder how well that lesson is understood as we go forward, because it is — and I keep saying this, I hate to be repeating myself — but it is going to be much more dangerous and much more violent as we go forward. And I think there’s going to almost be a — you know, almost a fallback in — how do I put this? There’s going to be a desire to intervene, I think, as this gets more dangerous and more complicated and more violent, but I think that intervention, that very intervention, could very well make things worse.
AMY GOODMAN: In what way make it worse?
ANTHONY SHADID: Well, in what way? This is probably beyond my pay grade. But it’s — you know, I’m trying to think when it’s gone well, anytime over the past, you know, couple generations. And I don’t see it necessarily going well anytime soon. There is a — there is a dynamic, I think, that violence, especially violence imposed from abroad, imposes on these societies. And that dynamic, you know, almost always promises unintended consequences. And it did in Iraq. It’s doing that in Libya right now. I think this very prospect of what we’re seeing, the violence in Libya, is going to have repercussions that are going to last for a long time. And I think that model of — or, let’s say, those unintended consequences are something that almost by default happened with any intervention anywhere.
AMY GOODMAN: Rebel forces preparing to begin exporting oil in an attempt to raise money to fight the Gaddafi regime, a tanker expected to leave eastern Libya, bound for Qatar, containing one million barrels of high-quality crude worth about $100 million. Libya, Africa’s third-largest producer of oil.
ANTHONY SHADID: That’s right. You know, I mean, everyone you talk — when you’re in Benghazi, you’re placed in Bayda, you’re placed in — you’re in Darnah, it is inspiration on what people are trying to create, the societies they want to create, the vision they have for the future, of a government that for the first time in their lives is going to reflect, at least at some degree, the aspirations of the people. At the same time, it’s hard, at least for me — and I may be 100 percent wrong on this — but it’s hard for me to see how this ends, in the near term, in a good way in Libya. I think it is going to become more violent, and I think it is going to become more divided as we go forward, not only within the government, but within the opposition as well. And I do worry about the way that violence is becoming endemic in some ways to this uprising, that I do worry about everybody with a gun, to be blunt about it.
AMY GOODMAN: Anthony, are you planning to go back to the Middle East?
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, I’m the bureau chief in Beirut, so I’m going back next week. But like I said, Lebanon is probably the quietest place in the Middle East right now. So I do want to get — try to hopefully get to Egypt, you know, rather soon. I think — you know, I think one of these key narratives to better understand when you look at the Arab world right now is this kind of deal that’s going to be made between political Islam and power. And I think that’s something that’s unfolding right now. I think we’re seeing it in Egypt unfold in a pretty forceful way. And it’s — you know, it’s a lot less dangerous to cover something like that, and I think in some ways more interesting. So I’m hoping to try to tackle that when I get back.
AMY GOODMAN: What makes you keep going back? You were shot in the shoulder in the West Bank in 2002. Why do you keep going back to war zones?
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, not to be flip, but it’s kind of pretty much the only thing I know how to do — not cover conflict. I actually don’t like covering conflict. I think you have to cover conflict when it’s part of what you do cover. And I do cover the Arab world. You know, I’ve been covering it for 15 years. I think now, finally, is the moment that we see that is transformative in the Arab world, and it does make you even more, I think, eager, in some ways, to cover, to try to bring meaning to it, to witness it. And it matters, I guess. I think at each time you make these decisions — say, in Baghdad in 2003, in Lebanon in 2006, you know, as you pointed out, in Ramallah in 2002 — you think that if you’re not there, that the story won’t be told. You know, that might be a little bit arrogant or conceited. It’s absolutely — you know, it’s the only way to bring altruism to the story, that it’s not just about ambition, that you’re trying to do something that’s meaningful. You know, I hope that’s the case. It’s probably a mix of all of them together. But you do want to — I think especially people who have been covering this for a long time and who have a sense of the place, you know, I think those people want to have role, at least, in how these stories, how these conflicts, how these uprisings are covered.
AMY GOODMAN: By the way, who were you shot by in 2002?
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, there was an — the investigation was never — the Israelis did the investigation, so they couldn’t determine. In my mind, there was no one who could have shot me except for an Israeli soldier.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you seen your colleagues since your release by your Libyan captors? And how are they doing right now, particularly Lynsey?
ANTHONY SHADID: We were in New York together for a few days, and I think everyone is taking a break, including Lynsey. I think Lynsey is planning on spending much of the month in New York. I think Tyler is having the same sense. And then Steve and I will probably go back to the region, since our homes are — pardon me. I think Steve and I will go back to the region, since our homes are in the region. So we’ll probably head back there in a couple weeks or so.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Anthony Shadid, thanks so much for spending this time, and please be safe.
AMY GOODMAN: That was New York Times Beirut bureau chief Anthony Shadid, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He’s one of four New York Times reporters who were kidnapped together and beaten by Gaddafi forces in Libya. They were released two weeks ago.