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Democracy Now! Correspondent Anjali Kamat on Reporting the Revolutions in Egypt and Libya

StoryDecember 01, 2011
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Democracy Now! special correspondent Anjali Kamat has just returned from Cairo after nearly a year reporting on the revolutions in Egypt and Libya. Anjali was on the ground in Cairo covering the uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak and the ensuing crackdowns on protesters opposed to military rule. Kamat also made two trips to Libya to cover the uprising and ultimate overthrow, with the aid of NATO forces, of the Gaddafi regime. “One of the things that was really remarkable over the past year that I saw in both Egypt and Libya is the fearlessness of people,” Kamat says. “I was really taken aback by—you know, we’ve seen visually the scenes of crowds of people running into armed tanks, running into vehicles towards them that are opening fire, people just without any fear.” Kamat also addresses an issue that has divided many progressive critics of Western militarism: the reality that the NATO intervention in Libya, despite charges of hypocrisy and ulterior motives, enjoyed widespread support amongst Libyans seeking to topple the hated Gaddafi regime. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryOct 20, 2011Muammar Gaddafi Killed in Libya as Interim Government Seizes Last Regime Stronghold
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Democracy Now! special correspondent Anjali Kamat, back from a year, most of that time spent in Cairo, Egypt, reporting on what has been happening there. Today, the results coming in, more than 40 percent, it looks like, of the seats that were up in parliament have gone to the Muslim party, another more than 20 percent, perhaps 25 percent, to the Salafist, more conservative Islamist party, with the liberals coming in third. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Anjali, Egypt was not the only focus of your reporting. You also had many dispatches from the revolution in Egypt. And I’m wondering if you could—I’m sorry, in Libya—if you could reflect on what has happened in Libya, as well, and to some degree, whether the end of what happened to Mubarak did not then cause the other dictators of the region to decide they’ve had to fight to the death to stay, to prevent the—being put on trial, as Mubarak was put on trial.

ANJALI KAMAT: Yeah, I mean, it was really an incredible year to be able to witness two revolutions, you know, something I never expected in my lifetime. And, you know, all of what happened over this past year across the region, I think, has taken everyone by surprise, including people in the region, and certainly the U.S. government and, most importantly, the leaders, who I think assumed that they could continue to hold on to power until they died. And what we’ve seen in Libya, what we’re seeing in Syria and what—you know, things are changing a bit in Yemen now—is that these leaders do not want to give up power and will really hold on, do anything it takes to maintain their grip on power.

One of the things that was really remarkable over the past year that I saw in both Egypt and Libya is the fearlessness of people. I was really taken aback by—you know, we’ve seen visually these scenes of crowds of people running into armed tanks, running into vehicles towards them that are opening fire, people just without any fear. And I think it’s this—people talked about the fear barrier being broken. And I think what happened in both Egypt and Libya, and also in Bahrain and Syria and Yemen, is the sense that there’s something more important than being afraid of being injured, of being killed, of being tortured, of being imprisoned, which was all a reality for many activists in this region for decades, and certainly this only multiplied over this year. In Egypt alone over the past year, you know, as many as a thousand people have been killed, if you count the number of deaths during the uprising and then in subsequent clashes. And in Libya, that number is much, much higher. It’s hard to put an exact death toll, but it could be in the thousands, it could be in the tens of thousands, the numbers of people who have been killed and/or missing. But there is a very clear sense in both countries that the fight was worth it. It’s been ugly, particularly in Libya. We’ve seen—it stretched on for many months. NATO’s involvement, many people had very many questions about it, what this meant for the legitimacy of their struggle. But I think, for people in Libya, the overwhelming sense that I got is that the most important goal for them was to get—was to topple their regime.

And they were so inspired by what they saw in Tunisia and Egypt, and every time one dictator fell or took a beating, there was a sense—there was a renewed sense of optimism around. So, when Tripoli fell, there was excitement in the streets of Cairo and in Bahrain and in Yemen and Syria. You know, there’s also this—you know, there’s a real, I think, realization and acknowledgment on the part of many people in Libya and in Egypt that the struggle—that the road ahead is going to be paved with struggles, and it’s not going to be an easy road. Many people feel that really hard work begins now. So, it remains to be seen how people will continue to fight to keep their voices heard.

AMY GOODMAN: Since the revolution in Egypt, 12,000 people now being put before military trials, 12,000 people. In Libya, what, 7,000 the rebels have detained?

ANJALI KAMAT: Yeah, the U.N. just came out with a report that, you know, says that 7,000 people have been detained by different militias in Libya, loosely under the control of the Transitional National Council. This is disturbingly high in a country where tens of thousands of people were imprisoned under Gaddafi. And one of the main reasons that brought people out onto the streets was the repressive security state.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And a country with far less population than Egypt.

ANJALI KAMAT: With six million people, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: We talked to you just after the fall of Gaddafi. You’ve been to Libya a number of times from Egypt, just going over the border. We spoke to you in Cairo, just as you had come back, and with Mahmood Mamdani, who has written extensively on the global implications of NATO’s intervention in Libya. A big difference between Egypt and Libya was NATO’s attack. I want to go to a clip of the Columbia University professor, Mahmood Mamdani, talking about a report that you had filed on post-Gaddafi Libya.

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: What struck me about Anjali’s description is the backdrop is missing. The backdrop is the manner of change in Libya, the heavy involvement of external forces in expediting, rapid fashion, change in Libya, and that manner of involvement being basically bombardment. In East Africa, which is where I’ve been for the last eight months, this has been the cause of huge concern, huge concern because Libya is not atypical. Egypt and Tunisia might be slightly atypical when it comes to the African continent. Libya is far more characteristic of countries which are divided, which have leaders who have been in power for several decades, which have strong military forces and sort of formally democratic regimes, but otherwise really autocratic regimes, and where the opposition is salivating at the prospect of any kind of external involvement which will bring about a regime change inside these countries. So there is a real sense of danger around the corner.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Professor Mahmood Mamdani from Columbia University. Anjali, your response?

ANJALI KAMAT: I think, you know, there’s—like I said, there was a real—people were very divided in Libya about the NATO intervention. Initially there was a very clear sense that people didn’t want foreign intervention. People wanted to do this on their own. But I think it reached a point where people felt they just weren’t able to do this on their own, and they wanted—there was no going back. Already hundreds of people had been killed. The attacks were continuing, and there was a real sense of the imbalance of power. And they put out a call for external support.

And there’s much to be said about the machinations that took place in Europe, in the United States, countries that had long supported Gaddafi and that had armed Gaddafi, that had now decided to switch sides. But I think if we’re looking at this from the perspective of the Libyan people, there’s a sense that it was worth it. And, you know, one might take issue with that for many reasons, many grounds. But I think, for Libyans, it’s important—they see this as their revolution. And they are—many of them are thankful for NATO’s role and the air support and the ground support, the special forces that came in from Qatar.

I mean, let’s not forget Qatar’s role in this, as well. It’s not just NATO. And I think in the post-Gaddafi situation, the real power struggle is between NATO and Qatar in some ways and the different forces that they are backing on the ground in Libya and how the future of Libya will look like. In that case, if Qatar comes out on top, so a lot of the activists in Libya are sort of trying to, you know, maintain their independence and critique both NATO and Qatar, as well as the new leadership in Libya.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute to go, but in this period of this year that you’ve been away, you also returned home to India because your dad died. Your dad and mom, who have had such an important influence on your life, of course—could we end by you talking about what it meant to go home and to reflect on their lives and yours, where you’re headed now?

ANJALI KAMAT: You know, the interesting thing is, I think the reason I got interested in the Middle East is because my parents lived there, and my father had lived in the region for a decade. He ran a small publishing house out of Beirut and traveled to capitals across the Arab world and Middle East and North Africa and, you know, was in Cairo in the late ’60s and early ’70s and helped start the Cairo Book Fair there. And he was very, very happy in February that I was in Egypt. He was very sick when I left India to come to Egypt. And it was a hard decision to leave him and go, but I think he was very happy.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked every night?

ANJALI KAMAT: Yes, we talked every day. And he was very happy that I was there witnessing the revolution and called me on the 11th, crying, saying he never believed this day would come. And I think he was—you know, it was a happy—he said he was very happy to be alive to see this day.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Anjali, I trust your mom and your dad would be so proud of you today, as we are. Thank you so much for coming home. It’s great to see you. Anjali Kamat, Democracy Now! special correspondent.

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