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“Libya is Forever Changed by These Events”: Libyan Poet and Scholar Khaled Mattawa on the Pro-Democracy Movement amid Government Violence

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After a week of pro-democracy demonstrations in Libya that left more than 300 people dead, protesters have continued to demand an end to the 42-year regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. One of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, addressed the nation over Libyan State TV on Sunday and threatened there would be civil war if the protests did not end. For more, we are joined by the acclaimed Libyan poet and scholar, Khaled Mattawa. “I think the regime is over, even if Muammar Gaddafi manages to survive,” Mattawa says. “Libyans are saying, 'Yes, we will have a new constitution. Perhaps we will have a new flag. But we don't want you or your father or the rest of your clan. Get out of here. Leave.’” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the acclaimed Libyan poet and scholar, Khaled Mattawa. He’s an associate professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, joining us there.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Mattawa. Talk about what you have learned. It’s very difficult to get information out of Tripoli and Benghazi right now. What you understand has happened?

KHALED MATTAWA: I understand that Benghazi is out of the Gaddafi regime’s control, and I understand that the battle for Tripoli continues. Last night, as you may — I talked to one of your staff earlier, one — I talked to one of my relatives, and he was in the city near the court building, the North Benghazi Municipal Court building, and that’s where the protests were. That’s where people had gathered to pray and to make speeches and so forth. And he told me that they were collecting weapons that had been left about in the clashes and that they were depositing them into the court building. There was — the demonstrations were mostly in the — by the seashore in downtown Benghazi, but also there were demonstrations, from what I could tell from the footage, near the area of Berka, which is about five kilometers south from the seashore. And it’s also a kind of — it has an important square and some important buildings. And also it had a military compound, which is supposedly where Al-Saadi Gaddafi’s contingent or division was stationed, and there was fighting between the military there. And, of course, what I heard on Alhurra is that from a — I think a military officer, a colonel or higher, who had said — Colonel Saber, who said that Benghazi is completely freed from al-Gaddafi’s control, and people had already declared the area or are renaming that area the name that it had from 1969 to 1978, which is the “Arab Republic of Libya,” just meaning the end of the so-called Jamahiriya age, which is Gaddafi’s notion of people’s democracy and so forth.

Now, in Tripoli, people had come out into the streets. They were converging from Bin Ashour, which is east of Tripoli, and from Gargaresh and Hay Al-Andalus and Siyahia, west of — and Gurji. And they were trying to both meet in the — meet in Martyrs’ Square, Maidan Al Shohdaa, which Gaddafi had named Green Square, and it sort of stuck, but people are coming back to call it Maidan Al Shohdaa. And they were trying to meet there, and a few — as soon as they gathered, they were shooting, and they backed off into an area called Maidan al-Jezair, or the Algeria Square, which is about less than a kilometer away. So, people are trying to converge into the center of town to protest, to celebrate the end of the Gaddafi era, but they are still fighting. They are being shot at. There was a funeral procession in Tripoli today, and the reports are that they had been shot at. And Al Jazeera, just a short while ago, reported that 60 had been perhaps shot, killed in Tripoli, which is a huge number, which is the same kind of number that we had heard about from Benghazi yesterday. The regime just sort of escalated the — its attack on civilians in Benghazi.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mattawa —

KHALED MATTAWA: It was 50 yesterday, and now in Tripoli we’re hearing 60. Yes?

AMY GOODMAN: Human Rights Watch is estimating more than 300. They said that could be a very serious underestimate. But your nephew was also shot?

KHALED MATTAWA: Yes, he was shot in the leg, but he is the one, I told you, who was out in Benghazi helping collect weapons. He had been participating for three days, since Thursday or Friday, he and his brothers. He was shot in the leg. I’m not sure if he was shot Saturday or Friday, but he had come out right back, so his is a very minor injury. But — so we’re glad that that happened. But the numbers of dead in Benghazi is perhaps 250, from the 200 that you’re hearing that is 250, but people are saying maybe more. But the vast majority — and I’m talking about maybe 60 to 70 percent of the dead — were in Benghazi.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened to your friend, the novelist Idris Al-Mesmari, after he gave an interview?

KHALED MATTAWA: Idris Al-Mesmari gave an interview, I think it was Thursday night, the 15th, or the early morning of the 16th, to Al Jazeera and BBC Arabic. I think I heard his name on the radio or on Al Jazeera, and I immediately called him, and he answered. He said, “Yes, I was on Al Jazeera, and I will be on BBC Arabic,” and that things are great and so on, that — I mean, he’s great in the sense that the intifada or the revolution had begun, and he was exhilarated. And he said, “Listen for the BBC Arabic,” and I was ready to listen to that. And then very shortly after, I heard that he was arrested by the authorities.

What happened was that the authorities had come to his home. He is married to a professor, Umm Al-Ezz Al-Farsi, who’s a professor of political science at the University of Benghazi, or Garyounis. And they had come to his home. They had — one of the revolutionary committees, a well-known figure in the revolution, actually personally came to their home. They came at them with knives and fists. It was she and her daughters and apparently a nephew, and they beat them, and she was cut with a knife or a machete. And upon hearing that his family was being attacked, Mesmari Idris surrendered.

What I hear is that he had been taken to Tripoli, but I also hear from somebody from there and others that he is safe. But I don’t know if that means that he’s still under arrest and has not been harmed, or if he is hiding somewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk —

KHALED MATTAWA: But I hear, what my contact told me, that he has been receiving medicine. He’s a diabetic. And also, he’s also really a great figure of a man —- I mean, well, not in size but in spirit. He’s a very small-framed man, and he has a lame leg because he’s a victim of polio, but he has been a real dynamo of cultural life in Libya since the early 2000s. He started with a magazine called Arajin, which he started in Egypt -—

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mattawa —

KHALED MATTAWA: — and he had tried to see — excuse me.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to interrupt, because we have very little time, and I wanted to get to Gaddafi’s son’s speech and its significance. Saif Gaddafi on Libyan State TV said, “Libya is not like Egypt. It’s tribes and clans. It’s not a society with parties. Everyone knows their duties, and this may cause civil war.” We’ve also heard reports of soldiers fighting each other. Talk about this, and also if you could go back and give us one of the roots of this uprising, to do with the arrest of a human rights lawyer who represented families of survivors of a prison massacre.

KHALED MATTAWA: Well, Saif al-Gaddafi showed his real face, which is exactly that of his father. It’s actually quite amazing. If you were to close his eyes, as a Libyan like myself, you would hear the father’s voice in him. And what you heard was really the regime showing that it had been using this card all the time, that it had been trying to divide the country according to tribes and sections, and it had used that division consistently.

And so, yes, Libya is largely tribal, which, by the way, tribalism is something that Gaddafi brought back. We were, in the '60s and into the ’70s, were getting to be a much more urban-focused culture, a much more mixed culture. If you look at Benghazi — people have said this about Benghazi — it is the city where all Libyans live. Benghazi is, interestingly enough, a kind of America, where people had come from the west to live in Benghazi, from the south, from further east. It is a city that had existed for 2,000 years and had died and come back to life in a phoenix fashion. And all of the time it had come back to life, it was through new blood coming from the rest of Libya. But the tribalism is something that the regime had used, and it's trying to sow the seeds of division.

Tripoli, too, even though you have east and west and south of Libya, Tripoli too has also vast numbers of people who cannot call themselves Tripolitanians or even westerners. But it is time to sow that division. One of the last things I heard is that the easterners — that the regime is saying that the easterners want to bring back the monarchy, which is something that traditionally the west had never been really receptive to when we had a monarchy from the ’50s and ’60s. So, again, they are spreading rumors and so forth. But as people were chanting in Zawiyah, which is east of Tripoli, they were chanting in Tripoli itself and all parts of Libya, they were saying, “With our souls and our blood, we will protect you, Benghazi.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Professor Khaled Mattawa, acclaimed Libyan poet and scholar in University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where, by the way, there is an ice storm that is taking place now. Talk about the prison massacre — Human Rights Watch said 1,270 prisoners were killed there; this was years ago, though — and a human rights lawyer’s arrest that might have been the spark for these most recent protests, Professor Mattawa?

KHALED MATTAWA: Fathi Terbil will come down as one of the heroes of Libya. He had persisted to help the families of the victims of the Abu Salim massacre. He really took all the opportunities offered to him by the regime, which is, they admitted finally that this — 12 years later, they admitted that the massacre took place. They would never show the numbers. They had said that there is an investigation, but they never brought any piece of paper to actually show whom the culprits were.

And we know who the culprit is. Everyone knows that it is Abdullah Sanussi. He is the head of internal security. He is wanted by the Interpol for bombing the French airliner that was sort of the parallel to Lockerbie over Africa. We know who did it. And it was a complete act of betrayal. These were prisoners who had asked for rights of visitation, for better conditions, and when they were beginning to demand, they were beaten, and they managed to capture two prison guards, and the riots erupted. And then Abdullah Sanussi came to them and said, “OK, I will take care of you. We will deal with this safely. Why don’t you now give me your injured, and we will take them to the hospital.” And he negotiated with them, and this was stated. Well, he took the injured in buses, and those injured people, maybe 150 people, were never heard of again. And then he came back at the prisoners, blew into their cells, forced them into a courtyard, and he had guards with Kalashnikovs on top of the open courtyard and shot at them. They shot at them for approximately two hours, killing everyone.

Some of the survivors of the Abu Salim massacre were people who happened to be in the kitchen. And they — it so happened that some of the negotiations were taking place somewhere near the kitchen. And so, the witnesses that have survived are people who were completely by chance. There were reports that people who had ended up in Abu Salim shortly after the massacres saw that once some of the paint began to flake, there was blood on the walls behind the new paint. So it’s a complete travesty, a complete disaster on the Libyan people.

But it’s also something that the regime never wanted to admit to, they never wanted to address. They never wanted to catch who did it, because it was an intrinsic act of — indicative of what the regime is in its spirit and its policies and the way it treated its people. So they never addressed it, and it just kept — it never went away. It just never went away. And in the 2000s, with Saif al-Islam saying, “We will address this,” and al-Gaddafi acknowledging they will do this, they kept pushing. The Ministry of Justice would not answer them. Gaddafi would not do anything. Saif al-Gaddafi’s Human Rights Association would not be able to do anything. They kept pushing them and pushing them to the fringes, but individually, they had been sent people to bribe the families with little bits of money.

What happened on the 15th or the 14th is Terbil made a speech saying, “We are going to now have a sit-down here,” and then he was arrested. And as soon as he was arrested, that’s when the demonstrations took place. And —

AMY GOODMAN: That was the human —

KHALED MATTAWA: — he was a real hero.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the human rights attorney, Fathi Terbil.


AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds, Professor Mattawa. Do think Gaddafi is still in the country? Do you think that these protests will overthrow Gaddafi?

KHALED MATTAWA: You know, this is the moment that Libyans have been waiting for for a very, very, very long time. Reports that he’s has flown to Venezuela, I’m not sure if that’s true or not. It is really now just coming down to Tripoli. And as Saif al-Gaddafi indicated, they are trying to fight very hard, and they are fighting hard, because they’re killing a lot of peoples very quickly in Tripoli.

I think the regime is over, even if Muammar Gaddafi manages to survive, even if they manage to suppress things in Libya, by miracle they manage to survive. Saif al-Gaddafi himself had made the most sweeping reconciliation, saying, “OK, everything will be on the table. We will have a new constitution. We will have a new flag,” etc. etc. Well, Libyans are saying, “Yes, we will have a new constitution. Perhaps we will have a new flag. But we don’t want you or your father or the rest of your clan. Get out of here. Leave.”

AMY GOODMAN: Khaled Mattawa, we have to leave it there.

KHALED MATTAWA: And so, even if they come back, Libya is forever changed by these events.

AMY GOODMAN: I thank you very much, Professor Khaled Mattawa, acclaimed Libyan poet and scholar, professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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