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“Libya Has Reignited the Flame of Liberty in the Arab World”: Juan Cole, Khaled Mattawa on Uprising

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As rebels fight for control of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, President Obama and other world leaders have called on Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi to step down. On Sunday, the United States officially recognized the Transitional National Council as the legitimate governing authority in Libya. Meanwhile, the whereabouts of Gaddafi remain unknown, but three of his sons are in rebel custody. Libya’s rebel chief, Mahmoud Jibril, issued a statement to Libyans in the early hours of Monday asking fighters to treat Gaddafi loyalists with dignity and respect. We are joined in Cairo by Khaled Mattawa, an acclaimed Libyan poet and scholar who just returned from Libya. We also speak with Fred Abrahams, a special adviser for Human Rights Watch, who just returned from Libya last Thursday, and with Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan who has been following developments in Libya closely on his blog, “Informed Comment” at JuanCole.com. “Libya has reignited the flame of liberty in the Arab world,” says Juan Cole. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue to talk about what’s happening in Libya, the surprise entrance of rebel fighters into Tripoli, still there is fighting, no news on the whereabouts of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. His three sons are in custody. Khaled Mattawa is with us, an acclaimed Libyan poet and scholar, speaking to us from Egypt. He’s an associate professor at the University of Michigan, just returned to Cairo from weeks in Libya. And speaking of the University of Michigan, we’re also joined by his colleague, Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan. He’s in Ann Arbor and has been following closely the developments in Libya at JuanCole.com. Among his latest posts, the “Top Ten Myths about the Libya War.”

Juan Cole, the significance of what we’re seeing right now?

JUAN COLE: We’re seeing a revolution coming to its final phase. We’re seeing yet another popular cascade. The reason for which the freedom fighters could enter the capital so easily—many of them just walked in or drove in and came relatively quickly to the center of the city—was because the city had already overthrown the regime. Beginning Saturday night, working-class districts rose up, in the hundreds of thousands, and just threw off the regime. So they softened up the situation for the fighters to come in. And we’ve seen this picture before. This is like what happened in Tunisia and Egypt towards the final phases of those regimes: the capital city throws hundreds of thousands of people into the downtown area to demand that the dictator depart.

AMY GOODMAN: Khaled Mattawa, can you talk about the significance of the sons being in custody right now and who exactly they are, [Saif al-Islam] wanted by the International Criminal Court, wanted by The Hague?

KHALED MATTAWA: Well, I want to say hi to my colleague Juan Cole in Ann Arbor, my other home town.

I mean, I know that Saif has been in custody, and also Muhammad. I’m not sure who the third son is. The differences between them, of course, is that Saif is the—sort of the architect of the, perhaps, the last 10 years. He had sort of envisioned a kind of an open Libya, began to talk about an open Libya. But it was very clear through the many people that worked with him—and, in fact, many of the leadership of the Transitional National Council had worked with him. Mahmoud Jibril had worked with him. Mustafa Abdul Jalil was minister of justice when the revolution started, Abdel Haviz Ghoga also. All of them had worked with Saif Gaddafi to see about the possibility of introducing a constitution, of changing the government. And, you know, his real name is Saif al-Islam, but people have called him Saif al-Ahlam. He’s not the—he was the sword of dreams. He was really an unreliable figure. He never delivered on anything. And so, he—by stating so many, you know, false claims, he actually expedited the fall of his father’s regime, and by solidifying opposition to it.

Muhammad is a businessman. He owns the two companies that are the cell phone companies in Libya. He owns many other businesses. He’s a very rich man who capitalized on his position as his father’s eldest, though he’s not of the—the son of the wife in good standing. So he made money. He didn’t get involved into politics. People may not hold a political grudge against him, but his money is ill-gotten.

Saif is also a very wealthy man. He’s also wanted by the International Criminal Court, because he issued threats and participated directly in the policies that led to the death of people in Zawiyah and other cities that his father’s troops and his brother’s troops, that led the fighting, had killed. So, he’s a war criminal.

Muhammad is—perhaps may be tried for enriching himself on the public wealth. I’m not sure who the third son. I hadn’t heard—


KHALED MATTAWA: —of a third son being captured, possibly Saadi.

AMY GOODMAN: Saadi is the third son.

KHALED MATTAWA: Saadi is—Saadi would—might potentially be tried for the mayhem in Benghazi, because he and Abdullah Senussi were in charge of Benghazi when the city had rebelled, and he’s got blood on his hands for what had happened there. And I think he’s a military man, militarily trained man, and he may be involved in—may have been involved in some of the military action in the past six months.

So, various, you know, legal action may be taken against these men. I hope they remain safe. I hope no—you know, that no vengeance is taken upon them. It’s very important for Libya. What happens to these men, these Libyans, is very important to the direction of the revolution. And I hope all will keep a level head, because these men are as important for telling us what had happened and for the people, the victorious people, demonstrating justice. That’s as important as the revolution itself. We rebelled in Libya, the people did, to install justice, to establish justice. And if we cannot do it with these men, we may not be willing or able to do it for each other. So, it’s highly symbolic, and I hope they remain safe until they’re tried.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we talk about the transitional government, I wanted to bring Fred Abrahams in, special adviser for Human Rights Watch’s program office, just returned from Libya last Thursday. You—Human Rights Watch got into Libya. What did you find?

FRED ABRAHAMS: Well, the situation was very different, and events moved so quickly that we couldn’t anticipate. We had two main thrusts of our research. We looked at the impact of the NATO strikes on civilians and allegations that civilians had died. And we looked at violations by the government, in particular, the arrests, disappearances, torture, conditions in the prisons, this crackdown in government-held territory. And we got to visit two prisons. But as I say, everything is up in the air now. We never thought it would crumble so quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: As for the NATO bombings, what did you find?

FRED ABRAHAMS: Well, two points on the NATO. I mean, one is that the government clearly tried to trump up these charges and allegations. We saw signs of manipulated sites—for example, baby bottles and medicines strewn about strategically. The government claimed 1,100 civilians had died because of NATO strikes, and we just didn’t find the evidence to prove that.

But at the same time, there were some concerns. Definitely, in some of the sites we visited, some civilians did die. And how they died, why they died, if those were unlawful deaths in terms of laws of armed conflict, that remains to be seen. And the onus is on NATO. And that’s our main point here. They should justify these attacks, more than just saying it was a military target, especially now that the conflict may be over. They can go back and say why they targeted some of these homes.

AMY GOODMAN: And when it came to Gaddafi’s forces?

FRED ABRAHAMS: Well, the documentation on Gaddafi abuses is just extreme, widespread, intense, horrible. And, you know, the crackdown in Tripoli, in western parts of Libya, was extreme. We don’t know how many people were in the various prisons. The prison visits we had were restricted. They chose the prisoners we were talking with. They were not full visits. And I have to say something very troubling. We don’t know what’s happening to these prisoners now in places like Abu Salim, with the notorious political prison, how these prisoners are faring now. Reports that some of them are escaping, but definite concerns about their well-being today.

AMY GOODMAN: You spoke with the Libyan minister of justice?

FRED ABRAHAMS: We met with the minister of justice, with the general prosecutor. But I’ll have to say something very clear. Those officials are so clearly subservient to the main force in Libya, which were the security services, and we did not have access to the internal security agency, the ministry of interior. Look, Libya was a police state, so even the minister of justice would take orders over the telephone from someone high up in internal security.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Khaled Mattawa in Cairo about just who the transitional government is. Talk about the significance of the people who are in charge and what you expect to see.

KHALED MATTAWA: The people in charge, such as Judge Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the Transitional National Council, Dr. Mahmoud Jibril, who’s the equivalent of the prime minister or head of the executive bureau, these are people who had tried to work with the regime in the past 10 years. Mahmoud Jibril had come from the United States to work as a kind of consultant. Mustafa Abdul Jalil had been a justice minister and has a good record as a judge, was recommended by Saif to serve in this capacity. They had been reformists. They had tried to do good from within. And now they’ve become statesmen.

I think what they lack—and it has shown in the performance of the NTC or TNC—is a lack of, you know, real managerial power and political skill, in the sense of anticipating events or managing them, particularly internally. I was in Benghazi a few weeks ago, and I thought that the things internally were not being run very well. And things culminated with the assassination of a minister—or the lead commander, Abdul Fatah Younis. It was really rather traumatic to have Benghazi experience that. And it seemed like things were going to unravel, but somehow things were pulled together by the victory in the west.

So, the leadership is civilian, technocratic and moderate, for the most part. Mustafa Abdul Jalil is a moderate Muslim. Mahmoud Jibril is a technocrat, academician. And that’s who’s in the leadership. In the background, there are some Islamist leaders, such as Ali al-Salabi, who’s an Islamist scholar. He may be considered more conservative, some people may say a kind of extremist. He’s a very powerful man.

The dangerous part in the eastern region of Libya had been the presence of these military forces that are really not under the full command of the national military. That would be the number one priority, which is to unify the military, to make sure it takes orders from the council, and also to unify the security forces that are in existence, so that peace and order can be in the country. The government, the NTC, is not in complete command, but it has enormous political authority and enormous ethical authority. And so, I think they will ride on that until they firm up their ability to run the country, which they will need to do quite soon. But they lack some skills, but they seem to have learned quite quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Juan Cole, this is a piece from Reuters that begins: “Libyan rebel Husam Najjair seems more concerned about the [possibility] of [rebels] turning on each other when they try to take control of the capital Tripoli than the threat posed by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.” Do you think this is a real concern?

JUAN COLE: In a post-revolutionary situation, there is always danger of faction fighting. The long knives come out to settle disputes. But I don’t think that there’s so far signs for extreme concern in this regard. The Transitional National Council in Benghazi clearly has liaised with the rebel forces, the dissident forces, in Tripoli. It is said that the uprising was in part planned in Benghazi. There seems to be good coordination with the rebels from the—or the revolutionary army from the Berber areas, in the Western Mountain regions. There is a great deal of goodwill, desire, for Libya now to go forward into more transparent government. The plan is to move to parliamentary elections within six to eight months. A constitution is being drafted. And I think there is every reason to think, from someone—as someone who’s followed this very closely, that there will be buy-in to this new national project of transparent and democratic government.

AMY GOODMAN: As Libyan rebels celebrated across Libya, the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, condemned the NATO bombing raids on Tripoli, saying they were destroying the Libyan capital.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHÁVEZ: [translated] Today, we are seeing images of how the democratic European governments—well, some of them are democratic, we know who they are—are practically demolishing Tripoli with their bombs, and the supposedly democratic government of the United States, because they feel like it. Today they dropped I don’t know how many bombs, and they are dropping them indiscriminately and openly—and they are not explaining anything—over schools, hospitals, houses, businesses, factories, farms. This is happening right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Khaled Mattawa, can you respond to President Hugo Chávez? Venezuela is one of the countries that’s been talked about possibly being a place of exile for Muammar Gaddafi, though it’s not clear what is happening right now, even where Gaddafi is.

KHALED MATTAWA: Well, it was talked about, and I had hoped that he would actually take Gaddafi, and they could have a fun time together in Venezuela, but it didn’t happen. One significant aspect of Hugo Chávez is, in Libya, there used to be a stadium named Hugo Chávez Stadium in Benghazi. As soon as the revolution started and he had shown that he had sided with Gaddafi—and he had been somewhat popular—that stadium was changed to another name. So, Hugo Chávez, please stick to your cancer treatment, that I hope you recover soon. And leave the Libyan people alone. Please try to take care of your country, and leave us alone, and just shut up.

AMY GOODMAN: Fred Abrahams, the issue of what happens now with the supporters of Gaddafi versus those who have taken him on—and of course a number of supporters, high-level administration officials in the Libyan government, have switched, as late as probably today, but certainly yesterday and the day before—the issue of revenge?

FRED ABRAHAMS: It’s a real concern. Look, 42 years of dictatorship. People have legitimate grievances against their leaders and on a local level—the corner informant who was spying on your family for decades. So we believe that the National Transitional Council now has to step up and show it’s able to lead the country in this transitional period. And that means speaking forcefully against revenge and taking steps to stop it. That means guarding installations, police stations, courthouses, other facilities that could be targeted by people with their legitimate rage, and basically showing that a new Libya will turn its back on these abusive practices of the past. We’ve seen good signs so far. The NTC has issued very strong statements condemning revenge, calling on their fighters to behave. But, you know, that has to continue, because after six months of conflict, four decades of dictatorship, the threat is very real.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked in your report, just having been back from Libya, about NATO forces’ abuses, about the Gaddafi regime abuses. What about rebels?

FRED ABRAHAMS: Yes, we have documented some abuses by the rebels, particularly in areas they captured with government control, some attacks against government supporters, some looting, some arson. It is not on the scale of the government abuses, but it’s not to be dismissed in any way. And thankfully, the reaction has been good. The NTC leadership has condemned these violations. They have pledged to investigate. They’ve called for calm. And, you know, let’s see if that plays out. There’s no doubt the emotions are running high. And what happens these days in Libya will set the tone for the years to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Khaled Mattawa, the response of President Obama and the West, in general—France, Britain? What would you like to see now, in these last seconds we have you on satellite from Cairo?

KHALED MATTAWA: I would like the U.N. and the countries that have supported the Libyan revolution to keep an eye on Libya. I think the potential, as our colleague was saying, is very high for an actual democratic country arising in the country. But what will happen next, which is to try to limit the violence, and this is the national council’s responsibility, to try to keep this as peaceful a transition as possible is very important. But the media and the countries that have supported the revolution, they need to also send these messages to try to support the national police force, in tactical means and in every possible way, to make sure that peace is kept in the country. Peace now, in this time, will guarantee a peace and transparency that we’re seeking in the future. So, we’re grateful. I think the Libyan experience has been a kind of antidote to the Iraq experience, in many ways, and it shows that international intervention, when it’s fully justified, when it’s done under duress and not under strategic planning, may be the best way to go about this. And I’m hopeful that the world will keep its eye on Libya, and Libya will reward that attention.

AMY GOODMAN: And while you have been in Cairo, where we’re speaking to you now, just back from Libya, the response in Cairo? Tunisia, Egypt has been such an inspiration for the people of Libya.

KHALED MATTAWA: It has been great being here to watch that and to see the revolution ongoing. But also, you can see threads of the tensions that exist in Arab societies, in general. There is a large force out there. There are some institutions that may not wish for transparency. In Libya, we have no institution whatsoever, so that strategy may not be there. But just the kind of security apparatus that had been there, that may wish to sort of coexist—re-exist in another fashion, that’s something we need to be aware of.

The other tensions, of course, is on the shape of the nation. There are no different sectarian divisions in Libya. There are no sectarian divisions, in general. But there are ethnic divisions, some tribal divisions. And these have taken—have affected Egypt, in a way, the divisions that are within the nation. In Libya, it’s a smaller country. It’s easier to pull together. But the desire for one unified nation may be under some stress. And also, the issue of the role of Islam and to what extent it should play in the country may be a test of some tension. People in Libya are generally conservative and moderate, moderately conservative Muslims. They like to live and let live, within a conservative culture. But others may be asking for more Islamic stricture, Islamic rule. And I personally hope that that wouldn’t be the case in the end. But the nation’s identity and the role of religion in it is going to be a part of the discussion. And I hope it happens peacefully, because we’ve had a religious rebellion in the ’90s, and some of those forces still exist. Some of them contributed to the revolution. But we want to make sure that what we come up with is a moderate, tolerant, democratic society, where Islam is a guiding spiritual force, but not necessarily a political force.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, the effect of what’s happening right now in Libya on what’s happening in Syria and the bloodbath that has been taking place there?

JUAN COLE: Well, Libya, in a way, has reignited the flame of liberty in the Arab world. It’s given new hope, a new charge to people in Cairo, in Tunis, and certainly in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad tried to speak on Sunday at a time when Tripoli was collapsing and to dismiss the significance of that. And I think he made himself a laughing stock once again. I think, certainly, what happened in Libya will give encouragement to the protest movement in Syria to continue. It shows no sign of flagging. But it is also the case that, so far, the great mass of people in the capital of Damascus, in the second-largest city Aleppo, have not bought in to this protest movement. And until they do, I don’t think the regime will be brought down.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Thanks to Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch; to Khaled Mattawa, speaking to us from Cairo, just back from Libya, the Libyan poet and scholar; and Juan Cole, professor of history at University of Michigan, speaking to us from Ann Arbor. His blog is “Informed Comment” online at JuanCole.com.

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