IT’S two years ago that I crossed the eastern Saloumi border post from Egypt into Libya. Cairo had been empty of tourists and traffic, yet it was a city full of hope. But now, the third domino of the Arab Spring was beginning to fall.
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the inimitable Brother Leader, was facing his final nemesis – the Libyan people. It had got so bad, I was told, that Gaddafi had forced his Prime Minister to read the evening news.
Saloumi was a sea of refugees, mainly penniless Bangladeshi labourers and Ghanaian expatriates. Trapped in a stateless limbo, their stories were a harbinger of the situation we were going to encounter inside Libya.
With Gaddafi using African and Taureg mercenaries to brutally prop up his rule, the citizens of Tripoli and Benghazi had indulged in an equally brutal xenophobia against dark-skinned Africans, accusing them of being regime henchmen.
And whilst murderous xenophobia is inexcusable, one has to remember – as we discovered later – that Gaddafi’s foot-soldiers had fired on unarmed protestors with anti-aircraft guns.
As we crossed no-man’s land and entered Libya itself, our cellphone networks died. For the rest of the trip it would be satcom. For the scattered Libyan rebel forces, most of whom did not have radios or satphones, this would prove to be a logistical nightmare.
For with Gaddafi’s armouries looted in the east, most men had armed themselves. Our driver, for example, kept a rocket launcher on his dashboard. Whenever he hit a bump we would pray. The proclivity of gunmen to shoot day-and-night served to make Libya a confusing place.
One never knew whether the gunmen were just happy, sad, or shooting at Gaddafi. I was not the enemy, but I can remember discovering the tell-tale pock marks of AK 47 fire on my hotel balcony in Benghazi.
It is my view that lots of casualties could have been avoided had there been better communication, and discipline. Too many times I saw young men driving to the front and hurling themselves into the fray, firing wildly and indiscriminately.
Only after Gaddafi’s senior military men began to defect did some semblance of order descend upon the rebel militias.
When we were in Libya, most of the battles were fought on the coastal road between Ajdabiya, Brega and Ras Lanuff. It was a vaguely defined battlefront that could shift kilometres daily, and so going to the “front”, as it were, was always treacherous.
This caught out quite a few journalists, even experienced ones. New York Times and BBC teams were captured by Gaddafi’s forces, and South African photographer, Anton Hammerl, was killed near Brega when his vehicle drove straight into enemy fire.
Then there was the nature of the conflict: Hannibal Gaddafi’s gunboats would pound rebel forces from the sea, Gaddafi’s creaking Migs would strafe from the air and mercenaries would advance down the road.
Given that the road was the only lifeline through the unfriendly desert, rebel retreats would be something like Mad Max on steroids. Imagine hundreds of combat-modified 4X4’s, cars and trucks bearing down the road towards you at the same time!
Being in Libya gave me the advantage of reporting events first hand, yet I would be accused on my return of inaccuracies and pandering to a Western-NATO agenda. However, the fact is that conspiracy theories avoid the political complexities.
Many South Africans, seduced by Gaddafi’s cheque-book diplomacy and myth-making, simply refused to believe that he was a cold-blooded dictator capable of publicly hanging students in Benghazi, or slaughtering over 1,000 prisoners at Abu Salim. So did many leftists, who suddenly became myopic.
What I saw in eastern Libya was a social revolution with its focus on the infamous Brother Leader and his equally infamous sons. What had happened in Libya was no mob rampage led by CIA sleepers. No matter what happened to it afterwards, it was initially a people’s revolution. In each town or village the target had been the centres of power. Nothing else had been touched.
The oil refineries at Ras Lanuf, for instance, were left alone – not because of imperial agendas – but because the Libyans themselves had wisely realised the value of their own infrastructure.
As for NATO. It was the Libyans – and not the US, Britain or France – who called for NATO intervention. I heard this plea from military defectors in Ajdabiya, from medical doctors at Harawi hospital and from rebel representatives at the old Benghazi courthouse.
They were calling for a no-strings attached NATO intervention out of a very real fear that Gaddafi would kill hundreds of thousands of his own people to stay in power. Libyans did not want their country to become a blood bath.
In their moment of need, I don’t think many realised that NATO would act – but with an agenda. The Libyan call had presented an ideal opportunity for the Western axis to finally to put away Gaddafi. I believe Gaddafi was assassinated rather than apprehended – mainly to stifle embarrassing revelations of his dealings with leaders such as Tony Blair.
As journalist Diana Johnstone reported from Paris: Libya presented NATO with a quick fix, a neat little “humanitarian war” with little cost compared to Iraq or Afghanistan. This was something not lost on powers such as Russia and China – and would have an impact on Syria a year later.
Of course, the cost of the Libyan revolution has been huge. The Taureg, the marginalised indigenes of the Sahara, lost an ally in Gaddafi. Libyan guns – liberated from their armouries – have filtered deeper into the Sahel, and have emboldened Salafi-Wahhabi brigands (often incorrectly called Al-Qaeda) to destroy our Islamic heritage in places such as Timbuktu.
I feel that two years is not sufficient time to seriously evaluate the so-called “Arab Spring”. Besides, too many “experts” in the Arab and African world don’t adequately understand the societies they’re studying. Transitional politics has never been an exact science, the destination never certain. Our post-apartheid era in South Africa has shown us eloquently that this is the case.
In my book, the biggest existential challenge the “Arab Spring” faces is political pluralism. How does one accommodate cultural diversity, freedom of speech and differences of opinion within a socially Islamic milieu? For surely, crude Shari’ah-ism or scorched-earth Salafism is not the answer.
For this I would turn to Imam al-Ghazali, the 12th century polymath, who in his Ihya suggests that siyasa – the nuts and bolts of political governance – must be in the hands of the experts, not the ideologues or the ‘ulama. In other words, engineers should build bridges, not deliver fatwas. The president doesn’t have to be a cleric.
This is not a call for naked secularism – but there has to be a separation of state from the religious fraternity, and even more critically, the judiciary and the media.
Then there has to be an understanding of democracy. For countries in political transition, the Westminster “winner takes all” model doesn’t always work. This often reinforces the incorrect notion that the one who shouts the loudest, or who has the biggest majority, has the most rights. In Libya, where clan-ism is rife, this is a real danger.
What needs to be understood is that proportional representation is the more comfortable transitional mode, but it can only work if everyone is guaranteed inclusion and genuine equal rights through a workable constitution. For at the end of the day, the winner has to be the people, and not the party.