Libya protests spread as barrier of fear crumbles

The son of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi tried to intimidate Libyans Sunday, warning in a TV speech of civil war and foreign plots. But Libya's wave of democracy protests is strengthening as protesters ignore violence that has claimed more than 200 lives.

Libya protesters wave a flag in this undated picture made available on Facebook Sunday. The image was purportedly taken recently in Benghazi.
Pictures of people who were killed are seen in this undated picture made available on Facebook, Sunday. The image was purportedly taken recently in Benghazi.

Saif al-Islam, a son of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, appeared on Libyan state television late last night with a simple mission: Restore the fear.

He failed.

Libya's wave of democracy protests, which has gathered momentum even as Mr. Qaddafi's troops have shot hundreds of people, swept into the capital of Tripoli today. While Mr. Islam's threatening speech wheeled out the tropes of Middle Eastern autocrats – only they stand between the people and chaos; democracy protests are neo-imperial plots; change will lead to the imposition of harsh Islamic law – the people aren’t listening, making Libya just the latest example of citizens breaking through a barrier of fear that enabled their countries' dictatorships.

Human Rights Watch reports that more than 230 have been killed since protests began, and activists say foreign mercenaries have been let loose on demonstrators. Col. Qaddafi’s 41-year reign in oil-rich Libya, a country sandwiched between Egypt and Tunisia, is now looking very shaky. Both countries recently pushed out longstanding dictators.

Reports today from the capital, Tripoli, said police stations were burned, and there were unconfirmed reports that protesters had stormed the State Television building that broadcast Islam’s address. Al Jazeera Arabic reported that most of the police in Benghazi, a Mediterranean city to the east of Tripoli that has been the heart of the revolt, are now siding with the protesters.

“My sense that the regime’s willingness and eagerness to use not only extreme violence but all sorts of horrific tactics, shooting with the intent to kill, tricking people into a sense of safety and coming near the gates of buildings and then shooting them, hiring mercenaries to attack people and to go to protesters’ houses and damaging their property and so on … is working against it,” says Hisham Matar, a Libyan-American novelist in touch with people in Libya. His 2006 novel “In the Country of Men” was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

“There’s absolutely no turning back, is the sense that I’m getting," he adds. "People have been provoked by the violence of the regime, crowned by that speech we all heard yesterday which seemed to take no responsibility for the killing.”

The crumbling of fear has been the binding factor in protests happening from Algeria to Iran. A near-totalitarian state like Qaddafi’s, a run-of-the-mill autocracy like Egypt, a monarchy like Bahrain, and a religiously guided state like Iran are all very different.

Some have been in the Western fold for decades. Some, like Iran and Libya, are pariahs of the West. But in all of these countries, their people are refusing to be cowed or distracted by efforts to blame outsiders for domestic ills they know stem from their leaders.

“People speak of not being afraid anymore,” says Mr. Matar, whose own father, a Libyan dissident, was kidnapped by the Egyptian authorities in Cairo in 1990 and spirited to a secret prison in Libya, with little news of his fate since. “One person said to me that ‘only now I realize that someone has been at my neck all these years, and it’s been stifling me, that fear.”

Reuters reports that Mohamed Bayou, Libya’s government spokesman until his resignation about a month ago, issued a statement criticizing Islam’s speech and calling for the regime to stem the violence, a sign of the widening splits within the Libyan elite.

Islam, who has appeared at times to be his father's preferred successor, has sought for years to position himself as a liberal reformer friendly to Western interests. But last night, he warned protesters of blood to come if they don’t give up.

“We will agree on a new Libya, the Libya we all dream of and love,” Islam said. “Otherwise, prepare yourselves, oh Libyans … for the division of Libya piece by piece and for a civil war.”

“There is a plot against Libya. People want to create a government in Benghazi and others want to have an Islamic emirate in Bayda. These [people] have their own plots…. Libya is not like Egypt, it is tribes and clans, it is not a society with parties. Everyone knows their duties and this may cause civil wars.”

Matar dismisses Islam’s claims as “absurd” and “ahistorical.”

Islam “is trying to say Libya is a country given to partition and civil war. In other words, he's saying: it’s either Somalia, or [the Qaddafi family],” says Matar. “But Libya for centuries has been a mostly peaceful country; the tribes are incredibly cohesive. Modernists like me might wish it was different, but whatever criticisms I might have about tribal society … one thing you can say is that they’re not given to civil war.”

“The sort of abstract hell he painted last night, ‘if you don’t surrender to us, this is what’s waiting for you,’ is really quite apt and appropriate to describe how life has been for many Libyans for the past 41 years,” he says. “It was stunning arrogance, quite frankly.”

Libya, a country of about 7 million people, has Africa’s greatest oil reserves, although that wealth has not been shared beyond Qaddafi’s family and a coterie of loyalists.

Islam blamed a litany of outsiders for the current unrest, which was actually driven by anger at economic conditions and repression. Britain, Canada, Islamist militants, Egyptians, Libyan exiles, drug dealers, and the United States, were among those blamed.

Interestingly, Islam received a PhD from the London School of Economics in 2008 for a dissertation titled “The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions: From Soft Power to Collective Decision Making?"

The dissertation complains that international institutions are insufficiently democratic.

Islam argues that a stronger role for “civil society” is needed for the world to become a more just place. But his speech last night carried a very different message. “The predominant language that the regime speaks and has spoken for the last 41 years … is the language of terror and bribery,” says Matar.

“Before Saif’s speech, there was still a slim hope that he was sincere about his rhetoric of reform and concern about human rights," he says. "The speech shows that he was reverting to the language of the regime: civil war, famine, partition.”

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