Until recently, I never focused much on Libya. As part of the 1960s new left, I cheered the green revolution of 1969, as part of a wave of national liberation movements sweeping the world. Gaddafi seemed to be a revolutionary leader of a movement which overthrew a monarchy, set out to forge a form of Arab socialism and stood among the anti-imperialist forces in the world. Over the years, however, Gaddafi seemed more and more eccentric and Libya was implicated in activities, such as Lockerbie, which seemed both bewildering and indefensible. When my son considered taking a job teaching at the International School of Martyrs, I hoped that he wouldn’t go.
When the invitation came to me to give a lecture in Libya, I hesitated. I saw it as part of a drive for reintegration into the wider world, which I thought was in the interests of the Libyan people. I decided to accept. It was only one lecture. I could learn something about a place where I had never been. I could interact with academics from another culture. I did not think that this meant supporting the regime. I have lectured here and elsewhere while opposing governments in power. I noted that the Department of Foreign Affairs advised Irish citizens visiting Libya that there were severe penalties for criticism of the country, its leader or religion. Refraining from criticism was not my modus operandi anywhere.
I wrote a paper on philosophy of history, entitled ‘Is history a coherent story?’ which was translated into Arabic. My lecture was an argument against grand narratives imposed from above (therefore opposed to Islam as a state religion, which it is in Libya) and for grand narratives forged from below.
Meanwhile, there were uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and heightened interest in North Africa. I was glad that I was going there to get a clearer sense of this major historical shift. However, I thought that Libya was different from Tunisia and Egypt, because it was somehow left and had better distribution of wealth as well as greater wealth to distribute. Jamahiriya, the Libyan form of government, was supposed to be government by the masses, a direct democracy that was superior to representative democracy. I had doubts about how democratic it was in practice.
I knew that 17 February was to be a day of rage, but I thought that much of what I was reading (much of it on twitter) was over-excited prediction of Libyan exiles thinking that this was the end of the regime.
I arrived on 18 February. I had intensive discussions about the form of government, the distribution of wealth, the role of women and many such matters, although all discussions came back to the current protests, which were escalating in the east of the country. I was trying to assess the arguments and relative strength of both sides. My hosts told me that that it would all blow over, that it was just a fashion imitating Tunisia and Egypt, that it was not true that security forces were shooting peaceful protesters.
As well as hearing conflicting voices on the ground, I was comparing the picture emerging on international news with that on state tv, which was dominated by happy singing and dancing, pro-regime demonstrations and montages of the glories of Gaddafi in his multicoloured regalia. The demonstrations in Tripoli, particularly the big frenzied and carnivalesque ones I saw in Green Square at night, seemed ever more obscene as the bodies piled up in Benghazi. I heard the meglomaniac speeches of ‘the leader’ and the arrogant threats of his son Saif al-Islam, who doesn’t even hold state position. One monarchy had replaced another. Gaddafi had even named himself king of kings of Africa. What did this have to do with the left?
Meanwhile, my lecture was postponed twice, as some of the professors involved were involved in a crisis committee set up by the government. Then the uprising came to Tripoli. I heard gunfire and saw burning buildings. Construction workers, hotel staff and guests began to flee. Then my academic hosts abandoned me, my hotel evacuated me, my return flight was cancelled. The scene was not only one of the regime versus the rebels, but marauders moving into the breach between the end of one regime and the beginning of another. Eventually I made my way to the airport, where there was an apocalyptic encampment in the rain of migrant workers unable to get into the airport and inside were many thousands more fleeing in terror.
Hundreds of African migrant workers, many from Ghana and Nigeria, living next to the airport in Tripoli, Libya, hoping to fly home.
In those 22 hours in airport hell, I saw the true face of the regime and heard the voices of its victims. These were people who lived and worked in Libya, both Libyan and foreign. These displaced people had seen their neighbours disappear or die, their students expelled, the whole population terrorised for decades and now terrorised further for finally rebelling. The gap between the theory of direct democracy and coercive autocracy was stunning and utterly indefensible. As I took in all the displacement, destruction and death, all ambivalence evaporated.
Left forces, particularly in Latin America and Africa, are still equivocating, because this regime has declared itself to be left, even though the oppressive nature of the regime is there for all the world to see so clearly now. The purpose of the left is to stand for liberation against oppression. The liberation of Libya from this oppressive regime cannot come soon enough and the left needs to be on side with it.
Helena Sheehan is professor emeritus at Dublin City University and a left activist for many years.
Latest posts by Helena Sheehan (see all)
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