The Red Hibiscus Revolution

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My students in Libya were carefree, fun-loving, style-conscious and seemingly lazy. Then the revolution happened, and they took to guns and capturing towns

In 2008, I had been serving as editor of Indian Literature, the English journal of the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, when I saw a recruitment ad for teachers at Libyan universities. The salary was very good.  I applied and was selected. I was posted to Garyounis University, Benghazi, where I reported for work on 28 October 2008. From there, I was sent to the university’s branch in Ajdabiya, 160 km to the south, near the Mediterranean coast. I began work the very next day.

I remember an interesting episode within the first few days of my arrival. An Indian colleague, also new to the country, asked a fellow Libyan teacher: “How’s Gaddafi? Do you have a democratic government here?” The Libyan had seen a bit of the outside world, having been abroad for his higher studies. “It’s forbidden to utter Gaddafi’s name in public,” he said, warning us not to talk about politics and religion, as specified in our contract. It had been in Arabic, and we had not yet got an English translation of it. Our Libyan colleague went on to explain that his compatriots were historically used to the diktats of their tribal chiefs. Hence, when Gaddafi turned his rule into an oppressive dictatorship, they were loath to question it in the beginning. Liberal democracy was a concept almost alien to them. However, he insisted that Libya had some form of democracy, as the local Peoples’ Councils could make many local decisions. He advised us all the same not to show anyone any further curiosity on the matter.

A few days later, the Libyan teacher was visited by a friend, a shop-owner who spoke no English. He showed us the picture of an elderly person on his mobile phone. “It’s his grandfather,” the teacher said. When he realised that we didn’t catch the joke, he explained, “That’s the deposed King Idris of Libya.” I gathered the drift of things through their unspoken words. In retrospect, I suspect they might have been dissidents. It is such people who cracked open the egg of rebellion once the time was ripe for it to hatch—with pro-democracy protests erupting across the Maghreb and beyond.

Somewhat vibrant civil societies had existed in Tunisia and Egypt, countries that flank Libya to the west and east, where dictators were toppled by the first popular upsurge of revolt in early-December 2010 through February 2011. In Libya, however, there was only a single discourse—that of the regime.

Ajdabiya was one of the first cities in the east that fell to rebel control almost unopposed. This surprised us Indian teachers, because we thought we knew our students. For all practical purposes, they were easygoing, carefree, fun-loving and style-conscious, and had an apparent dislike for hard work. They were passionate only about playing or following football. Most of them were fans of European football clubs, and even wore their jerseys. They were also fond of eating and sleeping. The Mediterranean climate and daily routine, split neatly between work and prayer time, allowed them long siestas. We were tempted to brand them lazy. So, when revolutions broke out in Tunisia and then Egypt, we said among ourselves that nothing along those lines could happen in Libya; that these young men were watching live accounts of the struggles on Al Jazeera (Arabic) as if following some action movie, that’s all.

When they turned revolutionaries, we were surprised. Their faces conveyed resolve, and they wielded guns confiscated from the government’s local armoury as they paraded around the streets—first in their hundreds and later in thousands. Giant portraits of Gaddafi at important junctions and public places were pulled down and defaced. Graffiti denouncing the regime and celebrating freedom appeared all over. People of all age groups and strata of society were involved.

On 19 February, when the ‘liberation of Benghazi and the whole of eastern Libya’ was celebrated, I was astonished to see tribal elders, with their sons, grandsons and great-grandchildren, dancing at the town-square at 1 am. Many of my students and some colleagues were there.

The first few days of the uprising were marked by peaceful marches in cities all over Libya. Even when fired upon, they kept advancing unarmed towards the security forces, without flinching as their comrades fell dead. Their sheer numbers overwhelmed the armed police and soldiers. In Ajdabiya, four teenagers were shot dead on the very first day by regime forces as they marched upon an army facility that was soon captured. Gradually, police and military bases were overrun, as had happened in Benghazi, Al Baida, Darna, Tobruk, Ajdabiya and Brega in the eastern part of the country. The mid-western city of Misurata and cities west of the capital Tripoli, like Az Zawia, Zintan and Gariyan, followed. So did great swathes of Tripoli.

As unarmed protesters continued to fall to the regime’s bullets, the protesters began to use the seized weapons to fire back. Thus began the armed opposition to Gaddafi’s forces. These proved to be innocuous initial attempts by lightly armed civilians; later on, after the counter-revolution gained force, they would wither away as the regime’s firepower sent the death toll soaring.

Yet, it was enough of a spark. Before long, assorted rebel formations armed with light arms—seized from army depots they overran—coalesced into something of a pro-democracy force. It saw its ranks swell as sundry military personnel, including high ranking officers, started defecting to join them.

In Libya, every young male who turns 18 must undergo compulsory military training of a few months annually. Though the quality of such training has always been suspect, it ensured that many of the rebels had some familiarity with firearms. Their military moulding may have been weak, but they made up for it with their unstinting spirit and a romantic sort of optimism.

The effervescence is visible in their wild celebrations after each victory, firing large quantities of ammunition into the air, and retreating rapidly at the first sign of enemy fire. All that seems to guide them are vague notions of ‘freedom,’ ‘democracy’ and ‘human dignity.’ Talking to ‘recently liberated’ people in Ajdabiya and Benghazi in the early weeks of the uprising, I saw them enjoying freedom of expression for the first time in their lives with palpable relish. On one street, I met a young man whom I knew. “Gaddafi is finished!” he declared with glee, drawing his fingers across his neck to indicate a mock beheading. When I asked him why he jumped in to join the rebellion, he said: “When our ‘beeble’ (Arabs typically pronounce ‘p’ as ‘b’) are killed like this, what else can we do? Earlier, even a father and son would not dare discuss politics for fear of betrayal to the secret police. I can now shout out what I feel!”

On the night of 27 February, before our evacuation from Benghazi, I mingled with a group of young men of the city celebrating their newfound freedom beating drums and firing in the air. When I said I am an Indian ‘doktor’ (as they call teachers) a young man barely in his teens told me: “Please tell the outside world that we are being butchered by Gaddafi’s mercenaries.” Others pleaded that Western countries and others like India must intercede on their behalf, maintaining in the same breath that they did not want any foreign forces on their soil. Many of them asserted that they wouldn’t go back home and preferred to die fighting in the streets, because the regime would trace them out and kill them in their homes anyway.

Meanwhile, many neutral observers have been understandably sceptical of the motives of France, Italy, the UK and US in leading the ‘international coalition forces of the willing’ mandated by UN Resolution 1973 of 2011 to enforce a ‘no-fly zone’ over Libya to protect civilians, given their past record of exploiting Libya when it was at its weakest—at its very inception in 1945 till Colonel Gaddafi’s coup d’état in 1969.

As and when the regime lost control in cities and towns, the people created local councils of elders, with members in charge of different civic activities and responsibilities in the ‘liberated’ areas. In Ajdabiya, young men who we once considered lazy had taken upon themselves the task of emptying garbage bins and sweeping the streets in place of the Bangladeshi, Sudanese and other nationalities who had fled. They were also directing traffic and so on. Thus was normal life resumed, even as shops reopened and civic amenities sprung back.

It is representatives of these councils that have formed the National Transition Council of Libya, with Benghazi as its headquarters. Once this council was formed, with Mustafa Abdul Jalil (the former justice minister who had defected) as its head, and with military figures like General Abdul Fatah Younis (the defected interior minister) leading the armed rebellion, opposition fighters grew bold enough to march west towards the capital Tripoli from Benghazi. They progressed bit by bit, capturing several oil towns along the coastal road.

Meanwhile, regime troops had crushed the rebellion in western cities such as Az Zawia Zintan and Gariyan, razing them to the ground, apart from taking back control of the restive areas of Tripoli. The regime was using heavy weapons like anti-aircraft guns and tanks, resorting to aerial strafing and bombing of civilians. By the second week of March, Gaddafi’s regime was looking secure again. Pushed by the momentum gained by crushing the revolt in the western cities, the regime’s elite troops began to march eastward. One by one, the towns in rebel hands fell. Innocent civilians were slaughtered and residential buildings flattened with heavy weapons of war.

Full-blown attempts to retake Ajdabiya by the regime forces began on 15 March, with heavy bombardment from the sea, land and air. We Indian teachers had held on in Ajdabiya from the beginning of the uprising on 15 February night till the 27th, watching the news on Al Jazeera (English) and BBC. There had already been bombings of the arms depot and the ammunition depot on the outskirts of the city; the sound of constant automatic fire kept us awake through the night. We feared bombs and artillery shells would fall on us. Initially, we were determined to stay on, as our students and colleagues beseeched us not to leave. Later, some of our Libyan colleagues advised us to. The university also offered ‘a break’ as they described it. On 27 February, we took the road to Benghazi, 160 km north, boarded the first evacuation ship from there on the 28th, and caught the chartered flights that India’s Government had arranged from Alexandria, reaching our homes by the first week of March.

Now at home, I was glued to the news channels and live blogs, anxious about the fate of Brega and Ajadabiya, from where the bulk of my students and colleagues came. With a heavy heart, I kept following the news. I could not contact any of them as phone lines were cut. A colleague who had returned with me to India told me that a girl-student who had shifted from Brega to the relative safety of Benghazi a few days ago wailed when she managed to get a call through: “...I’m afraid ...I’m afraid of what will happen to my brothers left back home. I’m afraid of what will happen to us ….”

Surrounded by Gaddafi’s forces in the second week of March, and subjected to systematic naval, aerial, artillery and tank bombardment, Ajdabiya seemed to be a doomed city, with tales emerging of civilian massacres by regime forces. One BBC report spoke of 35 civilians—old men, women and children—who died on one single day being taken to a local hospital along with hundreds injured. Several families had reportedly fled the city; of the remaining, many died.

Once Ajdabiya was surrounded, it was one quick dash for the regime’s forces towards Benghazi, one-and-a-half hours away. The news was clear and grim. They had begun to enter the city intent on a bloodbath, when, just in the nick of time, French fighter-bombers of the coalition began to bombard the regime’s tanks, rockets and heavy artillery, causing them to retreat. A massacre of thousands of civilians by the regime, which had reportedly threatened to let run ‘rivers of blood’ with ‘no mercy’, had been averted.

Retreating from Benghazi, the regime’s soldiers moved back to Ajdabiya. Fierce fighting ensued, and the city eventually fell, with tanks standing in the middle of the city centre. They occupied the city and unleashed mayhem for nearly a week, before coalition forces bombed out their armour and artillery pieces surrounding the city, and the rebels began to fight back. Ajdabiya, Brega, Uqayla, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, all oil towns, were recaptured in a matter of 48 hours in a seemingly unstoppable drive by rebels who briefly claimed (falsely, as it turned out) that they had taken Sirt (Gaddafi’s hometown), supported by the coalition air attacks on regime forces.

However, Nato, which has lately taken command of the coalition, has not been regularly bombarding pro-Gaddafi military hardware on the road for the past week or so; the regime’s forces have reportedly taken to disguising themselves as rebels, making it harder for no-fly-zone enforcers to pinpoint legitimate targets. Taking advantage of this, the regime forc­es began counter-attacks which took the rebels by surprise initially; however, a better organised opposition effort, led by battle-hardened veterans, has checked the regime’s forces, resulting in an appar­ent stalemate (as Open goes to press).

The city of Misurata, between Tripoli and Sirt, has not fallen into the regime’s hands even once, and is paying a high price in terms of civilian lives. Hundreds of rooftop snipers are reportedly killing people in large numbers. The regime has been bombarding this town.

Contrary to what some casual ob­servers assume, poverty or depriva­tion is not an issue in Libya. Bread, rice and provisions are available at low pric­es. Even ordinary citizens drive cars or pick-up trucks, as petrol is cheaper than water here. Roads, public spaces and buildings are rather well maintained. Sanitation levels are admirably high.

There’s no trace of Al Qaida in Libya ei­ther, as far as I could gather while I lived there. The Libyan Transitional National Council has rejected accusations of the group’s involvement in the uprising, and professed an adherence to moderate Islamic values, which would include support for global counter-terrorism ef­forts against extremist groups. Libya has a Sunni Muslim majority of moderates, and has no record of Shia-Sunni conflict.

It is naïve to call it a Facebook revolu­tion, though social networking played a vital role in linking youngsters together, as it did all over the Arab world. However, when the revolution came about, it was not a ‘virtual’ one in any sense. If access to the internet has had a role, it was in opening the floodgates of information on the ‘free world’ to Libyans at large.

Ironically, it was Colonel Gaddafi’s sec­ond eldest son, the then reformist Saif-al-Islam, who ushered the internet in. No one could have foreseen what this genie let out of its bottle could do. Unlike in Egypt, Libya has had no English books and periodicals available, so Western concepts of democracy, individualism and liberalism are relative novelties. (The checkered history of English educa­tion in Libya is also the story of the intel­lectual repression of the people. After see-sawing for about four decades without proper planning or implementation strategies, English education was alto­gether stopped in 1986 after the US bombings of Tripoli and Benghazi. It was tentatively reintroduced in 1992, but took definite shape only by 1999). The current rebellion is led by young doctors, engineers and other graduates—a wired-in lot—who want dignity, freedom and a say in how they are governed.

Recently, I saw a protester on TV with a placard saying: ‘Why do you oppose us, India, Russia, China, Brazil, Germany…?’ The realpolitik of countries like India, which did not support the UN Resolution, appears to have disappoint­ed Libya’s revolutionaries.

During the siege of Benghazi, a univer­sity professor, a spokesperson for the National Transitional Council, be­seeched India to speak on their behalf, re­counting fond memories she and other students had of Indian teachers working there. But New Delhi has opted for wishy-washy NAM-speak, suggesting a peace­ful dialogue with the regime “without outward interference”.

Staying neutral under the circum­stances is not as easy as diplomats would like, however. The so-called Jasmine Revolution that swept across Tunisia first and then Egypt was non-violent in nature. The Libyan revolution, in con­trast, has turned into a bloody conflict, a war. Perhaps it is more appropriate to call it ‘The Red Hibiscus Revolution’ after the flower offered to Goddess Kali.

Dr AJ Thomas, formerly Editor, Indian Literature of Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, is a poet, fiction writer, translator and literary editor