A Libyan-American dissident thinks Libya’s tribes will be a stabilizing force in a post-Gaddafi world.
Najla Abdurrahman is a doctoral candidate in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University. She comes from a family of Libyan-American dissidents, and has for several years been engaging in online activism to alert the outside world to the abuses and human-rights violations of the Gaddafi regime. Recent events in Libya have propelled her into the national spotlight. She spoke with National Review about her story, and the past, present and future of Libya.
Matthew Shaffer: How’d you become a dissident?
Najla Abdurrahman: My father emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970’s, for school, when the government was sending students from Libya on scholarship. As Libya started to deteriorate throughout the 70s (Gaddafi came to power in 1969) my father realized that Gaddafi was bad dictator – Gaddafi had started hanging students in public square and so on. Many Libyans inside the country and even out of the country decided to form an opposition group. They became very vocal about their opposition to the government and their plans to overthrow the regime. But Gaddafi is brutal. And so they became exiles. They couldn’t go back to Libya. My father hasn’t actually been back to Libya since he left for the last time in 1979.
In the eighties was when this particular group, known as the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, was very active in their opposition and their attempts to overthrow the regime. Unfortunately they failed, and so a lot of them brought their kids up in America, like me — we became second-generation exiles and dissidents.
Shaffer: When did you become an activist?
Abdurrahman : Just less than two years ago, a group of us put together a website for information about what’s going on inside of Libya — way before Egypt, before Tunisia, way before we had expectations about what was happening throughout the Middle East now. We were just compiling content and reporting, from sources like Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders, etc. But it wasn’t getting much traffic. And then when upheaval in Tunisia began, things started to change. In Libya, dissidents were watching what was happening, and they made plans, informally for a day of protest for February 17th, which was chosen on purpose to commemorate Feb 17, 2006, in which many protesters in Benghazi were killed by the Gaddafi regime – also in 1987 many young people were hung and their bodies were dragged through the streets in Benghazi.
So when that was declared, we stepped into gear and were working to open the channels of communication between what was happening in Libya and the outside world, because we knew there would be press restrictions, and it would be almost impossible to get reporters into Libya to get the story out. So we created websites, and collected our contacts, and started pressuring the media when they weren’t reporting in the first few days. And obviously that’s changed. We knew also that Gaddafi would close off the country and he would be ruthless. He’s not Bin Ali, he’s not Mubarak, he doesn’t have close ties in the same way with the United States and with Europe. His ties with Italy are close, but they’re different. You know his personality — he doesn’t really care what people think of him. We knew he would be ruthless in his retaliation, and his attempt to crush this, which we have seen. Did we know he was going to be this bad? I don’t think anybody expected what is happening now.
Shaffer: Have you been to Libya?
Abdurrahman: I have. I’ve been three times with my siblings and my mother.
Shaffer: What was Libya like prior to Gaddafi?
Abdurrahman: Before Gaddafi seized power Libya was a monarchy. Our king was a weak ruler. He was by all accounts a humble person, and not really interested in ruling. So when Gaddafi took over in ’69, when he [the king] was in Egypt, the king didn’t really try to take the country back. A lot of people were actually excited in 1969. There was the revolutionary fervor, and people looked at Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, and they admired him. So Gaddafi rode in on this wave of pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism. It was 1973 when he first started hanging students — then people realized he was not a good thing.
The country was very rich from its oil. Oil was discovered under the monarchy, so people were living very comfortably. There was a great deal of corruption in the distribution of the resources. The king himself was humble, but his entourage was taking advantage of the situation, and abused the resources. So there was a lot of resentment under the monarchy of how resources were being distributed. At the same time the hospitals were great, the schools were great, people generally lived very well. It’s a lot of money for a small populace.
Shaffer: And so how did Gaddafi change things?
ABDURRAHMAN: Under Gaddafi things swiftly deteriorated. He instituted so many populist policies that were just insane – he essentially abolished the market. I’m not an economist, but from what I understand he instituted policies based off his adage that, “the whole country there are no wage-workers, all partners” — so quasi-socialist, populist measures that destroyed free enterprise. At the same time he monopolized the oil resources. The infrastructure was completely neglected.
I can tell you from going to Libya that, for a country that’s so rich — in terms of resources and the total wealth there — teachers don’t get paid for months. And they only make $200 or $300 a month anyways. The hospitals are in ruin. Complete, complete ineptitude and mismanagement for the amount of money and resources they do have. People think Libya is a wealthy country and it is. The per capita income figures are high compared to the others in the region. But that’s just the average. The reality is that this doesn’t trickle down to most of the rest of the people and the reality is that two thirds of the people live on less than $2 a day in Libya.
Shaffer: What does the typical Libyan think of Gaddafi?
Abdurrahman: I can tell you for a fact that the average Libyan despises him. He has all these carefully choreographed displays of support, and no doubt there is a small percentage of Libyans who do support him because their interests are aligned with his being in power. But it is by far the minority of people. Obviously, this is not a country that does polls or allows polls to be done. But just look at what’s happening now. Most people want to see him gone. And now there are even all these ambassadors, and military officers defecting and disavowing him. There was this sentiment, especially in the western media that he was popular in some way. One Libya expert, Dirk Vandewalle, called it a “grudging admiration” for Gaddafi’s ability to hold the country together for forty years. I just absolutely disagree with that.
Shaffer: What do you anticipate for the future? Some fear that if Gaddafi is removed from power, there will be anarchy as warring tribes compete for power.
Abdurrahman: Gaddafi, in his speech just a few days ago, made a point to emphasize to Libyans — and he was really trying to address the Western power and trying to scare them — that Libya is not like Egypt and not like Tunisia. It is tribes, he said. But let me set the record straight. When we talk about tribalism in Libya, we’re not talking about romantic groups of people on horses and warring factions. Tribes are simply large networks of extended families that are connected to each other. So when you talk about members of a tribe, you’re talking about everyday people — laborers, farmers, doctors, professors, taxi drivers — who are connected in these networks.
Also, the tribal structure is much stronger in the eastern parts of Libya. So in a city like Tripoli, the tribes are not a big factor; in Benghazi, they are. But I actually have hope for the tribes. They’re not antagonistic. Libyans are surprised when they hear that the tribes are going to be warring against and antagonizing each other. This is not what Libyans see with their own eyes.
Under Gaddafi’s regime, the rule of law has been absent for 40 years in Libya. There has only been one rule: you don’t go against the regime. When I have gone to Libya I have been amazed by how much Libyans have simply had to police themselves, because there literally was no rule of law, no constitution (there was a law book, but it was not enforced). So the tribal structures actually became very important in organizing people in a country where organization for decades has been proscribed under penalty of jail and death. So I feel hopeful that these networks will actually help to organize people, and will prove to be a positive at the end.
Shaffer: What do you think the international community should be doing with respect to Libya?
Abdurrahman: The UN is discussing sanctions, an embargo, and they’ll discuss a freezing of assets, among other things. Now it’s too late for a weapons embargo. What’s the point of that now? Europe has already sold Gaddafi weapons that he’s using on the people right now. I don’t understand the logic of a weapons-embargo now.
As for the sanctions: Libya was under sanctions for 10 years — it destroyed the economy and it didn’t do anything to dissuade Gaddafi. So what people have been asking for — and I don’t understand why they’re not doing it — is the implementation of a no-fly zone over the country. But NATO has rejected it. Everybody seems to reject it, and we don’t’ understand why.
We also need much stronger condemnation from everybody. I think finally Prime Minister David Cameron issued the most strongly worded statement today. He said there would be consequences when all is said and done — people would be held accountable, and there would possibly even be charges of war crimes.
I don’t’ know exactly what else can be done. People talk about a peacekeeping mission if the violence continues. I don’t know about that. My hope is that if this does continue they will intervene, with an international peacekeeping mission — not just the U.S. not any one country alone. But we may need some sort of force to bring stability back to the country, but not to stay behind afterwards behind. But we’ll have to wait and see.
Shaffer: What’s the western media getting wrong right now?
Abdurrahman: They need to stop listening to scare tactics that Gaddafi has tried to use, about tribalism, about sectarianism, about extremism, about chaos.
Libyans are very reasonable, very sensible, very sober people. They’ve been living under virtual anarchy for the last 40 years anyways, and they’re fine. They’ve managed to police themselves. I’m very hopeful, and the country doesn’t have a lot of the same problems that other countries have. It’s ethnically and religiously homogeneous for the most part. And people are generally unified — that’s the sentiment from everybody we speak to. And we already have the same reports we have from Egypt and from Tunisia of the reemergence of real civil society — of people discussing issues in the public sphere, of people working to clean up the streets, directing traffic, protecting their homes and business by banding together. Libyans haven’t been looting, they haven’t been breaking the law. We have a lot of confidence in the Libyan people. And we just want people to realize that the situation is looking very hopeful if Gaddafi leaves.