Libya’s moment of truth

by Jordan Green

The news of Libyan rebels peacefully taking control of Tripoli in crackling radio dispatches from the BBC on Sunday night came as a surreal moment of wonder. The regime of Moammar Gadhafi regime was collapsing. Instead of bloody streetto-street fighting, the rebels rolled in to the city and jubilant residents reportedly streamed into public squares to celebrate.

A relaxed and happy resident described the scene to the program host in London, in stark contrast to previous months when Libyans in the national capital either expressed steadfast loyalty to Gadhafi or spoke in the cryptic manner of people living under the stifling oppression of a terror state. The BBC’s Tripoli correspondent, Rana Jawad, who had been filing secret reports since March, was now speaking openly. Internet service was reportedly restored for the first time in months. Everything seemed different.

It wasn’t expected to be this easy. Compared to Tunisia and Egypt, where, as if in a dream, peaceful people-power movements toppled despotic regimes in a matter of weeks, in Libya the government dug in its heels, the protesters took up arms and civil war broke out. The North American Treaty Organization mobilized to protect civilians, but has ended up intervening on behalf of the rebels. The atrocities have mounted on both sides. Libya looked like an intractable conflict.

So the rebels who suddenly find themselves in control of Libya face some serious questions: Will they allow vengeance killings to be carried out against senior officials in the Gadhafi regime or ordinary citizens who were its supporters? Will those among the ranks of the rebels who carried out atrocities of their own be held accountable? And after four decades in which political opposition was squashed, what experience do the Libyan people have with functioning democracy? How can they pull off things like fair elections and impartial justice that are difficult even for established democracies like the United States? Or just practical things like maintaining functioning water treatment plants and effective public safety?

The scene is embedded in my mind from a report made by New York Times correspondent CJ Chivers to NPR “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross.

Chivers described stumbling across the rotting bodies of five Gadhafi fighters, one beheaded and one with pants bunched around his ankles, in a cement basin in the Libyan countryside.

As horrific as the scene is, more disturbing is the psychological phenomenon of how people tend to deny the humanity of their adversaries and to reflexively rule out the possibility that their side could be anything less than virtuous.

“You find that people impose on that scene what they want to,” Chivers told Gross. “And so, in the absence of evidence, rushes convenient theories. And there’s this urge to decide what it is even though you don’t actually know, and to come to a decision about what it is that’s not actually harmful to you. And so what I found when I took that to people is they said, ‘Oh, Gadhafi did that.’ And you say, ‘Well, that’s of course not implausible, but it’s not the only thing on the list of how these five Gadhafi soldiers would be killed.’ They say, ‘Oh, Gadhafi did that.’ And you say, ‘How do we know?’ ‘Because Gadhafi did that.’ The notion that the people who are the stated enemies of these fighters and are in the area of the fighting might have done this has kind of been dismissed outright.

“Which is not to say I know what happened; I don’t know what happened,” he continued. “I know what got left behind. But you don’t know what happened, so you have your question that you begin to explore. In a war, questions like this are very difficult, and people are very partisan. Methodical, objective reporting is not necessarily locally welcome. So we ran into a lot of hostility. And we found that when we started asking questions like that our access was quite severely restricted.” War is difficult, but peace is often harder. The thirst for freedom and democracy that gave the protesters courage to stand up to their government should not be smothered by paranoia about counter-revolution.

It would be simplistic to say that every country in the world has the democracy gene, but there is something transcendent about the desire to have a political voice. My friend Rania Masri, a contributing editor for Al-Akhbar newspaper, asked me to submit an article about the impact of the Arab spring uprisings on activists in North Carolina. I found that people who are concerned about social change, democracy and political participation don’t draw distinctions between here and there.

Dunia Fleihan, a graduate student at UNCG whose parents emigrated to the United States from Lebanon in the 1970s told me: “I think the one thing we can take most from this is that every single voice counts. If you have an opinion, then you must express it.”

Mustafa Abdullah, an Egyptian-American associate organizer with Industrial Areas Foundation affiliate CHANGE in Winston-Salem, spoke to YES! Weekly’s Eric Ginsburg in February about the importance of democracy in North Carolina and Egypt.

“The more people that you have in civil society the more powerful the meaning of democracy becomes,” he said. “The work of Dr. [Martin Luther] King and the work we’re doing here at CHANGE with the IAF embodies the spirit of what this country is supposed to be. Going to Egypt, there is a lot of tensions or perceived tensions between the Muslim and Christian communities. Pluralistic relationships serve as the bedrock for the tomorrow of the Egypt that should be.”