Libyan Journalist, Poet and Political Activist.
Founder of the Doha based Libyan TV Channel; Libya for the Free - ليبيا لكل ألاحرار
الخميس، 31 ديسمبر، 2015
فاطمة غندور_Libya since the revolution
Libya since the revolution
Libyan journalist and academic Fatma Ghandour explains her views of Libya’s past and present to Nesmahar Sayed
Al-Ahram Weekly: Fatma Abdullah Ghandour, the author of the first academic study on Libyan folklore, is editor of the independent Mayadeen newspaper and a lecturer at the Faculty of Arts and Media at the University of Tripoli.She has worked as an advisor to Libyan NGOs in the field of women’s empowerment and is herself a civil rights activist. She explained her views on Libya’s recent experiences from the perspective of a first-hand witness.
What part did your family play in your education?
I was born in the old quarter of Tripoli and my parents are originally from the south. My father founded the Southern Libyan Culture Association in Tripoli in 1961, and my mother only became literate in the 1970s. I began reading newspapers and books at an early age and would listen to political and literary discussions between my father and uncles.
What is the editorial policy of the Mayadeen newspaper?
Mayadeen is an independent weekly run by a group of volunteer journalists who saw in the newspaper, founded in Benghazi in May 2011, an opportunity to open the doors to all shades of the political spectrum. For four years the Mayadeen Foundation has offered media training to Libyan political parties and civil society organisations in a series of new initiatives.
What is the legacy in today’s Libya of the “revolutionary violence” practised under the former regime?
“Revolutionary violence” is part of a culture that was systematically inculcated in society during the Gaddafi era. It was disseminated through his famous “Green Books” that were distributed across the country and was a form of politicisation that followed one everywhere – in the school curricula, on posters and billboards in the streets and in the press. The editorials of a newspaper called Green March dripped with blood and violence. Even national television during the breaking of the fast in Ramadan would broadcast news of the execution of Libyan citizens. From preparatory school onwards, we would be bussed in to watch “revolutionary trials” take place at Tripoli University conducted by students from the “revolutionary committees” and generally end with streams of guilty verdicts for having “betrayed the revolution”.
The institute where I studied was subordinate to the air force, and we lived as though in a military barracks. The punishments meted out to us were military ones, including long hours standing outside in the midday sun. Gaddafi’s motto of “the people armed” was everywhere, and when we got a job we were obliged to pay for a Kalashnikov (100 Libyan dinars), which was deducted from our monthly salary. But we never received the weapons we had paid for, and during Gaddafi’s last years he dismantled the Libyan army and replaced it with expertly trained brigades called the “Khamis Brigade,” the “Al-Saedi Brigade,” the “Al-Moatassem Brigade,” and so on.
When the February 2011 Revolution started, Gaddafi had weapons distributed to volunteers in order to protect him and his regime. His residence in Bab Al-Aziziya was brimming with arms, right in the middle of a residential quarter. But he knew he could not spread the culture of a weapon for every citizen while remaining a dictatorial leader because the people would inevitably rise up against him. That was why he dismantled the army and kept only the private brigades to protect himself and his regime. But finally everything collapsed in a matter of days, as occurred in Benghazi, the city of the revolution.
How would you compare Islamist extremism in Libya in the past and present?
Gaddafi was the number one extremist. We lived under a constitution that he called the “declaration of the power of the people” that stated that the Holy Quran was the law of society. He called himself the “Imam of the Muslims” and posed as an evangelist dedicated to converting people to Islam through the dollars he bestowed on poor people. There were farcical scenes of the poor reciting the pledges of the faith, merely mimicking the utterances without understanding a word of what they were saying as a result.
Gaddafi founded an institution called the International Society for the Islamic Calling that had a budget of millions of dollars and funded a publishing house, a magazine to disseminate Islamic culture, and a library housing Islamic books which barred unveiled women from entering. It also had an educational centre that taught students from all parts of the world.
In the 1980s, I saw young men from Tripoli and other cities going off to fight in Afghanistan with Osama Bin Laden against the Soviets. Naturally, their fates remain unknown, though we heard that some of them ended up in Guantanamo in Cuba. Libyan cities were breeding grounds for Islamist fighters. In the 1990s, Gaddafi’s forces laid siege to the cities of Derna and Ajdabiya, and Derna sustained fierce bombardment from commando forces.
After the revolution, we had no security agencies that we could depend on to secure our borders. I believe that the major world powers want Libya to remain under the threat of Daesh [the Islamic State group] and other extremists. Part of this involved the death of the US ambassador to Libya and his colleagues in 2012. And consider how civilians were protected from Gaddafi’s arsenals by UN Security Council Resolution 1973 in 2011. Why is nothing of this sort in effect today? Are not civilians still facing the threats of death and displacement as a result of the weapons in the hands of the extremists and the militias? The answer lies in the Western decision-making circles and their perspective on the Libyan question.
What was the role of the West in the rise of Gaddafi?
For four decades, the West called him an “international terrorist,” a “perverse dictator,” and a “madman.” But he never stopped exporting oil, and he kept up his exorbitant gifts to Africa and elsewhere in the world. He also paid out the Lockerbie compensation and handed over his nuclear weapons. But perhaps the clearest sign of the West’s approval of him was that we never heard it condemn the violations of the rights of the Libyan people. Gaddafi’s prisons lay outside the pale of all legal conventions. A person might be found innocent by a judge only for the people’s revolutionary court to find him guilty and prevent his release.
What was the state of the media in Libya before and after the Arab Spring?
The first newspaper in Libya, Tarablos Al-Gharb, appeared in 1866. Under the monarchy, many other newspapers emerged, among them Al-Haqiqa, which was distributed in Egypt, Al-Balagh, Al-Hurriyya and Al-Maydan. These were all nationalised following the September Coup that brought Gaddafi to power, after which the press became a government monopoly and all the newspapers featured the same headlines and followed the same stories. There was a brief revival with what was known as the “pro-succession press,” referring to the succession of Gaddafi’s son Seif Al-Islam to power, but that too was closed down. With the onset of the revolution around 300 periodicals appeared. Some have folded, others have continued. In addition there is the General Organisation to Support the Press which has published and supported some 45 newspapers, even if most of them were from the previous era. Numerous radio and television stations have also emerged.
What was your personal experience in Libya before the Arab Spring?
When I graduated from the College of Arts and Media, I was hired by a radio station that broadcast Gaddafi’s rhetoric. I recall the directives and prohibitions that my colleagues had to follow when writing political programmes. I also recall the penalties they had to pay if they made a mistake.
My greatest surprise in my first year was that in spite of the fact that my colleagues had complemented me on my talents as a broadcaster, when I once summoned up the courage to enter the studio and read out the news on air the director rushed in and snatched the script out of my hands. He told me that according to Gaddafi’s orders women were forbidden from reading the news. But Gaddafi had billed himself as a liberator and protector of women! I spent years with that channel where we were not allowed to add our names to the credits of the programmes we had prepared and broadcast. We were anonymous, and the letters I received from the audience were addressed to the “dear sister” who had presented such and such a programme.
Once I was brought in for questioning because we had aired the Fayza Ahmed song “My heart’s inclined to you”. The song was broadcast the day after the US evacuated its bases in Libya. The programme censor accused me and my colleague of committing high treason on the grounds that we were “inclined to” the Americans instead of celebrating their expulsion. It was a very tense and terrifying session.
What was the opposition inside Libya like under Gaddafi and what forms does it take now?
Looking back at the history of the Libyan opposition, it can be seen that throughout those decades the opposition refused to let Gaddafi rest easy in power. He would fabricate stories about opposition members and their families. Among the opposition forces were officers who had taken part with him in the September 1969 Coup and felt that he had deceived them afterwards. He had promoted himself from lieutenant to colonel, excluded his colleagues from power, and had had some of them eliminated in mysterious accidents.
There was also an opposition party founded abroad that trained forces that managed to reach Gaddafi’s camp at Bab Al-Aziziya in 1984 but were then defeated. The opposition was political, militant and religious throughout those decades, and Gaddafi’s hold on power was always in danger. Even one of his own children tried to stage a coup against him. For 40 years, journalism was heavily controlled in Libya. The writers of opinion articles were thrown into jail and deprived of all their rights. The punishments could extend to family members who might be prohibited from travelling, banned from employment opportunities, or prevented from completing their education. A prime example of this was Mayadeen editor-in-chief Ahmed Al-Fitouri, who was hounded even after he left the country in 1988.
After the revolution, what we have seen are two basic trends, one secularist and nationalist that subscribes to democracy and the institutionalised state, and the other militant and Islamist that believes it has the right to exclusive rule, even by force of arms.
Why do you think violence has increased in many Arab Spring countries and especially in Libya?
There are many differences between the three Arab countries that waged revolutions against entrenched dictatorships. Libya’s revolution was militarised immediately, even if it began peacefully in the form of demonstrations in Benghazi, Al-Beida, Al-Zawya, Al-Zintan, Bani Walid and Tripoli. Gaddafi cried for war and for “red fire and coal” as he proclaimed repeatedly. He called for volunteers to queue up to receive weapons and he unleashed mercenaries against the people. He had engaged them from abroad over the decades and even granted them Libyan nationality. Neither Ben Ali in Tunisia nor Mubarak in Egypt used such a rhetoric of violence and intimidation. Gaddafi, on the other hand, effectively told his people, “either I leave you the prey to the chaos of arms, or you keep me in power and my children after me.”
How did you perceive the 25 January Revolution in Egypt?
I was promoting a book of mine at the Cairo International Book Fair. As soon as I could, I tried to contact my journalist friends in Cairo – I totally forgot about my family at home – to ask them what was happening in Tahrir Square. What really struck me was how young men would gather to protect buildings and the streets. I saw one woman get out of her car carrying bread to distribute to the demonstrators. As soon as I returned to Libya, I dedicated my weekly column in the Al-Shatt newspaper to the spirit of the revolution. What I wrote about my joy at the revolution in Egypt was censored, but I published it anyway on my Facebook and Twitter accounts.