"Libya Is Not Safe for You If You Want to Speak Your Mind"

by Anjali Kamat | published September 10, 2014 - 2:40pm

Hassan al-Amin is a long-time activist for human rights in Libya. He left Libya in 1983 under duress from the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. In his London exile, al-Amin founded the dissident website Libya al-Mustaqbal (The Future Libya). He returned to his native city of Misrata in June 2011, in the midst of the rebellion against Qaddafi. Al-Amin was subsequently an independent member of Libya’s first elected parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), from Misrata and a member of the Human Rights and Civil Society Committee. He fled Libya again in March 2013. Later that year he was given Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges award for extraordinary activism. Anjali Kamat spoke to him on August 29, 2014 and transcribed the interview.

Why did you resign from the GNC and return to exile?

I left Libya because I reached the conclusion there was no way I could work with the GNC. I left because the GNC reached a point where it was so divided that someone who is independent like myself could not survive. Most of its members were either militiamen themselves or had strong ties with the militias. The GNC collapsed into several different entities.

I was also one of the very first to speak loudly and clearly against the militias, against these so-called revolutionaries and their abuses of human rights.

So I started getting threats, and I left because I no longer felt safe in my country. It became exactly as it was during Qaddafi’s time. For me, a country is a country where I can live with dignity and safety. Once those two things are gone there is no reason for me to be there. I reached the conclusion that I could do more for my country from outside, speaking my mind, telling the world what is happening, especially as far as human rights are concerned. I can also speak to the Libyan people from the outside without having to fear anything.

And look at what happened after I left. Look how many human rights activists and journalists have been killed: Salwa Bugaighis, Muftah Abu Zayd and ‘Abd al-Salam al-Mismari. Look at how many activists and journalists have fled the country. You will find them in Tunisia, Egypt and Malta. Libya is no longer safe for you if you want to speak your mind.

Who are the main players on the ground today?

There are so many different players, and so many different alliances being made -- but these are not based on ideology or firm principles. They are all tactical alliances that could fall apart at any time. Those who are together today might be fighting each other tomorrow. It’s a complete mess.

There are many different kinds of Islamists, ranging from the Libyan Society of Muslim Brothers to Ansar al-Shari‘a, a salafi grouping. And then you’ve got the militias, some of them coming from cities, like Misrata and Zintan, and others loyal to individual warlords, like Haytham al-Tajouri, ‘Abd al-Ra’uf Kara and ‘Abd al-Ghani Kikli, better known as Ghunaywa. [These men led local brigades against Qaddafi during the uprising and then became commanders under the Supreme Security Committees, set up by the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Tripoli in October 2011. – Eds.]

Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn) is the latest alliance between Islamists and some of the militias from Misrata.

Then there’s Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, but to be honest, it’s not regarded as a national army. It is also a group on its own. [Haftar, a former officer under Qaddafi, came to prominence in May with a wave of attacks on Islamist militias in Benghazi and the parliament in Tripoli. – Eds.]

I know people are talking about dialogue all the time. But dialogue with whom and about what? In my opinion, most of the political and military players on the ground are not capable of establishing a state. Most of them lack political experience. They emerged from the war to unseat Qaddafi, and managed to gain money and authority very quickly, sometimes supported by local and tribal interests. I cannot see any dialogue between them that can produce a meaningful settlement.

And that’s why I still insist that the main thing for Libya to do is to get rid of the arms, to get rid of these militias. Given that they exist, some try to make them into real players who you should talk to. Even the Americans are advocating this in many ways. I say no. This is not going to work. These people have committed so many crimes. They cannot be part of the solution.

What do you make of the parliament elected on June 25 that is now convening in Tobruk and the rival administration declared in Tripoli by members of the GNC? Are there two governments in Libya?

There is no state in Libya. It’s chaos.

I still think that people should rally around this fragile new parliament in Tobruk because it’s obvious that the GNC has failed completely. It’s over and done with, and it is responsible for the chaos we are in.

Nouri Abu Sahmayn (a pro-Islamist politician and former president of the GNC ) is aligned with the mufti of Tripoli, Sadiq al-Gharyani, and the militias that have taken over Tripoli, like the Libyan Revolutionaries Operation Room (an alliance of Islamist militias) and those from Misrata. The Islamists lost the elections this summer and they don’t want to give up power. What’s happening in Tripoli is a coup against the building of the state. That is how I see it. And they are not going to give up easily.

On the other hand, I think the parliament in Tobruk should be very careful. They issued a press release classifying Ansar al-Shari‘a and the Fajr Libya coalition as terrorist groups.

I think this is a big mistake. There is no problem with so classifying Ansar al-Shari‘a because they have made it obvious that they are against the state and against the democratic process. But to include Fajr Libya, even though I don’t agree with what they’ve done, is only going to make the situation worse. Especially when the press release states that the “national army” will deal with them. What national army? Do they mean Haftar? That would be a mistake -- it could strengthen the appeal of ideas promoted by the opposition (the Islamists) that the parliament has been hijacked by Haftar and by the eastern part of the country and the federalists. [Haftar has some support among advocates of federalism in oil-rich, historically marginalized eastern Libya, including one of his key allies, Ibrahim al-Jadhran. The former head of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, al-Jadhran accused the government of corruption in oil sales and implemented a blockade on export terminals in the east in 2013. – Eds.]

How popular is Khalifa Haftar and how much power does he have?

Haftar has never been popular in Libya. He has ambition, no doubt about that. But he never really had a lot of support in the army or among the revolutionary groups. He has entered into tactical alliances with Ibrahim al-Jadhran and the al-Qaqa and Sawa‘iq brigades (from the west of the country near Zintan).

Haftar’s aim is to persuade public opinion that Libya needs a figure like ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt to fight the Islamists.

What is unfolding in Tripoli is a reaction to what Haftar has done. Haftar’s alliances send a very clear message to the Islamists and the so-called revolutionaries in Misrata: A member of the junta that launched the coup with Qaddafi in 1969, Haftar is now allying with al-Qaqa and al-Sawa‘iq, which have pro-Qaddafi elements, and al-Jadhran, who has cost the country billions of dollars in lost oil revenue. When you add up everything you can understand what’s happening in Tripoli. It’s all linked.

There are over 200 brigades in Misrata that form a powerful fighting force. The impression is that many of them are Islamists.

Most of the Misrata militias are not ideological in any sense. They are based on neighborhood, tribe and kinship. There aren’t any militias in Misrata that you could call Islamist. Those leading the political scene in Misrata have fallen into the trap of believing they are fighting pro-Qaddafi elements and protecting the revolution. The Islamists, and the Muslim Brothers in particular, have been playing on the idea of a counter-revolution and Qaddafi people returning to power. This is why you have Misratans defending them in Tripoli. So this is the game that I’ve been talking about, fragile tactical alliances that aren’t necessarily going to last. People like Salah Badi (a Misratan militia leader) aren’t that powerful on their own, but he has a large militia and is influenced by people like the mufti. The stupidity of some of the militias in Misrata is that they believe they have God-given permission to sort out problems in Libya. When Misrata started receiving dead bodies from fighting in Tripoli, the people there had no option but to support the militias’ intervention, even if they disagreed with it. And people were afraid to speak out, because they would be labeled traitors.

Who do you hold responsible for the way things have turned out in Libya?

Many different groups have made many mistakes: the NTC, the GNC, intellectuals in Libya, the international community and the militias.

We warned the NTC about the militias from early on. We suggested that they really had to prepare for these guys coming back from the front. We talked about the importance of reconciliation from the beginning. We said Libya would not be able to move forward without this process, which should be the priority. Nobody listened.

During the elections for the GNC on July 7, 2012, things were a lot better than now. It was a promising time despite everything. What happened is that the militias, and those people whose aim was just to get power, gained ground because of our failures. We missed our chance at the GNC. We could have done it in the early days if we had been brave enough. The people were behind us. They were not as confused as they are now. The militias were not as strong. It was in our hands. We almost got there. But the GNC disintegrated and there were too many people whose only interest was holding on to power. We went about things in completely the wrong way.

The GNC passed the political isolation law (that banned former members of the Qaddafi regime from participating in political life). It’s one thing to hold senior people, symbols of the old regime, accountable for what they did. But to have an isolation law that denies Libya the services of many thousands of experts in lower middle management -- that’s ridiculous.

I think the Islamists, including the Brothers, were the main group that harmed the process. They were not inclusive, and acted like they wanted all or nothing. They are not powerful in terms of numbers but they are better organized. And they are very well funded. We said to them so many times, “Please, let us agree on the rules of the game. Let us establish the state, and after that let’s compete in fair elections.” But no, they wanted to have it their own way. Nobody was willing to compromise; nobody was willing to listen to the other.

We are a very wealthy nation. This cake is big enough to be divided among each one of us, with a surplus, so what they’re doing now is complete madness.

I must also admit that the civil movement in Libya is very weak. It’s not well organized and it’s fragmented. People are working on an individual basis. We’re having difficulties getting everybody together. So the Libyan civil movement, including writers, academics and the intelligentsia, have all failed this revolution.

As for the international community, instead of carrying on its work in Libya under the banner of the United Nations, after the liberation everybody went his own way. Instead of empowering institutions, supporting the GNC or helping with capacity building, the outside powers started talking directly to specific groups and militias. They actually empowered those forces instead of the state.

Who in the international community do you blame? How influential are outside players in Libya today?

I blame them all. I blame the NATO alliance, which did not continue its task in a proper way. Each country pursued its own agenda instead of working together to support the emerging institutions in Libya. I blame them for giving Qatar a free hand in Libya. That wasn’t very useful at all. And we came to understand that regional powers, countries like Algeria, Egypt and others in the Gulf, have their own agendas in Libya.

There is no doubt that last month’s airstrikes on Islamist positions in Libya came from outside the country. I cannot really pinpoint who is responsible, although I wouldn’t be surprised if Egypt had something to do with it, with the support of the United Arab Emirates and possibly some kind of green light from the greater powers.

But, again, to be quite honest  -- and I have always maintained this -- any country in the world, when it gets a chance to have influence in another country, to gain access to something or another, will do it. That is how countries work. So I don’t blame anybody as much as ourselves, our mistakes, the things that we overlooked.

Is there a way out of the current crisis?

To be quite honest, for things to get better they will have to get worse. Politically, we are at a dead end. It seems like everybody is holding his ground. Nobody wants to be flexible. Nobody wants to give an inch. The proliferation of arms among the militias is only increasing political stubbornness.

I think the people in Libya are completely disillusioned. That is the real problem, because that’s where the solution lies. But you’ve got a population that’s divided and confused about who is right and who is wrong. And the media is also taking sides. There is no neutral media outlet in Libya: They are either with Haftar or with the Islamists.

We are counting on the parliament in Tobruk to get its act together. If this parliament disintegrates, I would say it’s over. If the parliament makes dozens of committees, I don’t think they’re going to be able to do meaningful work. Its main task is to deal with the militias and the arms. Can they come up with a clear plan that states exactly what the Libyans can do and what it is they need from the UN in order to sort this out? That’s what we’re hoping for.

It must be very painful, having to flee Libya again and watching the situation there deteriorate every day. 

Painful is not the word -- believe me. I am distraught. I am absolutely in pieces.

Looking back at the day when I arrived in Misrata  -- the people united, the spirit, the determination, the hopes, the aspirations. And eventually we actually got rid of Qaddafi. We did everything we wanted and then we destroyed it with our own hands.

Sometimes I say to myself that I’ve done what I can for my country. Now there is a new generation -- revolutionaries, whatever you call them. OK, if this is how they want their country, fine. Take it. I’ve done my bit. My conscience is clear. I never stopped fighting for freedom and human rights in Libya. But deep down I come back and I say, “No way. No way am I going to give up on this country, after all that we’ve done and the enormous price we’ve paid.” There is no way that we’re going to leave Libya to these thugs to destroy it.

Filed under: