[note color=”#ececec”]We will have to be patient as our society becomes accustomed to new norms and new mindsets. The Free Generation Movement will be involved in creating the platforms and the forums through which these debates can take place. The future is bright.[/note]
Henry McMorrow talks to Cardiff graduate Nizar Mhani on his experiences in Tripoli.
On February 15 2011 Libya witnessed a series of peaceful protests escalate into civil war. At the front-line of the protests is an ex-Cardiff University student, Nizar Mhani, who left for Libya’s capital, Tripoli, in February to “play his part” in the ongoing protests.
Advancing on his expectations ‘Niz’, as he is internationally known, has become a forerunner of the protests, belonging to the Free Generation Movement and being described by The Washington Post as “vitally important,” and commanding huge levels of attention from around the world.
Despite Libya’s prosperity, it is still suffering from huge economic disparities, a fact which has been endorsed by Colonel Gadaffi’s 42 yearlong, de facto control, which was realised through a military coup.
Faced with the initial levels of peaceful protest, Gadaffi and his supporters employed unreasonable levels of force, prompting the more aggressive campaign which has dominated the uprising.
Now in its seventh month of progress, the protest has seen an alternation of power between the opposing sides, Gadaffi often using his unlimited power to quash dissent, but finally being beaten by the sheer tenacity of countervailing opinion and force.
Initially running a public campaign of civil disobedience, Niz was forced underground by Gadaffi’s troops. Unfaltering in the face of adversity, he continued with his efforts, pursuing a clandestine mode of protest, focusing primarily on morale boosting with graffiti, raising flags and through communication with world media.
Often fearing for his life at the forefront of proceedings, gair rhydd spoke to Niz on the September 13, now the uprising has seen the fall of Gaddafi and Libya can now look to a more hopeful future.
This is the inside story of the Libyan civil war.
Our conversation began with the discussion of Niz’s time in Cardiff, I wanted to know whether being a student had prepared him for his efforts in Libya.
“I grew as a person during my years in Wales. I experienced things which prepared me for some of the hardships we faced in the last 6 months. If anything I have done can be described as good, then it is thanks to my time in Cardiff. Apart from the odd anti-war rally, attending the occasional speaker in the SU, I wasn’t politically active at uni. “I never imagined I would be an activist pursuing freedom in Libya, against the longest serving dictator of our time.”
Conversation progressed to the iniquities in Libyan society and I asked Niz if there had been a strong sense of demoralisation for an extended period of time, or whether it had matured in recent years, he replied:
“There has been injustice in Libya for the past 42 years. We have lived in a society dominated by Gaddafi rule, in a country monopolised by Gaddafi’s regime, in a nation void of the institutions which define a state. All of Libya’s beauty is that which is natural. The previous regime has provided us with nothing. No welfare, no freedom of choice, no developed infrastructure. The absence of choice has created a nation and a society void of ambition. People became lethargic under the weight of apathy. All the while we would see Gaddafi’s children enjoying private concerts, sitting on private islands, sailing on private yachts.
“So much was our apathy and ‘acceptance’ that Gaddafi would remain in power indefinitely, that we came to accept his son, Seif Al Gaddafi, as the heir and we took comfort in the claims of reform and democratic change. We were fooled by the rhetoric and we were deceived by his charm. We soon found out, during the infamous speech on the night of February 20 2011, the speech that caused me to pack my bags and leave Cardiff, that he was indeed his father’s son.”
It was important to gauge the human cost of the efforts in Libya so we moved focus to his family, I wanted to know how it had affected them.
“It has been very difficult for my family. Knowing that I had left everything behind and sacrificed a career which I had spent years developing, they were understandably worried. Indeed, thousands remain missing, have been killed or physically scarred and millions will retain psychological scars for life.
“My family are heroes and their strength was my inspiration. When the security forces found out our names and raided the family homes of the founders of the Free Generation Movement, it was their courage which saved us all.
“But it has taken its toll. My mother fell ill, my father has fallen ill, my cousin was arrested and tortured, my sister was interrogated and threatened and my cousin, became a martyr. We miss him dearly, but there is no greater honour than to lay down your life for a greater good. His sacrifice will be taught in schools and remembered in public squares long after we have all gone.”
Our discussion turned to the media, its effectiveness and its reliability; I asked whether the media had proved an effective tool.
“The majority of the networks I have been in touch with have been great: supportive, honest, but impartial. We needed impartiality in the media to be able to have credibility for our cause. But not all journalists and not all media networks were on the ball. Where I was based, Tripoli, the international media were locked in a hotel and were not allowed free access to the people or the city. We would run the risk of arrest and torture if we communicated with the media in any way. We managed to be resourceful and carried out some secret interviews with Reuters, BBC (Wales’ very own Wyre Davies) and others. This involved helping them escape the hotel and meeting at secure locations to carry out interviews. However, some journalists were not interested in what we had to say and chose instead to base their reports heavily on what the regime would tell them in press conferences. Some were portraying Tripoli to be a city which was normal and which was heavily pro Gaddafi. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I have been in constant communication with the BBC, Sky, Aljazeera, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Reuters, and others. They have been really great and supportive and always put my safety first. “Whatever you think about the media – hidden agendas, bias, government controlled – the one thing we agree upon in the Free Generation Movement, is that they are essential. Without the media, there would have been a silent massacre of the people of Libya. For this, we are infinitely thankful for the resourcefulness, persistence and courage of the media, some of whom lost their life telling our story – like Anton Hammerl. They will be remembered like all the others who lost their life for our cause. They are heroes.”
For the final section of our interview I wanted to focus on the future: what Niz believed to be in store for Libya and, more personally, whether he was planning to return to Wales.
“Going through the characteristics of Libya, it’s really hard to be anything but hugely positive about its future. We are a moderate, peaceful society with an abundance of natural resources. We have a population of only 6 million people and powerful, forward thinking, liberal women in our society. We have senior professionals in major sectors all over the world, including heads of departments in Welsh hospitals. We have a harmonious population, void of sectarianism or religious enmity and are in a strategic location, acting as the gateway between Africa and Europe as well as the middle east. It really is a country which can grow and grow and grow. The distribution of wealth is vital, but even more so, is the use of this wealth to first create the infrastructure and the state institutions which have for so long been missing in Libya.
“The biggest hurdle for Libya is one of social awareness. We have, for 42 years, lived under autocratic rule. The concept of freedom and liberty, constitution and democracy, free speech and accountability are all new concepts to our society. We will have to be patient as our society becomes accustomed to new norms and new mindsets. The Free Generation Movement will be involved in creating the platforms and the forums through which these debates can take place. The future is bright. For every problem I see, I see an opportunity to fix it. I couldn’t say that seven months ago.”
“I consider Wales my second home and I consider myself to be an adopted Welshman. Wales has been good to me and prepared me for the difficulties I faced in the last six months of uprising. I can’t see myself making a decision which involves me not returning to Wales. But my role in Libya will continue, as we continue to take on a more high profile role in the development of Libyan society. Perhaps I can work on improving links between Libyan universities and Cardiff University, as well as raising awareness of Welsh culture in Libya and, of course, Libyan culture in Wales.
“Who knows, I believe in the concept of the global community. Wherever I live and wherever I am, I will always be Libyan and will always strive for a better Libya. Even if it is from my home, in Caerdydd.”