Few revolutions have been more inspiring. After years of reporting uprisings and conflicts driven by ideology, factional interests or warlords soaked in blood — from El Salvador to Somalia, Congo and Liberia – Libya’s uprising seems to me more akin to South Africa’s liberation from apartheid. For a start, the once pervasive fear of a hated regime is gone.
From the first days, scores of enthusiastic young revolutionaries, high on the prospect of looming victory, indulged the newfound freedom to finally say what they thought. They churned out screeds listing the dictator’s crimes and posters caricaturing Gaddafi as a common thief and agent of Mossad. Some posters imagined him on trial before the international criminal court or strung up on one of the gallows used for public hangings to terrorise the Libyan population.
Revolutionary committees sprang up. Among them was one charged with getting the message to the outside world that Libya 2011 was not Tehran 1979. The savvy revolutionary activists watching CNN and news websites were not slow in recognising the fearmongering in parts of the US media and Congress over what kind of revolution this was.
Almost the only foreigners in Benghazi during the early days of the revolution were journalists. We were feted with free coffee in cafés and regularly stopped on the street and thanked for coming. But reporters were also quizzed by Libyans who picked up on the talk about Islamic extremists hijacking the revolution. Where, they wondered, did the idea of al-Qaeda in Libya come from? Couldn’t people see what kind of revolution this is?
It is hard not to notice how desperate the core of revolutionaries is to be accepted by the west. It is common enough to run into accountants, oil executives and engineers on the frontline who have studied in Nottingham, Manchester and Brighton. They say they admire Britain and the US. Denunciations of America are noticeably absent, at least on the rebel side of the line. France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is a hero in rebel-held areas for recognising the revolutionary administration.
Yet it is also not hard to see why the outside world was uncertain about the revolutionaries. No other country in the Middle East is quite so defined by its leader.