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FEATURE-Libyan exiles see the birth of a new nation
March 10, 2011 / 1:45 PM / 7 years ago

FEATURE-Libyan exiles see the birth of a new nation

* Libyans in exile are filled with hope and pride

* Libyans say anti-Gaddafi revolt will be successful

* Exiles say West bolstered Gaddafi

By Samia Nakhoul

LONDON, March 10 (Reuters) - Libya’s tumultuous revolt has filled exiles with pride that a new country is being born and hope that it can emerge with a new image no longer tarnished by association with the cruel policies of Muammar Gaddafi.

While the uprising has yet to succeed and the shape of a new Libya lies in the future, Libyan intellectuals forced into exile talk not only of freedom but of their personal ordeals and the restoration of their country’s reputation.

“For an overwhelming majority of my life my country has been a source of pain, fear and embarrassment,” Libyan-born novelist Hisham Matar, whose work has been short-listed for the Man Booker prize, told Reuters.

“Now I can feel those three things are lifting. Libya is progressing on its own. You can see what this dictator has done to this country and its image. Now the world is seeing the Libyan people, they speak on television they see how reasonable they are, how moderate they are. It is a wonderful return.”

For years, Libya was seen through the filter of “this inarticulate, uneducated, eccentric man,” said TV producer Huda Abuzeid, another Libyan-born Briton exiled in London.

“People forgot that Libya is the country of Omar al Moukhtar, a country of smart, educated professionals, artists and intellectuals, brave people in all walks of life. Gaddafi has completely destroyed that dignified image of courage,” said Abuzeid, referring to the leader of the Libyan resistance against Italy’s pre-war military occupation.

Abuzeid, whose father Ali, a Libyan dissident, was murdered in London by Gaddafi’s men, said the only picture people had of Libya was through Gaddafi and his sons.

Matar and Abuzeid, like many other exiles, have had their lives conditioned by Gaddafi’s repressive policies. Matar enjoyed a happy childhood in Tripoli until Gaddafi’s coup in 1969 forced his family to flee.

In his novels, and a stream of newspaper articles, Matar has written vividly and movingly about the fate of his dissident father, and about how Gaddafi tore apart the fabric of Libyan society and destroyed its institutions, turning the country into a dungeon policed by rapacious militias.

MARKED CHILDHOOD

Matar’s childhood was marked by escape, Egyptian and British exile, and the kidnapping of his father, Jaballa Matar, a prominent political dissident, from his Cairo home in 1990.

“This regime denied me my country. It denied me the house I was born in. It denied me my father, my friends and my family. It denied me my time of growing up in Libya. Throughout my entire life I have lived in the shadow of the dictatorship. It denied me safety and security,” he said.

Jaballa Matar has been missing since he disappeared in Cairo. In 1993 and 1995, the family received two letters in his father’s handwriting stating that he had been kidnapped by the Egyptian secret police, handed over to the Libyan regime, and imprisoned in the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli.

Abuzeid said her father was threatened by Libyan agents ahead of his murder in London where he sought exile.

“I was the one who found him. The door of his shop was open, there was no light, I went into the shop and I found his body ... It was a horrific scene.”

“They stabbed him and marked his face. The British police special branch and intelligence services said at the time it was a political murder but nobody was arrested,” Abuzeid said.

She said the Libyan representative at the time was thrown out of London two weeks after her father’s slaying on charges of surveillance and intimidation of Libyan dissidents in the UK.

Like other ostensibly republican despots in the Middle East who came to power by deposing “corrupt monarchies” and promising their impoverished populations drastic reforms and an equal share of the country’s wealth, Gaddafi ended up by taking Libya backwards into economic stagnation and political degradation.

Libyans saw their lives quashed under Gaddafi while their country failed to make the progress in social and economic development its oil wealth could have underpinned, and its people have been at the mercy of a repressive security apparatus Gaddafi built to maintain his grip on political dissent.

Gaddafi clamped down on freedoms and banned political activity. He silenced dissidents at home and abroad while backing an extraordinary range of violent groups, from the renegade Palestinian Abu Nidal to the Irish Republican Army.

He spent much of Libya’s oil cash financing groups responsible for hijacks and killings and those seeking to destabilise pro-Western governments in Africa and elsewhere.

Having spent years dreaming about the end of Gaddafi, Libyans such as Matar and Abuzeid feel the day of reckoning is nearing despite his ferocious military assault on rebels.

“The revolution will be successful. A lot hangs in the balance. Victory is very close. I am very worried about how many people are going to die, how many lives are going to be lost before that,” Matar said.

“Gaddafi will definitely go. It is only a matter of time and how much blood will be shed before he does”, he said.

“I feel that my entire faith in humanity has been bolstered. I suddenly realise to what extent I have been carrying this burden of hopelessness -- a feeling that we will be caught between these beasts forever: the dictatorship of Gaddafi and the parasitic companies and regimes that profit from the association with dictatorships,” Matar said.

The most significant achievement of the revolt, Matar argues, would not be just the removal of a dictator but the redefining of the national reality with Libyans now able to decide their own fate.

WEST BOLSTERED GADDAFI

Abuzeid said a lot of her anger is directed at the British government which brought Gaddafi back into the international community and validated him as an ally instead of bringing him in as a “war criminal”.

“I am angry at the British government for ignoring the fact that Gaddafi is a terrorist, a war criminal, a murderer and for not letting justice prevail. Now the Libyan people are paying the price for this rapprochement,” Abuzeid said.

Matar said the West believed that by engaging with Gaddafi it could bring him into the fold and reduce the threat but “in some cases” it was a parasitic and mercenary relationship.

“The regime became stronger by dealing with the West. They made it possible for the regime to act with more impunity,” he said scorning assertions by former U.S. President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair that Libya provided a model on how to successfully engage with a dictatorship.

“That whole model should now be seen as how not to do things -- how not to engage with dictatorships. They arguably extended the life of this dictatorship, they legitimised it and made it very difficult for the Libyans to fight this regime,” he said.

Regardless of the news from the battlefield where rebels are fighting an increasingly bitter battle against government troops, a sense of victory still prevails, both say.

“I am longing to see Libya rejoin the world as the internationalist Mediterranean country that it was,” said Matar, author of “In the Country of Men” and “Anatomy of a Disappearance”.

“I will go and look for my father.” (editing by Giles Elgood)

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