Libyans no longer fear dictatorship and should be helped to remove Muammar Gaddafi, anti-regime campaigner Yousef Lamlum tells Kurt Sansone.
Name: Yousef Lamlum
In Malta for: 20 years
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is “a bad dream” according to one of his detractors, unimpressed by the regime’s rhetoric that the 1969 revolution changed Libya for the better.
“(Col.) Gaddafi broke Libya, he is a brutal dictator,” Yousef Lamlum says in an interview that turns out to be an emotional rollercoaster.
From anger towards the regime to sadness at the suffering of fellow Libyans, Mr Lamlum also has a personal story to recount.
He breaks down while recalling the hardship his family had to endure in Libya because one of his brothers in the UK was critical of the Gaddafi regime.
“Having a brother who criticised (Col.) Gaddafi was enough for the secret police to constantly follow and interrogate me,” he says of the time when he was an undergraduate in Tripoli in the mid 1980s.
Mr Lamlum’s brother, Muftah, is general secretary of the Libyan National Movement, one of the earliest groups formed to oppose Col. Gaddafi’s regime back in the 1970s.
“My family suffered a lot because of my brother’s critical views, even though he never used or advocated violent means. My father was arrested many times and questioned about my brother. Our home telephone was tapped and sometimes we would not communicate with my brother for months because our letters were checked by the secret police. This is how I lived my life,” he says, covering his face with his hands as tears roll down his cheek.
He recalls the day in 1984 when regime loyalists rounded up students, who were critical of the government and hanged them on campus.
“I witnessed this and all Libyans saw it because it was transmitted on television to create fear,” he says.
Mr Lamlum, who has been in Malta for 20 years after escaping the repression in his country, insists it is not true that Col. Gaddafi eradicated poverty in his 42 years of power.
“Libya sits on oil and yet (Col.) Gaddafi is only interested in securing wealth and power for his family. Today you can still find dirt roads in Tripoli, people living in poverty, broken education and health systems and Libyans who are employed with foreign companies but who are paid less than their foreign counterparts on government orders.”
He paints a picture of Libya which outsiders rarely get to see and find hard to believe. Tripoli may have its dirt roads but it is also bustling with new construction projects and an apparent willingness to transform the country into a thriving economy.
Mr Lamlum is not fazed by the arguments and insists Col. Gaddafi is a dictator whose “first and last interest” is to stick to power at all costs.
“Col. Gaddafi has given foreign companies a lot of contracts to shut other countries up. His way is to instil fear or buy people out,” he says.
Mr Lamlum is not impressed by the chants of pro-Gaddafi supporters who equate the Libyan leader with God and Libya. There are only three explanations, he says: the people are either ignorant, fearful or are doing well because of the regime.
Libya existed before Col. Gaddafi took power, he adds, pointing out that the country gained independence in 1951 when it was run by King Idris I and had a functioning parliament.
“In the first five years after taking power, (Col.) Gaddafi did good things but it was just the prelude to secure the reins of power and eliminate all opposition. People faced up to 25 years in prison if they were caught with a cassette containing a recorded message against (Col.) Gaddafi or the regime and some even lost their life,” Mr Lamlum says, adding that Col. Gaddafi’s only ‘dialogue’ was the use of force.
It is an ugly past Mr Lamlum describes, but one which does not dishearten him from the achievements ordinary Libyans have made over the past month in standing up to the regime.
“Libyans were courageous to say no to (Col.) Gaddafi and the fear barrier has now been breached. Libyans want a decent life. We want dignity. We want to live a modern and comfortable life,” Mr Lamlum says of people’s aspirations.
He smiles when asked whether the unrest is fuelled by the terrorist organisation Al Qaeda and insists Col. Gaddafi cannot be believed.
“(Col.) Gaddafi has no respect for life. In Zawijah he destroyed everything,” Mr Lamlum says, shaking his head in disagreement when asked about the claim that unrest in Zawijah was caused by a group of non-Libyans. He also refutes any parallels with Iraq.
“In Iraq there are deep divisions between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, which have complicated the situation there and given Al Qaeda the chance to benefit from the instability. In Libya there are no divisions. We are one country, one people with Tripoli as our capital.”
Mr Lamlum also rules out tribal divisions, which Col. Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, mentioned in his first televised speech after the unrest started.
He insists Col. Gaddafi does not enjoy the support of the majority of Libyans and opposition is not limited to the eastern part of the country.
“(Col.) Gaddafi is isolated and is only supported by seven loyal army units, mercenaries and those who have benefited from the regime. He controls Tripoli with an iron fist and some people have been arrested and not heard of again. This is a battle between the people and a mafia group.”
Mr Lamlum defends the use of arms by civilians but insists that in the early stages of the revolt unarmed people in Benghazi were attacked.
“It was after civilians were killed that people attacked the military compound to have access to weapons. Many died in the process and the same happened in Misurata,” he says.
Reflecting on the UN-sanctioned air strikes against Libyan government security forces, Mr Lamlum says they were important to stop the military advance on Benghazi and other rebel-held cities.
They may not be enough though to weed out the military from populated areas and Mr Lamlum believes that rebels should be provided with arms to give them the capability to advance.
Contrary to what happened in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, the opposition in Libya is almost non-existent and disorganised, a situation that has caused many in the West to question the outcome of a post-Gaddafi Libya.
Mr Lamlum says that in Tunisia and Egypt the army played an important role in hastening the end of the regime: something he admits is difficult in Libya since the army is a weakened force with Col. Gaddafi depending on smaller brigades of loyal soldiers.
In these circumstances change will probably take longer to materialise and even so, Mr Lamlum is confident that a post-Gaddafi Libya will be a democratic country with free elections where political parties can contest.
“This is how we were before (Col.) Gaddafi,” he says.
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