Over the past six months, I have found myself avoiding the headlines and the sketchy bits of news coming from inside Libya. Because, with the hope brought by the popular uprising, came the terrifying prospect of losing our revolution. As Mohammed Nabbous, the young citizen journalist who brought the world the first images from Benghazi in February, said: “I am not afraid to die, I am afraid to lose the battle.”
As one of a generation that grew up under Gaddafi’s repressive and brutal dictatorship, I know what it feels like when the basic goal of your existence becomes survival. Libyans like me who opposed his regime (whether subtly or overtly) had to develop a dual personality. Learning how to talk and write publicly in code became a vital skill to avoid persecution, not only of yourself but your family and friends.
When opposition forces began their operation to liberate Tripoli a few days ago, one of the first things I noticed, speaking to my family in the capital, was that for the first time they were publicly denouncing Gaddafi, his sons and his regime. Doing that had in itself become an act of liberation; a defiance of the pervasive, self-replicating and sometimes hysterical fear that anyone who has lived under the ever-watchful eyes of the “Brother Leader” has experienced daily.
But it wasn’t only personal fear that began to dissipate inside us during the last six months. We began also actively reclaiming a nation that had been hijacked for more than four decades. The military fight has been accompanied by a liberation of the meaning of what exactly it is to be Libyan, with all the historical and cultural weight which that bears.
In just six months, a generation of young Libyans has begun to learn what it might mean to enjoy a life not ruled by the oppressive terror of falling foul of the rulers. Once they tasted this forbidden fruit, there was no going back.
It is this human or psychological shift that has perhaps not yet been fully grasped by the external world. The names and faces of ordinary Libyans who mobilised have been overshadowed by the political debate, especially over the rights and wrongs of international intervention, as the ghosts of past or ongoing conflicts in the region haunted us all.
I can’t deny that many who suffered in silence during 40 years of the Gaddafi regime have felt let down, not only by the foreign powers who helped sustain his rule. The Western media, too, let us down, always showing more interest in reporting the eccentricities and clownish behaviour of Gaddafi than in how ordinary Libyans were suffering – not just persecution if they dared dissent but, in an oil-rich economy, from a lack of the most basic services in health and education and a completely dilapidated infrastructure.
It was the scenes of thousands of young people taking to the streets, demanding the fall of the regime, that reignited hope, and empowered others to take part in the popular movement. Many highly skilled Libyans living abroad, or others who have been silenced for years inside the country, have helped to fuel a parallel revolution in our journalism, civil society and humanitarian aid effort. From my own experience as a surgeon and writer, I believe that the astounding solidarity and creativity this revolution has unleashed is what will give Libyans the confidence in themselves that they need to rebuild the nation.
There is a long, difficult road ahead, with immense obstacles, not least the divisions and differences in Libyan society. Reconciliation, tolerance and implementing the rule of law, as well as the human cost of this conflict, are the biggest challenges as we move to a stable, unified, democratic and just Libya.
Mohammed Nabbous was killed in Benghazi only a few hours before the UN mandate to protect civilians was implemented. Now, more than ever, his memory offers us a vivid reminder that the fear of losing the battle has to be stronger than the fear of death or tyranny.