This morning, I spoke to Mohammed Fannoush, an active dissident in Benghazi, who informed me that the liberated cities, in both the East and West, have come together and organized a committee which will serve as a collective organ from which they will continue to unwaveringly fight for the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. Fannoush has been put in charge of communication and urged me and other Arab-Americans to be active in clarifying the situation of the anti-Gaddafi movement in Libya as being nationalist, as opposed to Gaddafi’s manipulative accusations of a radical Islamist, specifically Al-Qaeda, led opposition. This movement is one based in a struggle for freedom, social justice, civil rights, education, health, and human dignity, of which Gaddafi has deprived them for over 40 years.
The committee was founded primarily to ensure an entity which the outside world can contact and address as a representative of the opposition movement. One of the undertakings of this newly formed committee in accomplishing their goal includes the internal tribal politics of convincing Gaddafi’s own tribe to abandon him, as well as the task of running the daily municipal operations of their towns.
This recent development is critical for a number of reasons. Over the past few weeks, as we have watched the developments in Libya with both pride and horror, we have heard time and again the commentary on the role of tribes in Libya and the importance of one or another joining the protesters. However, this turn of events targeting Gaddafi’s own tribe signifies that – contrary to a concern over a loss of momentum from an inability to take control of Tripoli – the anti-Gaddafi forces have actually galvanized and are strategizing as a unit to finish what they started.
For some background – Gaddafi hails from the Gadatfa, whose numbers do not place them among the major tribes of Libya; they are centered around the city of Sirt. Fannoush informed us today that Gaddafi does not have the full fledged support of his tribe or his hometown of Sirt, which he has developed into a larger city since the coup d’état of 1969.
Ahmed Gaddaf Al-Dam - Gaddafi’s cousin, head of general intelligence for many years, and most recently a liaison to Cairo running a public relations company which acted as a front to garner support for Gaddafi and counter Libyan opposition based in Egypt – is now in Cairo and has claimed to have defected from the Gaddafi regime. The reason he defected, in my opinion, is that his main task was to rally support of the Awlad Ali and other Egyptian tribes in Western Egypt who have kinship with Libyan tribes. Most of the tribes in the western desert of Egypt who live from Salloum and Marsi Matrouh in the north down to the oasis of Siwa and south to Fayyoum have historic and tribal kinship with the Libyans in the eastern province. Due to these realities, Gaddaf Al-Dam failed tremendously in rallying any support. Furthermore, many of the Sheikhs of these tribes have now publicly announced their refusal to take arms against their Libyan brothers with whom they have cherished a strong relationship and shared in the struggle against Italian imperialism.
My current understanding is that there are plans to contact and demand from Gaddaf Al-Dam in Egypt to come out and publicly state that if he has indeed defected and is sincere in his support of the revolution, then his major contribution needs to be to convince the chiefs of his tribe (the Gadatfa) to either convince Gaddafi to leave or resign for the sake of preventing further bloodshed or for the tribe to publicly declare their stand with the opposition, deserting him altogether.
In the first years of his rule, Gaddafi tried to manipulate tribal differences to serve his own interests and path to power. We saw him try this again this week, but fail. It is important to note that when asked about Gaddafi’s invocation of tribal strife in his attempt to incite a tribal civil war, Fannoush asserted that this action by Gaddafi backfired. The anti-Gaddafi movement actually gained more support from varying tribes, as well as young people and women who were insulted by his accusations of drug use and lack of community morals. Fannoush also added that there are now women of all ages sitting with the people in Benghazi’s Midan al-Tahrir as late as midnight, without a single incident or report of harassment – a point of pride in the face of Gaddafi’s attempt to defame the protesters.
In regards to the tribes, I believe that their negative reaction to Gaddafi’s attempts at incitement also reflects recognition that, historically and geographically, they are individuals and communities that will continue to live as a part of the rest of the Libyan nation. In the last 40 years, thousands of young people were urbanized and educated to the highest degrees (Masters, Ph.D.s, etc), generating a new spirit of nationhood and lessening the traditional spirit of tribal allegiance which Gaddafi attempted to use to his benefit.
Young and old, male and female, Libyans are now coming together hand in hand, cleaning their cities, reaching out to the more vulnerable portions of society, forming neighborhood watches to protect their families, and consoling, emotionally and financially, those families that have been victims of Gaddafi’s mercenaries and their murderous rampage.
The world community, comprising of individuals, civil society, and governments, should stand firm with this movement and these people who are fighting for liberation from the yoke of a brutal and ruthless dictator. Let me be clear, they are NOT requesting military intervention. What they ask of states and of us, as fellow humans, is to raise our voices with them in pressuring and demanding the end of the atrocities that are occurring now and are occurring at the hands of Muammar Gaddafi and his cronies. As someone who lived in Libya for seven years and personally experienced the compassion and dignity of the Libyan people and their hunger for freedom, I am very proud and hopeful for their struggle. As I work to help in any way I can, I encourage you to do the same. It is the very least I can do to show my appreciation for years of generosity and sincere, lasting friendships.
[Sections of this post were compiled and co-written with Nour Joudah, a graduate student at Georgetown University]