Posted February, 2013 by John
Joy & Hope: Observing the 2012 Libyan Election
NOTE: Click thumbnails for larger images
Most of this journal was written during & shortly after our time in Tripoli for the July 2012 election. However, it’s taken several months to get these pages and video online.
They are being posted on the second anniversary of the February 17th Revolution that eventually overthrew the Gaddafi dictatorship. While much has happened since the hope and optimism of that time, for the most part, these pages reflect our experiences and thoughts at the time. See the Present & Future page for some comments on Libya today… and tomorrow.
For some background about how we got involved with Libya, and about our previous trips to Libya, see libya.jookjoint.ca.
What a week!
This is an account of one of the most moving weeks we’ve ever spent: our time in Tripoli as observers for the July 7, 2012 Libyan election, as part of the Canadian Libyan Council election observer team. We eagerly looked forward to being able to participate in this historic moment, but also just to be able to take in the atmosphere of a Libya without Gaddafi… we could hardly picture what the country would be like without that evil presence everywhere, and we looked forward to seeing and experiencing a free Libya!
What was that atmosphere like? Several days after our arrival in Libya, in one of my phone calls with our friend Ibrahim Momen of the CLC, he asked me to describe “in two words”, the change from old Libya to new. I immediately replied, “Joy and hope”. From the moment we arrived, we felt an overpowering and exhilarating atmosphere of newly-won freedom. This journal tries to capture some of that sense, and tell a bit of the story of our week in Tripoli.
Our video record
This is the brief (11 minute) account of our week in Tripoli: a record of our work with the observer team, reunions with old friends, and most significantly, the magnificent and moving experience of Election Day: the memory of which will stay with us forever. As well, it includes our memorable visits to the ruins of Gaddafi’s former compound, and to the shell of Abu Salim Prison: possibly the most evil place in Libya.
A longer account of our week is on these pages…
How we got there
When plans for Libyan elections – the first free elections there for half a century – were announced, we hoped we might be able to participate, and to help in some small way that important step to democracy. We also knew how meaningful it would be to share in the air of freedom so long missing for Libyans.
We’d made numerous inquiries about the possibility of becoming election observers: through our MP, to the Canadian government, and with other sources, including the Canadian Libyan Council with which we had become closely connected since the beginning of the Libyan Revolution in 2011.
It looked like the CLC might be sponsoring an observer team, but when the original election date of June 18 was postponed, and the time of our long-planned South African vacation in early August came closer, we thought we probably would miss the opportunity to participate.
So we were surprised to get an email on June 20, asking us if we were still interested in going: a team would be leaving in about a week and a half. It didn’t take us long to figure out what plans we had to reschedule or juggle. We did not want to miss this historic opportunity.
The Election Team
Our team included Scarborough Liberal MP, Jim Karygiannis, who had worked extensively with the CLC last year, and had experience observing elections in other countries.
Also on the team were six others who either worked for him, or had worked with him politically. One member of our group who worked for Jim was Amal Abuzgaya, also a member of the CLC; she and her family were extremely active in the Libyan community last year. Her father, Dr Fathi Abuzgaya, was with the first team of Libyan-Canadian doctors to go to Libya to assist about a week and a half after the fighting broke out in February, 2011.
Didn’t make the flight…
Wanting to record what I could of this event, I finally bought a spare battery for my SLR, and charged both batteries before leaving. But soon after arriving in Tripoli, I realized that the new battery and my charger were still plugged into the wall at home. And while my “Toronto” battery stayed fully charged for the next two weeks, my Tripoli battery died the first night
Luckily, I took a second, point-and-shoot camera that could take decent photos and (non-HD) video. That’s what you’ll see here.
Welcome back to Libya
We landed in Libya on July 3, our first time there in more than five years.
It wasn’t long before we came across the first sign of the fighting. Walking through the arrivals area of the Tripoli International Airport, we encountered several windows with large AK-47 bullet holes. It wasn’t clear if this fighting had occurred during or after the Revolution, as on at least two occasions since the end of the war, unhappy militias from other cities had taken over the airport.
Otherwise, the airport itself was little changed from our past visits. Perhaps a bit more shabby and rundown in the arrivals area, but outside, the graceful arches fronting the terminal building were being repainted… I assume to remove more of Gaddafi’s favourite colour: green.
We got our re-introduction to Tripoli’s traffic chaos even before leaving the airport, as our driver’s car was blocked in at the curb on three sides. He tried rocking one of the surrounding cars to see if it could be moved, but we had to wait for some time before one of the drivers who had trapped us returned.
The driving in Tripoli is… bracing. Oksana emailed a few friends who had expressed concerns about our safety in Libya, telling them that we were far more likely to be killed in a car accident than by guns.
Traffic lanes seem to be merely a suggestion; cars weave in, out, between, and back among the lane markings. Traffic either crawls in a semi-organized fashion, inches from each other on all sides (“Tailgating? What’s that?”), or speeds through non-existent or ignored speed limits. Right of way is based on who is more forceful. If you think Canadian drivers “push” traffic lights after they have changed, they have nothing on the Libyan drivers. It’s rare to see a car without minor damage on sides, front and/or back.
In the New Libya
This would be our first time in “Libya” rather than the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”, and just being there in a free and open atmosphere was hard to believe. The differences were stark and unmistakable from the beginning.
Our first sense of the changed atmosphere came on the drive from the airport. The thousands of pictures of the “Brother Leader”, beaming evilly on his citizens, which we had become so accustomed to previously, were of course nowhere to be seen — replaced instead by mocking and derogatory caricatures. Our friend Khaled said it had taken only two or three days after the fall of Tripoli on August 20-21 for every picture of Gaddafi to be removed.
Our driver pointed out to us not only the ruins of Gaddafi’s forbidding Bab al Aziziyah compound, laid waste by NATO bombs and revenge of his citizens (“My people, they love me. They will die for me”), but also the neighborhood of Abu Salim Prison, perhaps the most evil place in Gaddafi’s Libya. More on that later.
The fact that our driver could speak openly of these places to strangers was more evidence that we were in a New Libya. Libyans had told us that before the Revolution, they dared not even look at Gaddafi’s compound, and would never speak his name in public.
Now, life was different. Countless people talked to us repeatedly and passionately about Gaddafi (“We were slaves for forty two years!”), and about their joy in the New Libya, and their hopes for its future. Their emotion was overpowering.
The flag of the New Libya (in fact, the flag of old, pre-Gaddafi Libya) was everywhere: a proud symbol of defiance and freedom throughout 2011. We flew that flag ourselves from our house last year until well after Gaddafi was dead and buried. I often showed a photo of our house with that flag to people in Libya, and not surprisingly was greeted with surprise and gratitude. It may have been one of the reasons the manager of the reception at our hotel moved us to the best room in the hotel. However, it was also because we had made friends with him – one of the easiest things to do in Libya when you are open to doing so.
The dark days in Tripoli, 2011
The signs in Tripoli of the war are largely confined to the places bombed by NATO. Those sites we saw have not been repaired or rebuilt in any way. In the Abu Salim neighbourhood where some Gaddafi supporters lived and which was the site of the last fighting in the city last August, there are numerous buildings, including stores and apartment buildings, riddled with large shell holes.
The early days of the Revolution in Tripoli were brutal. Protesters were gunned down by snipers or heavy artillery and the dead and wounded were left in the street as others fled for their lives. Gaddafi forces scooped up, and took away both the dead and the living. We spoke with people who lived not far from Gaddafi’s compound, and heard what life was like with the heavy bombardments during the small hours of the night. But we were also told how happy people were at the bombing of the city, knowing what it was directed at. We had seen video evidence of this during the fighting; YouTube has plenty of footage of Tripoli’s citizens on their rooftops cheering and whistling in approval as their city is bombed by the “crusaders”. This is by the Free Generation Movement, an underground activist group in 2011.
During those dark days between February and August of last year, our friend Khaled had told us how inspiring it was to see the Free Libyan flag on display somewhere, hung secretly and courageously by someone in the Tripoli underground. (See video of the Free Generation Movement’s first Flag Drop here). Those were days when he lost friends, gunned down in the streets by Gaddafi snipers. Khaled himself had to escape the city for his safety at one point, and went to live with one of his sisters out of town.
During that time, we did not risk contacting our friend Bilgasem, as emails and phone calls from abroad were closely monitored. Even communication between Tripoli and the liberated east was watched, but Bilgasem risked it when he sent a text message early on to our Benghazi friend Abdul Salam: “We are with you”.
On August 20, when the freedom fighters moved into Tripoli, and the underground surfaced, the empty shell of Gaddafi support disappeared. The battle for Tripoli barely happened. It was on that first day that we realized we had nothing to fear from his spies any longer and phoned Bilgasem. For the first time ever, he could talk freely on an international call, and the emotion overpowered us. “We feel we have finally joined the human race”, he said… and that is exactly what we felt and heard over and over on our election trip.