Writing Libya’s revolution

April 27, 2012

By Richard Nield

Speaking to a packed Frontline Club on 26th April, Channel 4 News’ International Editor Lindsey Hilsum shared a fascinating personal insight into the revolution in Libya last year that overthrew the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi after 42 years in power.

In Hilsum’s words, Libya was the "only true revolution of last year – where the whole apparatus of state was overturned."

The challenge now faced by Libya is that of building a new state in the wake of a leader who deliberately undermined the country’s institutional development:

"The problem with Libya is that power is everywhere and nowhere," said Hilsum. "There are no strong institutions and no strong figures – and Libyans are allergic to strong political figures after Gaddafi."

Elections are scheduled to take place in June for a 200-member assembly that will form a new government and write a new constitution. But the creation of a new political reality in Libya will take years rather than months.

"Anyone who thinks you can go from 42 years of dictatorship to democracy overnight is dreaming," said Hilsum. "It’s an extremely rocky path ahead."

As if to prove the point, within hours of Hilsum’s talk, news emerged that the country’s interim ruling council had fired the cabinet – just five months after it took office.

But despite the immense challenges that Libya now faces, Hilsum firmly believes that whatever the motivation for NATO’s much-criticised intervention in Libya in March 2011, there is no doubt that it saved lives:

"I defy anyone who was in Benghazi that week to think that Gaddafi would not have come in and killed tens of thousands of people," she said.

Reading excerpts from her recently-published book, Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution, Hilsum spoke passionately about a Gaddafi regime, the brutality of which had been obscured by a decade of engagement with the West:

"We turned Gaddafi into a buffoon, and he was a buffoon, but we failed to acknowledge how terrible his regime was," she said.

Sandstorm was inspired by Tarek Ben Halim, a Libyan philanthropist and champion of democracy, who sadly died before he could witness the revolution.

It tells the story of many others like Tarek who in 2011 found the courage to challenge a regime that for 42 years had brutally crushed any opposition.

As well as shedding light on the 2011 revolution, Sandstorm also provides what Hilsum says is the first full account of the Abu Salim massacre in 1996, in which 1,270 people are believed to have been killed.

In one meeting recounted by Hilsum, a stooped, elderly man in a fez told her of the regular 600-mile journeys he made to the prison to deliver care packages to his brother-in-law. It was only after 14 years of such visits that the regime saw fit to tell him that his brother-in-law had long been dead.

It was these personal stories, told with humour and humility, that stood out from Hilsum’s talk.

There is much "weeping and quarrelling" to come in Libya, said Hilsum. But after four decades of oppression, there is also great hope.