Among the countries in the Middle East, Libya stands out as perhaps the one with the greatest potential for disaster. As Moammar Gadhafi's grip on power grows tenuous, the consensus seems to be that he is capable of limitless brutality and ruthlessness even against the people of his own country.
How does a man like Gadhafi gain and hold power? What's it like to live under his rule? I spoke with Dr. Fathi Finaish, professor and associate chair of aerospace engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology, who was born and in Libya and grew up under Gadhafi's rule, to help me understand the situation there. Dr. Finaish recalled watching as Gadhafi came into power riding a wave of hope for a brighter future and then watching, at least once from a detainment camp, as Gadhafi revealed his true nature over the years.
Dr. Finaish left Libya in 1981 after graduating from Al Fateh University in Tripoli. He has visited Libya numerous times over the years since and still has family in the country.
You were in Libya when Moammar Gadhafi took power...?
Dr. Finaish: Gadhafi took power in 1969, I was there, yes.
You were fairly young at that point. Do you recall that event?
Dr. Finaish: I do recall that event. Let's see, I was born in 1954, about 15 years old.
When Gadhafi took power, how was that viewed within the country?
Dr. Finaish: They liked him. They liked what he was calling for. Before that, the country was a kingdom under King Idris al-Senussi and people were discouraged by the corruption of the kingdom days. So Gadhafi came and he called for reform, and he called for freedom, and he called for justice and rule of law, but the story changed. I would say in about 1973, Gadhafi started his plans to reach to what the situation is today.
Initially, his takeover was viewed with hope?
Dr. Finaish: Exactly, yes.
It was probably very much the same way the protesters today are hoping for a brighter future.
Dr. Finaish: Exactly, exactly. It was very positive initially, because he called for aspirations that people wanted at that time. He did not deliver.
What were the early indications that things were not going as people had hoped?
Dr. Finaish: In 1973, that was the first indication, when he gave a speech in a city called Zuwarah on the border near Tunis. In that speech he basically started his war on the intellectuals of the country. [He said] they have ideas that are not appropriate to Libya. So, what he did in that speech, he destroyed that segment of society, that segment of the intellectuals in the country. That was the first indication in 1973, as I recall.
That would certainly be a clear indication to the academics, but what about the broader population? Did they see that as a danger sign or did they believe it?
Dr. Finaish: Well, people at the time, they still believed him and some of society went with him. Some of the people figured it out, but not everybody. He just tried to tell the country that these intellectuals are not good for the country, they are going to hurt the country, and we need to get rid of some of them. So he started in 1973 with this story. What he's doing today actually started a long time ago.
That was maybe the first step toward eliminating any voice of opposition?
Dr. Finaish: He's a dictator. The road to dictatorship is a process. What these dictators do is take the country, segment by segment. I mean, you can't take the whole country in one shot. So what they do is take the country by layers. The first layer that Gadhafi took care of was the layer of intellectuals, which is the most dangerous for him because these are the people who have the ability to fight him or be in his way. So after the 1973 speech, he basically burned libraries and books and put some people in jail.
After that, I believe, came 1976 when he attacked the students and I was one of them. At that time I was a college student, studying engineering. So that was the second movement he executed, to take care of the students who also represented a danger to him because these students are active, they have energy, they are smart. They started opposing him, because he put the students into military training. He wanted to build an army of a million, and he said all the students need to train. And we refused to do that, and, in 1976, in April, 1976, he called the students revolutionaries, basically. He sent people to the universities and damaged the universities and killed the students who were active, and tried to do something about it "for the country."
When you say you were one of those students, did you participate in protests or were you a victim of this?
Dr. Finaish: I basically said no to him, because what he tried to do is, every two months he asked us to go to military training. Every two months we go for one week. I'm going to tell you bizarre things, I don't know if you can explain this stuff in your article, but basically as a student you go to military training every two months for a week and then you go back to your school. The idea was to disrupt students, to disrupt education, because if you are educated, obviously, you represent a problem for him in the country. So, we said, "no, we don't want to do that. Just let us go to school and finish our Master's and then we will go in the summer." He said no. He ordered anybody who did not go to the military training; you need to go to jail. Some of us went to jail for a little bit, and then he forced us to go, and that's what I did.
You, personally went to jail for that?
Dr. Finaish: Yes.
What was the jail like?
Dr. Finaish: Well, at that time, it was not really bad. I mean, I would not even call it a jail. It was just like... he held us and wanted to scare us. Remember, we were just 18, 20 years old. I would not even call it jail, but he put us in a military camp where we stayed for a while just to scare us. As far as our treatment, it was normal, but it was a scary experience for me as a 19-year-old.
The overall strategy at that time is to destroy a segment of society which was the students. That's what he tried to do with the engineers after the revolution, in 1973 with the intellectuals, and in 1976 with the students. In, I believe, 1977, early eighties, he took care of the business people and so forth, segment by segment.
Over the years, outside of Libya, Gadhafi became viewed as more and more dangerous by the international community. How much of that was known by people in Libya?
Dr. Finaish: The country was isolated for a long time until, I believe, 2003 when President Bush, George W. Bush, and Tony Blair made a deal with him. Before then, nobody knew much about what's going on outside and what he's doing outside. In later years, things started opening up and people started traveling and people start seeing satellite TV, so they learn more about what happened.
Did the people of Libya view themselves as isolated from the rest of the world because of internal issues or because the rest of the world was, for some reason, against them?
Dr. Finaish: No, no. They just feel that they were isolated because of what Gadhafi's doing. Libyan people are a very peaceful people, just like people anywhere. They want to live free. They want to live in a society that embraces the rule of law, justice, opportunities for everybody. Just like anybody else.
In any functioning system, there may be people who disagree even though they are loyal to the same cause. Is there any discussion or dissent allowed against policies or government edicts in Libya?
Dr. Finaish: No. If you talk, you will pay for it, dearly. I would say no.
With all the trouble going on, it doesn't look as though the government of Libya will survive, at least not throughout the entire country. If they'll be able segment a small portion, who knows. Lots of people, even within the administration seem to be defecting quite rapidly, diplomats in other countries, some military members, some government officials even. Have they been hiding dissent or displeasure all these years, in your opinion, or are they simply going because the opportunity presents itself and they thinks it's a "better deal' for themselves?
Dr. Finaish: I think it depends. These people around him and supporters, obviously, have benefitted economically, so they are just going with the flow. Sometimes you are stuck in some situation and if you try to leave, you will lose your life, so some of them were there out of fear, and some were benefitting from the system.
From what you know of the situation there, is there anyone in Libya who has the recognition and following to assume leadership or will somebody new need to rise up to assume that role?
Dr. Finaish: It would be a vacuum. It will be a little hard, but at the end of the day, I think the Libyan people will emerge. Maybe the road will be a little bit difficult, but I think the people will figure it out. This is an internal matter and it must be resolved by the Libyan people and the Libyan people are capable despite the gap, despite the destruction that Gadhafi imposed on the country.
In your opinion, even though he has large numbers of powerful weapons on his side and the people have none, the people will prevail?
Dr. Finaish: I think so, the people will prevail. It's going to be difficult, I think. I hope the international community will do what they can to help the Libyan people with their struggle. Again, these are mostly ordinary people and they're fighting as we speak for their principles, for legitimate reasons, for their freedom, for rule of law, for justice, for opportunities. They're fighting also for the next generations. They 're not just worrying about what's going to happen to themselves, they're worried about the next generations and people all over the globe. These people are fighting for anybody who believes in freedom, civil rights, and to live with justice.
When you say that you hope the international community supports them. What sort of support are you talking about? Encouragement, saying that we believe what you're doing is right and Gadhafi must go, or do you mean material aid, perhaps weapons, money...?
Dr. Finaish: Right now, material aid is probably not as important. Some may need medicine and medical supplies, maybe the Red Cross could send doctors to help, but right now, we need to speak up and get the international community to do something to limit his ability to kill innocent civilians. We don't want to repeat what happened in Rwanda or Serbia where we had massacres and then regretted it. As people on this globe and this planet, we need to do whatever we can to prevent these massacres from happening. How many people died in Rwanda or Congo or other places?
Are the people of Libya composed of different groups that might fight one another, or are they fairly unified against the government?
Dr. Finaish: Right now what we have is just Gadhafi and his group fighting against the people. In Libya the situation is different. The people are fighting the ruler, not fighting against each other, but the situation is even more dangerous because the ruler has the weapons. The ruler has the means to execute massacres, and that's very dangerous.
As his situation becomes more desperate, do you think there's a limit to what he will do to retain power or will he use everything he has to try to retain power and crush the uprising?
Dr. Finaish: There's no limit, really. He's capable of doing anything. I think we need to remind ourselves that this man killed, for example, 270 Americans on Lockerbie. He did a lot of bad things not just to Libyan people, but to others. Their families are suffering now because they lost loved ones. When you ask me what the international community can do, my message is that we should not support [leaders like this]. When he killed 270 Americans, we need to tell Tony Blair, President George W. Bush and all the other people who dealt with him in 2004, I believe, not to deal with people who are killing civilians. This man is capable of doing very serious things.
Have you watched or listened to some of his recent speeches? What is your impression of his state of mind right now?
Dr. Finaish: Yes. He is in a state of panic right now. He's under a lot of pressure. Just like any human being, he's panicking. He's under a lot of pressure. The whole world is against him right now.
The news reports seem to make him out to be unstable, incoherent. Do you see evidence of that, or have you seen evidence of that over the years with your knowledge of him, or is he very much aware of what he's doing?
Dr. Finaish: In my opinion, he's not stable. Even under normal conditions, not a stable person. I mean why would you kill civilians over Lockerbie, why would you kill some of your opponents in Europe, in London, in Athens. All over Europe there are a lot of things. He's killed a lot of people, so he's not a stable person.
When he took power, he was already involved in government and essentially betrayed his masters, I guess, is one way to put it. Is there a likelihood of somebody close to him saying this has to stop, in your opinion?
Dr. Finaish: Probably not, he's ruthless. He would kill him on the spot probably. So, probably not. Some people, in Benghazi, are calling him to [step down], but they are far away.
In Egypt, for example, the military stepped in and said "We can't kill our own people." You think there is very little chance of that happening in Libya?
Dr. Finaish: The military in Libya is very different than that in Egypt. In Egypt they are well organized and a very strong institution. The military in Libya is not well organized. It's not an institution. They're basically tribal groups and so forth, they're not well organized. They're not really there to fight for the country, just to protect him.
So it's more of a personal bodyguard...
Dr. Finaish: Exactly, the army in Libya is not an institution.
I guess, then, correct me if you disagree, the only hope for the Libyan people is to directly defeat those with the weapons, all of them...
Dr. Finaish: Yes, I hope some of the people with the weapons will, and some of them already have defected to Malta with two airplanes and a ship or two because he ordered ships to bomb people and airplanes to bomb people, but these people refused. I think they will find that some people, I mean Libyans will not bomb Libyans, but the problem is that he has mercenaries from outside and they are committing some of this stuff. Obviously, when you have money you can hire people to do some of these jobs.
At this point, what are both your hopes and fears for the outcome of this situation?
Dr. Finaish: My hope is that the situation will end soon and the country will go back to normal. That is my hope. My fear is that he will cause more damage. I hope he will not have the opportunity to do so. My fear is that he will bomb large numbers of civilians. There's over a million people right now there in Tripoli. I hope things will not go in the wrong direction.
Is there more killing than we know about?
Dr. Finaish: I think on the east side, in Benghazi and other places, CNN and other reporters are getting in, but on the other side of the country, in Tripoli, there's no media there, so we don't know what's going on. There are some people using Facebook and the net to report some of the goings on, but things are very sketchy. I mean, I have my family members that I can't reach.
Brad Sylvester is a freelance writer/ journalist whose writing frequently appears on Yahoo! News. Follow Brad on Twitter @sly102.
- Al Fateh University
- Moammar Gadhafi
- aerospace engineering