Yvonne Ridley in Benghazi
A few short weeks ago I stood on a public platform in London and slammed proposals for Western military intervention in Libya. In my mind, the hasty scramble to get involved by the Americans, French and British lacked strategy and a clear goal; it appeared to be yet another oil-fuelled, reckless act by gung-ho leaders. The possibility looked very real that they would end up being sucked into a long military campaign as futile as the Bush-Blair adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, for which we are still paying in wasted lives.
“Here we go again,” I thought. “Another imperialist adventure so that we in the West could get our grubby paws on someone else’s oil.”
I warned those few Libyans present at my talk that they would live to regret this pact with the West; I likened it to selling one’s soul to the Devil. Moreover, being very conscious of the fact that I’m not a Libyan, and desperate not to be seen as another opinionated Westerner sticking my nose into matters I don’t understand, I sought the views of many Libyan friends and contacts.
Their reaction was mixed, but more often than not I was told that without outside help the Libyan people would be slaughtered by Gaddafi. After all, he actually described his opponents as cockroaches which needed to be crushed.
To justify my stand I reasoned that all revolutions are bloody and that the heroic people of Tunisia and Egypt had paid the blood price in their hundreds to win freedom. I even recalled what Malcolm X had told people: if they are not prepared to die for it, they should remove the word freedom from their vocabulary.
Of course making grand statements from platforms in central London is one thing but going to see for myself what was happening in Libya was something else. My few days there proved to be extremely humbling and illuminating; a strong reality check, indeed.
So let me be absolutely clear: I was wrong to oppose military intervention. No ifs, buts or maybes; I was wrong, wrong, wrong. The people of Libya would have been crushed brutally and without mercy, if the West had not responded to their cries for help.
Perhaps the greatest shame is that Arab leaders stood by emotionless as the Libyans begged for help to bring an end to Gaddafi’s dictatorship. Some of those Arab leaders showed no such hesitation in answering cries for help from the oppressive royal regime in Bahrain; obviously the Saudis and rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council cabal felt uncomfortable about helping to bring down an evil, brutal, dictator who abused and oppressed his people as a matter of routine, while being very happy to prop-up a similar regime in the Gulf.
Libya could have provided an opportunity for the rising regional power of Turkey to take a lead; it was a massive disappointment to the Libyan people that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to intervene.
In the end, therefore, the West stepped in to the extent that although the blood of innocents is still flowing in the streets, at least it is not a torrent. This may be a war led by no one in particular, with no specific aim, but the enforcement of a no fly zone over Libya has prevented a general massacre of the population.
That is the view held by one of Libya’s spiritual leaders, Sheikh Mohammed Bosidra, who told me: “We had no choice. It was either make a pact with NATO or be crushed. It was a matter of survival; as simple as that.”
Many have already paid the ultimate price; every town and city has a special place for its martyrs, and there are many. The faces of young men stared back at me from family portraits hung proudly in Benghazi’s central square; it was striking how young they were. In Derna, more portraits of the sons of Omar Al-Mukhtar were displayed in the town centre and some of their bodies have been buried in a cemetery next to the tombs of three of the Prophet’s Noble Companions and 70 other martyrs who fought against Roman and Byzantine forces in 692AD.
“We have a very fine tradition of producing martyrs and that is why Gaddafi hates the people of Derna more than anywhere else in Libya,” one woman told me.
When she pointed to a French flag and a Union Jack and whispered, “Thank you, we will never forget what you have done for us”, I admit that I felt uncomfortable, even a fraud, by accepting her thanks. This was something new for me; I usually end up apologising for the deeds of the British government and Empire.
We are still not clear what NATO’s endgame is, but the Libyan people’s is very clear: Gaddafi must go. Only then will they be able to work out the next move, and it won’t be easy.
The Transitional National Council says it is committed to liberate every part of Libya, from Aamsaad in the east to Raas Ajdair in the west, and from Sirte in the north to Gatrun in the south. But from what I could see the liberation movement is unstable and unpredictable; chaotic, disorganised and confused.
Despite this, it is undeniable that the Libyans are courageous. Those who we in the media refer to routinely as rebels are not; they are shopkeepers, students, doctors, businessmen and mechanics who have never owned a gun or wanted to pick one up in anger, until now. There are tens of thousands of such extraordinary people prepared to die for freedoms and liberties they’ve never known under 41 years of Gaddafi’s rule.
I was moved to tears by a regiment of young men who marched, rallied and chanted to demand to be sent to the front lines in Misrata to help their brothers in arms. Their personally-delivered message in Benghazi was to the members of the interim government, about whom they were extremely critical. Some elements of the TNC, claimed the Libyan youths, are more interested in parading around with bodyguards, intoxicated with the little power they have rather than making real decisions.
The criticism of the leadership was stinging but reassuring; these young men are not blind to the shortcomings of those in charge, a rare quality in a region where, all too often, people are unquestioning in their loyalty to their leaders, to the detriment of their own well-being.
It is clear to me that once Gaddafi is gone – and he will go – the Libyan people will not replace him with another tyrant or a Western puppet. The important thing is that whatever style of government and constitution they eventually choose, at least it will be one of their own making.
In the meantime, the West must give the people of Libya all the help and support they need to remove Gaddafi until it is time for NATO to make a dignified exit. Who knows, for once, Western intervention might possibly turn out to be a force for good.
*British journalist Yvonne Ridley is European President of the International Muslim Women’s Union.