Khaled Mattawa on the Libyan demonstrations

By Harriet Staff

Democracy Now's Amy Goodman talked to poet and University of Michigan Ann Arbor professor Khaled Mattawa about the situation in Libya, where he still has many friends and family members. Goodman notes how difficult it is to get information out of the cities of Benghazi or Tripoli right now, and their discussion is framed in terms of what Mattawa understands to be occurring. As the death toll continues to climb (in this interview on February 21st, Goodman cites a figure from Human Rights Watch of over 300 dead over the last week; Reuters today says 1,000, only two days later) much is unknown, like the fate of novelist Idris Al Mesmari who was arrested for speaking to Al Jazeera and BBC Arabic.

KHALED MATTAWA: I think I heard his name on the radio or on Al Jazeera and I immediately called him, he answered and said “yes I was on Al Jazeera and I will be on BBC Arabic and that things are great and so on, that he is great—in the sense that the intifada or the revolution had begun—and he was exhilarated and he said “listen to the BBC Arabic,” and I was ready to listen to that and then very shortly after I heard that he was arrested by the authorities. What happened was that the authorities had come to his home. He is married to Professor Omid Al Faras who is a professor of political science at the University of Benghazi or Guyunas and they had come to his home. One of the revolutionary committees, a well known figure in the revolution, actually personally came to their home. They came at them with knives and fists. It was she and her daughters and apparently a nephew and they beat them and she was cut with a knife or a machete and, upon hearing that his family was being attacked, Mesmari surrendered. What I hear is that he had been taking to Tripoli, but I also hear from somebody from there and others that he is safe. But I don’t know if that means that he is still under arrest and has not been harmed or if he is hiding somewhere.

Mattawa covers some background on what helped spark the pro-democracy demonstrations, including the recent arrest of human rights attorney Fathi Terbil who has been fighting for the survivors of a years-old prison massacre that left 1,270 dead and who Mattawa says "will come down as one of the heroes of Libya." Beyond the direct violence and intimidation, the Gaddhafis are using other tactics to stall regime change, raising the specter of civil war and playing up tribalism to turn protesters and their interests against one another. In a recent speech, Saif Gaddafi cast doubt on the pro-democracy movement by undermining Libyan culture itself: "Libya is not like Egypt, it is tribes and clans, it’s not a society with parties."

KHALED MATTAWA: You know, this is the moment that the Libyans have been waiting for for a very, very, very long time... It is really now just coming down to Tripoli and, as Saif Gaddafi indicated, they are trying to fight very hard, and they are fighting hard because they are killing a lot of peoples very quickly in Tripoli. I think the regime is over, even if Muammar Gaddhafi manages to survive, even if they manage to suppress things in Libya by miracle they manage to survive. Saif Gaddafi, himself, had made the most sweeping reconciliation saying, “Okay, everything will be on the table. We will have a new constitution. We will have a new flag, etc. etc. Well Libyans are saying, “Yes, we will have a new constitution, perhaps we’ll have a new flag, but we don’t want you or your father or the rest of your clan. Get out of here, leave.”... So even if they come back... Libya is forever changed by these events.