The Libya crisis: a fresh perspective

by Tony Garner

I have never been to Libya but, as an English teacher in Edinburgh, I have met and gotten to know quite a few Libyans in the past couple of years. Many of them were encouraged to come and study in the UK with promises of funding from the Gaddafi government. Typically, they would first strive to improve their English before going on to study at a British university.

Most have been male and, in many cases, their English was almost non-existent when they arrived. Only teaching the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’, there was a limit to how well I could come to understand how they felt about their country’s recent history and politics. One I remember: a beginner student, an affable chef in his early thirties, said to me out of the blue once the simple word, “Lockerbie”. I had been trying to find out what Scottish places he knew, and getting him to pronounce them. I was taken aback, but the almost-total language barrier prevented any dialogue about that most emotive of towns. Shortly afterwards, the student left the school.

I got to know much better a bright woman from near Tripoli who was in her mid-twenties and, compared to the chef, absorbed English like a sponge. In the UK with her husband and expecting a baby, she was alert to humour and mixed well with the other (mostly European students in the class. She had studied dentistry in Libya and wanted to do further study before going back home to practice. One day in class another student, a Spanish woman, asked her apropos of almost nothing what she thought of Gaddafi. Her reply was swift and unhesitating: “I love him.” I wondered at the time whether that was a response learnt by rote, but a presentation she later did on Libya made me doubt it. Gaddafi was the hero of the people. He had stood up to the Americans since they bombed Tripoli in 1986. Every good thing in modern Libya was down to him, including the fact that she could dream of running a well-equipped dental surgery. She finished by inviting us all to visit her country to see how well it worked, its natural beauties and ancient historical sites.

Watching the pictures of RAF jets embarking from Norfolk on their long trip to strafe Gaddafi forces from the air, I keep seeing it all through the eyes of this young woman. I think she was completely genuine in her love of her leader. She is an intelligent and humane person who has lived for twenty five years in a society that has imprinted upon her since childhood the notion of Gaddafi as liberator and hero.

So it seems to me that there is a danger in believing that the Libyans waving green flags and posters bearing the Colonel’s image are only acting out of fear. Things would be much simpler if they were: the rebels could be supported, Gaddafi could be ousted, and the people could be free to unite behind democracy like the eastern bloc countries after the fall of Communism.

But my feeling is that it’s not like that. I think my clever ex-student will be just one among many, many decent Libyans conditioned by years under Gaddafi; one among many who see the rebels, aided now by the West, as destroyers of a national success story. The Western countries have a duty to protect these rebels who have been brave enough to resist a tyrant and are now rightly doing so. But it would be naïve to assume that most ‘ordinary Libyans’ (a phrase we will surely start to hear plenty of in the coming days) will be covertly supporting their actions, ready to join the revolution the moment it looks like the leader really can be toppled.