The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions have had a profound effect across the Middle East. Both Bahrain and Yemen are in turmoil, with protesters in the street demanding an end to the dictatorial regimes. Much of the slogans are echoes of the Tunisian and Egyptian demonstrations – The people want the fall of the administration.
Today is the designated day for Libyan protests to begin. Opposition outside the country have implored the people to take to the streets like their Arab brethren, demanding change from Gadhafi’s government. Technically, Muammer Gadhafi is not the president of Libya – Libya has no official head of state – but for Libyans everywhere the truth is apparent. And it is this truth which renders the very idea of a protest – peaceful or otherwise – hopelessly perilous.
Driving through Benghazi, evidence of Gadhafi’s warnings about protesting today are just as effective as they’ve always been. Schools, offices and stores are closed for the day, and the streets are almost void of activity. Predictions that Libya could never be amongst the nations that fight for freedom seem justified. Everyone is too afraid to do anything.
There was a glimmer of hope, on February 15th, when some citizens in the city of Benghazi protested outside the central security station, demanding the release of Fathi Terbil. Terbil is a lawyer for the families of the Abu Sleem prison massacre, a 1996 incident in which approx. 1200 inmates of the infamous Abu Sleem prison were murdered in the course of three hours. The reason? They were protesting against the inhumane conditions they were being kept in.
But after that day there was no more mention of Libya in the news, and hope faded.
We reach Dubai St., a normally busy shopping district, completely empty. A pick-up truck full of soldiers pass by, telling anyone they find in the streets to go home. Even they seem confused.
Suddenly, at the head of the street, we see a crowd. Driving closer, it’s – YES! – a rally. A makeshift wooden sign says “Muthahara Silmeeya”, Peaceful Protest. For a country where protests are about as common as a polar bear sighting, this is unbelievable. And it’s a pretty impressive turnout, about 1,000 protesters in all.
As we watch in awed silence, a military helicopter flies overhead. This brings us to our senses, and we decide to drive around the rest of Benghazi.
Some areas are completely deserted, in stark contrast to the areas that are in complete chaos. Armored vehicles roam the Majoury area, while men in army fatigues guard the Fatheel Bu ‘amr military barrack. They hold rifles, occasionally sounding off warning bullets to anyone that gets too close.
In these areas you see people clustered together, unsure how to take all this in. But others do not hesitate, joining up with the bigger protests as they steadily gain in number. One man who passed us said, “We’re sick of him(Gadhafi)! He’s stayed for too long”.
Again, in a country where mentioning Muammer’s name in public is risky, expressing this kind of sentiment to complete strangers is remarkable.
We eventually go home, sure that there must be something in the news about today’s events. But AlJazeera is only talking about Yemen, Bahrain and Egypt, the same with the other channels.
The internet is a little more active. People reporting about different protests on Facebook and Twitter, some even with the courage to put up a picture or video. But the majority are silent, whether oblivious to the goings-on or too frightening to say anything.
The day ends with continued media silence…but a spark of hope.