Lindsey Hilsum, the International Editor of the UK's Channel 4 News
By Karen Dabrowska
In a lecture From Gaddafi to revolution and beyond – Libya's legacy of dictatorship, Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor of the UK's Channel 4 News told London’s Society for Libyan Studies: “We are talking about decades for Libya to become a functioning state.”
Hilsum pointed out that Libya does have advantages. “It has wealth - the oil and gas, an educated population many of whom have studied overseas and people who really want a democratic and peaceful system. Although I think times are hard and times will be hard for a long time I still have a lot of faith in Libyans and a lot of hope that they will create a better country that they deserve.”
Speaking a few days before the second anniversary of the revolution Hilsum said: “I saw a people who rose up in majority. They had ideals and it is not at all clear that those ideals are being met or will be met. Part of the reason for that is the psychological legacy of the Gaddafi years that makes it extremely difficult for people to overcome the problems that have been created in the last four decades.”
Hilsum,, who reported from Tripoli and Benghazi during the revolution, said that it was fantastic to see people breaking out and breaking free. She believes the main legacies of the Gaddafi era were a country without institutions where only Gaddafi could make decisions and cruelty, torture and massacres.
“The revolutionary committees ran things at some point and not at other points. Everything came down to the family that was like a mafia. In the end when I think about the legacy the legacy is psychological. It is what it feels like and what your life has been like as a Libyan, what you have been allowed to do and what you have not been allowed to do.
“The town of Bani Walid did not fall to the revolution for nearly a year and that is partly because many of the people there had a tribal allegiance to Gaddafi. But many of the younger people I spoke to do not feel the same about tribes as some of the older Libyans I have met.
“It is something that is in flux and it is a bit dangerous for white foreigners to run around Africa and the Middle East telling everybody that everything is tribal. It is a simple way of looking at things that kind of makes sense to us and it is actually much more complex than that.
“People’s loyalties quite often are more with the family than the broader tribe. I have talked to a lot of people for whom the family is the basic unit. The tribe will be divided in its political views on whether it supported Gaddafi or not.”
Hilsum spoke about Abu Salim prison the site of a massacre in 1996 when around 1200 people died as a place of secrets and Libya as a place of hidden graves. “There are years of work ahead for forensic scientists and human rights investigators.”
She met the families of prisoners who had been killed during the massacre - 15 men and 15 women who held up pictures of their lost loved ones. She asked the camera to focus on each picture and for the person holding it to say the name of the victim. One of the men told her that he took parcels to Abu Salim for 14 years as the regime did not tell him his relative had died. “This is a particular form of cruelty.”
The reverberations of what happened in Libya are now spreading across the African continent. Hilsum described how the Tuareg fought for Gaddafi. “When he was overthrown they fled to Niger heavily armed with all the weapons he had given them and then into Mali.
It was their uprising last year in January that sparked off the series of events that led to the French intervention in Mali. It was the Tuareg (the Kurds of Africa) who had their rebellion for independence but they became mixed up with the jihadis of the Islamic Maghreb.
Arabs, Tuareg and jihadis who had come from across the continent banded together and started to rule northern Mali with shariah law. That was something that Western governments did not predict when they intervened - the law of unintended consequences.
Hilsum believes there may well be connections between the jihadis in Mali and the jihadis who killed the American ambassador in Benghazi. This is the legacy of Gaddafi and it is the legacy of intervention.
According to Hilsum, Gaddafi’s record in Africa is mixed. He did have a certain vision and he tried to invest money in some countries. But because Gaddafi was ideologically driven he did not work out the best way to invest the money and use it wisely. A lot of money just got wasted because he scattered it around.
He had a vision that was not all bad but the actual implementation of it was not effective. And he trained a lot of people who wreaked extreme damage like Charles Taylor who started the war in Liberia and Foday Sankoh who cut off the arms of little boys and girls in Sierre Leone. The Mathaba,, a centre for training revolutionaries, many of whom came from West Africa, was extremely damaging as was the war with Chad.
A major issue for the Libyans is what they are going to do about rebuilding the country. Under Gaddafi there was a system of patronage without taxation, where the money that came in from oil and gas was distributed to the people.
Now the veterans of the revolution are occupying parliament because they want what they think is due to them as money and pensions as opposed to having a system people pay into and there is accountability and everybody participates in rebuilding.
“There are a whole number of points of view and that is one of the problems we have in Libya now. Everybody wants what they want. That is why you end of up with demonstrations and violence - there are no systems by which all of these views can be accommodated.”
In response to a question about the role of Qatar, which supports the Muslim Brotherhood, in Libya, Hilsum said she was looking into this. There is no question that Qatar supported a lot of what we called the Arab spring uprisings. There is no question that Qatar supported Hakim Bel Haj who is not part of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was part of the Libyan Fighting Group. He is no longer that. He declared himself as not being Salafist or Islamist.
“People in Mali told me that the jihadis are supported by both Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These are questions for the British government. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and what are the intentions of such a small rich country which is punching well above its weight. It has been very influential in the Middle East.
“Qatar is not an open society. I have not been able to get an interview with them. It is not easy to probe and to find out what their policies are”.
Commenting on the conference on security in Libya that was held in France, Hilsum said there is a limit to how much outsiders can do. “I see that the issue of the militias and violence in general as a Libyan problem which Libyans have to sort out.
“The only way for it to be sorted out is if the institutions of government become stronger. It is a basic thing for any state that the government has to have a monopoly on violence and the Libyan government is nowhere near that. There is a long way to go in terms of negotiations and discussion and buying people off and all sorts of complex things.
“You do have to involve outsiders as some of the Islamist militias are being funded from outside and that is a problem. But fundamentally it has to be a Libyan process. In the end the solutions have to be Libyan.”