There is perhaps no more stark an indicator of Muammar Gaddafi’s power over the Libyan people than what you will find in a Twin Cities living room, where a man born to Libyan parents — raised in Libya, with his parents and other family still in Tripoli, but with American citizenship — is too fearful to give his name to a local reporter.
It’s a shame. The details I cannot share for fear that he will be identified and his family in Tripoli punished. His line of work, the courageous work of a sibling on the Egypt-Libya border, and the creative work of another sibling in another Arab country make for a great story.
But that story will have to wait (perhaps only days or even hours) until the madman of Tripoli is swept into the current of history that has already carried away rulers to the east and the west of him in Egypt and Tunisia.
There is still a story to tell about the Libyan-American in the Twin Cities living room. For now I’ll call him Ahmed. He works in finance. He was born in the United States while his father was pursuing a PhD in economics. When Ahmed was 3, he returned to Libya and remained there until, at 15, he moved to Madrid to be educated at an American school. He was there in 1986 when Ronald Reagan ordered the aerial bombardment of Libya. His school was temporarily closed for fear of anti-American reprisals.
Ahmed is never away from Libya for long. He returned from his latest visit on Feb. 9, and was there when the protests in Tunisia and Egypt began.
‘There was a sense of shock’
As we watched the happenings, there was a sense of shock,” he says. And though there was also a sense that it was time for change in Libya, it was difficult to conjure up a feeling of inevitability.
“There was a self-deprecating sense that came over Libyans because of what this person had done to us. There was a sense that Libyans were cowardly, that we couldn’t do what the Egyptians and Tunisians did. I gave excuses; saying that we are only 5 million. But look at what has turned out!”
Ahmed is proud but still fearful. He calls Gaddafi’s style of rule “mental terrorism.” And though he says the Libyan leader is “deranged,” he is cautious not to oversimplify the man.
“There are two theories about this person; he’s either crazy or crazy like a fox,” Ahmed explains. “In order to control the tribes in Libya for 42 years you need to have an intricate understanding not only of how to instill fear, but also a deep understanding of tribalism and where and how to divide people.”
Ahmed has been in sporadic contact with his family in Tripoli. On Wednesday he reached his mother over Skype. But if Gaddafi can send fear into a Twin Cities living room, he can certainly cause it to infect the living rooms of the city where he lives. “She cannot say anything,” says Ahmed, “She could only speak in code. I told her we wanted to get her on a flight out and she would only say: ‘You don’t understand. You don’t understand.'”
Glued to TV, computer, mobile phone
Since the protests began, Ahmed has been averaging two or three hours of sleep a night. He is glued to Arab TV stations, his computer, and his mobile phone. He is on the line with producers at Al Jazeera’s English station every few hours with updates he’s getting and suggestions for guests (he lobbied successfully this week to get Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., on the air to talk about the situation). He has blood ties to the Libyan opposition — a close relative survived an assassination attempt while living in exile. But that’s yet another story that will have to wait.
He is also working constantly to stay connected with Libyans in the diaspora, who are desperate to see something done or to do something themselves.
And he is engaged in local organizing. He’s helping to get people to the state Capitol today at 3 p.m. for a solidarity rally. And he’s clawing around for answers to the question many people are asking: What can we do to help?
“What I love about Minnesota is every other person volunteers here,” he says. He is working to galvanize that tendency toward action. For now that means pressuring politicians to seek creative avenues of support to the anti-government protesters and urging reporters, editors and producers to keep on the story and fight the “ADD nature of the media.”
As for the American and international response, he’s skeptical of sanctions. “Hurting Libya financially with economic sanctions cannot do anything right now. That’s either a failure of understanding or a willingness not to change things.”
Patient with President Obama
He is patient, for now, with President Barack Obama. “As a Libyan I will tell you I need help, but as an American I will tell you this is all Obama can do at this point. His top priority is to get Americans out of Libya, which is any country’s top priority. But once all of the expats are out of Libya, then what?”
If the protests are successful — and so far it seems to be a when, not if situation — Ahmed has to make a decision: Does he stay with his Minnesota-based employer or make his way to Libya to be part of whatever comes next?
“I’m a dual-citizen,” he says. “I’m here and I’m there. It’s tearing me apart. I want to be part of the change in Libya.”