The Libyan revolution, one year on

A former resident of Tripoli charts the country's new journalism, justice system and civil society.

It's exactly one year since the official start of the Libyan revolution and Amnesty International marked the occasion with a damning report into the widespread human rights abuses committed by armed militias in the country and the failure of the National Transitional Council (NTC) to hold these armed groups to account. "A year ago Libyans risked their lives to demand justice. Today their hopes are being jeopardised by lawless armed militias who trample human rights with impunity," Amnesty's senior crisis response adviser, Donatella Rovera, said.

It made me wonder: at what point can you call a revolution a failure? If a post-revolutionary regime shows no more respect for individual rights than the ousted dictatorship, this seriously calls into doubt whether the revolution can deliver on the hopes of ordinary people.

In darker moments, I have questioned whether the violence was all worth it. If the revolution hadn't ignited a year ago, many lives would have been saved, my friends would still have their jobs, Libya would still be a safe, stable country. If you had lost a child in the fight against the old regime, I have asked myself, would you still think that overthrowing Gaddafi was the right thing to do, or would this question -- the underlying assumption that a loved-one's death was in vain -- be too painful to ask?

In the UK, many have been quick to pronounce the revolution a failure, and some declared it a disaster before it even really began. Britain's military intervention has helped encourage this perspective, but the government's infamous hypocrisy when it comes to befriending or ousting dictators shouldn't obscure the fact that Gaddafi committed terrible crimes against his people. When commentators jump from pointing out the UK's tarnished record with authoritarian regimes to arguing that Gaddafi wasn't as bad as all that, they make an unjustifiable leap of logic.

Counter-intuitively, perhaps, my painful re-reading of an argument along these lines -- Hugh Roberts' piece for the London Review of Books -- has reminded me of why, despite everything, Libya's revolution was not in vain. "It is tendentious and dishonest to say simply that Gaddafi was 'killing his own people'; he was killing those of his people who were rebelling. He was doing in this respect what every government in history has done when faced with a rebellion," Roberts writes. But not every government in history guns down peaceful protestors. Not every government in history tortures and executes anyone guilty, or simply accused, of criticising public policy. When there was no other way to bring about change, Libya's revolutionaries chose to meet Gaddafi's violence with violence, not vice versa. Gaddafi didn't start "killing his own people" in 2011; he had maintained his power through the strategic use of violence against civilians for over 40 years. The question of the legitimacy of the British government's support for the revolution shouldn't be confused with the question of whether the revolution itself was right.

The violence has not yet completely subsided. Many Libyans are still scared today. They are scared to go out at night because of sporadic fighting and an increase in crime; scared that someone they know will be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a gun battle erupts. But they were scared a year ago, too.

When you live in a police state, you live in constant fear. It may be a different type of fear from the more immediate threat of violence; you may sometimes forget it's even there. The constant niggling worry that you'll say or do something wrong and that the consequences will be huge become a part of your being. I know this, because whenever I left Libya, my sense of relief was physical. When I arrived in Heathrow after my first two months in Tripoli, my brother asked me "so, is Gaddafi as mad as people think he is?" and my first reaction was to look around in alarm to see if anyone was listening to our conversation. It's amazing how quickly such caution can become second nature, and how satisfying it can be to finally speak freely.

Libyans are relishing their new-found freedom of speech. I used to wonder, when I flicked through the sterile state news stories, how a free press would ever develop in Libya. Government propaganda seemed so pervasive that at times it felt like people had forgotten how to tell a story. Now independent media outlets are blossoming all over the country, and almost everyone I know is either starting a magazine or writing for one. Some magazines refuse to edit submissions -- not necessarily the best way to ensure quality journalism, my editor would undoubtedly retort -- but in the present atmosphere, editing seems too close to censorship. "You are most welcome to share your thoughts loudly," one of my friends said when inviting me to submit a piece to his new magazine. "Feel free to say the truth, even if it hurts the Libyan people to hear it." This is a truly monumental change.

Libyan civil society is flourishing too. Many of my friends are setting up or working for new NGOs: medical charities, reconciliation and women's rights groups that have emerged, seemingly from nowhere. I remember once commenting on how much rubbish littered the streets all over Libya, and a friend of mine answering with uncharacteristic frankness that "it's not just a question of educating people about dropping litter, it's because people have given up caring about public spaces a long time ago." Forty years into Gaddafi's rule, the whole country had retreated into their family units, but now they are developing a public spirit, a sense of ownership over their country, and a feeling of fellowship with their countrymen where once there was only distrust. This, too, is an amazing development.

Despite ongoing violence and instability, many Libyans are feeling positive for the future. When I asked Yusef Sawie, an old friend of mine now working as a news reporter and translator in Tripoli, about the mood in the country, he pointed not only to the joyful street parties, but to private ones. Many young couples have chosen to get married on the 17th -- the hairdressers he spoke to say they haven't been this busy for years, with some coiffing 25 brides in one day. And there's less anecdotal evidence of continued optimism, too. A survey by research company ORB of over 1,000 Libyans in Benghazi, Tripoli and Misrata has found that four out of five respondents agree that "the country is heading in the right direction".

I too believe that Libya is heading in the right direction. That is not to belittle Amnesty's report: action to protect the rights of suspected Gaddafi loyalists must be taken quickly and decisively. More than anything, the success of the revolution depends on the NTC's ability to establish the respect for human rights and individual freedom that was so lacking during Gaddafi's forty-year rule. Those responsible for human rights abuses, on both sides, must be brought to justice.

The challenges facing the revolution are immense, the war-torn country needs to be demilitarised and rebuilt, and a functioning justice system, police force, and the apparatus of democratic government will have to be built from nothing. But the revolution has not failed yet.

Sophie McBain is a staff writer for Spear's

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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The fall of Milo Yiannopoulos: Only the mainstream right has the power to stop the populist right

The lessons of the provocateur's sudden fall from grace.

Alas, poor Milo Yiannopoulos, we hardly knew ye. Well, actually, that's not true. I first encountered Yiannopolous in 2012, when he tried to slut-shame a friend of mine, sex blogger Zoe Margolis, after she criticised his tech site, the Kernel.  "We write about how tech is changing the world around us," he tweeted. "You write about how many cocks you've sucked this week. Back off."

It was a typical Milo performance. Flashy, provocative - and steeped in misogyny. 

Fast-forward five years and he had managed to parlay those qualities into a gig with Breitbart, a public speaking tour, and until yesterday, a $250,000 book deal with Simon & Schuster. But last night, that was cancelled, "after careful consideration". Yiannopolous's invitation to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference had been cancelled hours before. Over the years, CPAC has hosted Ronald Reagan, George W Bush and all the Hall of Fame right-wing blowhards: Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. 

What changed CPAC's mind? On 18 February, the organisation had tweeted that "free speech includes hearing Milo's important perspective".

Milo's important perspective on what was left unanswered, because it is unanswerable. Does anyone, really, think that Milo Yiannopoulos has deep and rigorously researched convictions? That his statements on feminism, on transgender people, or his criticisms of Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones, spring from some deep well of evidence and sincerity?

Do me a favour.

Yiannopoulos was invited to CPAC to do what he does: be outrageous. To give the attendees a frisson of excitement at being in the presence of someone so notorious, someone willing to "say the unsayable". To outrage the left, and remind those watching of the gulf between them and the people waving placards outside.

Except the provocateur is finding out that some things really are unsayable. Some things - all his previous things, in fact - are extremely sayable, as long as you have the protection of the mainstream right and a media industry which craves - and monetises - attention. But a few are not.

So what did Milo Yiannopoulos actually say to prompt this outbreak of condemnation, and the withdrawal of lucrative marketing opportunities? The first thing to note is that the comments which kicked off the latest row are not new. After he appeared on Bill Maher's show improbably dressed as Like A Virgin Era Madonna (in an appearance up there with Jimmy Fallon rustling Trump's tawny locks on the Vom-O-Meter), old YouTube videos surfaced which, in the BBC's words, "showed him discussing the merits of gay relationships between adults and boys as young as 13". He said that the age of consent was "not this black and white thing" and relationships "between younger boys and older men … can be hugely positive experiences". 

He has since denied endorsing paedophilia, said that he is a survivor of child abuse himself, and added that the videos were edited to give a misleading impression.

In the tweet announcing that he had been dropped, CPAC accused him of "condoning paedophilia". But he argues that elsewhere in the video he said that the US age of consent was in the correct place.

For those on the left, the overwhelming reaction to all this has been: why now? Why these comments, not the ones about "preening poofs", or lesbians faking hate crimes, or the danger of Muslims, or the harassment campaign against Leslie Jones which got him permanently banned from Twitter? (Do you know how consistently and publicly awful you have to be to get banned from Twitter???)

There's only one answer to that, really: yesterday marked the moment when Milo Yiannopoulos ceased being an asset to the mainstream right, and became a liability.

***

On 8 February, Jan-Werner Muller wrote a fascinating piece for the FT in which he argued that the populist right was not, as the narrative would have it, an unstoppable grassroots movement sweeping the world. Instead it should be seen as an outgrowth of the mainstream right, which fed it and gave it succour. 

These colourful images are deeply misleading. Mr Farage did not bring about the Brexit vote all by himself. He needed two mainstream Conservative politicians, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. More important still, the Leave vote was not just the result of spontaneous anti-establishment feelings by the downtrodden; Euroscepticism, once a fringe position among Conservatives, had been nourished for decades by tabloid newspapers and rebel MPs.

President Trump did not win as an outside candidate of a third-party populist movement either. Where Mr Farage had Messrs Johnson and Gove, Mr Trump could rely on the blessing of establishment Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani."  

This is unarguably true in the case of Milo Yiannopoulos: he started his career at the Telegraph, once the newspaper of choice for retired colonels eating marmalade in the shires. Iain Martin, a colleague of his there, yesterday jokingly acknowledged that he was "partly to blame".

A quick look at Nigel Farage's experience during the EU referendum is also instructive. The Vote Leave campaign worked hard to shut him out of the public discussion in the weeks before 23 June - reasoning that his overt anti-immigration broadsides would turn off swing voters. They even accused broadcasters of "joining the IN campaign" by inviting Farage to debate David Cameron. To understand Farage's bewilderment at this treatment, read his speeches from the time, or his grumpy appearance on TV the morning after the victory, where he said the £350m NHS claim was a mistake. The guy felt betrayed.

And it's not surprising. A significant number of Tory Eurosceptics in parliament had, until Cameron announced the referendum would happen, found Farage's existence extremely useful. There he was - a living, breathing, chainsmoking reminder that MPs (and voters) could move to Ukip if Britain didn't get a say on membership of the European Union. But once the campaign began, they found him an embarrassment. The "Breaking Point" poster was repellent. He was turning off moderate voters. And so he was frozen out. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove suddenly discovered that - hey, this guy says some pretty outrageous things!

A similar dynamic happened with Donald Trump. We now know he performed on 8 November about as well as a generic Republican after eight years of a Democratic president. Certainly no better - had he run as an independent, that small core of Trump-lovers would be a speck within a wider population, instead of being held up as the vanguard of a new kind of politics. Throughout the campaign, GOP grandees like Paul Ryan struggled to condemn him, reasoning that a Republican president - any Republican president, even one who didn't seem to believe in most of the alleged values of the Republican party - was better than a Democrat. Trump was boosted and bolstered by significant portions of the mainstream right, and even the centre: CNN employed his former campaign manager as a pundit. Fox, a mainstream news channel owned by a huge corporation, gave him waves of adoring coverage. 

***

What's in all this for the mainstream right? Two things. The first is that the populist right are useful generators of heat. They say outrageous things - black people are lazy! Muslims are terrorists! - putting their opponents in a bind. Do you let such assertions go, on the basis that those voicing them are a tiny fringe? Or do you wearily condemn every single instance of bigotry, making yourself look like a dull Pez dispenser of condemnation? Either way is debilitating, either for public discourse broadly, or for the left's appeal to disengaged people. 

Secondly, the populist right are useful outriders. Sheltered by the mainstream right - would anyone read Katie Hopkins if she had a blog, or Piers Morgan? nope - these "provocateurs" can push extreme versions of narratives that many on the mainstream right feel to be true, or at least to contain a kernel of truth worth discussing. If Breitbart says "black crime" is a distinct phenomenon, then it's much more acceptable for Trump to threaten to "send in the Feds" to Chicago, or to describe inner cities as wastelands in need of a strong hand. If Katie Hopkins writes about migrants drowning in the Mediterranean as "cockroaches", she dehumanises them - turning them from fathers, mothers, children into a faceless mass, not like us, and therefore not deserving of our pity. That makes it much easier for the government to stop taking child refugees. After all, didn't I read somewhere that they're all 45 and just pretending to be children, anyway?

The populist right are extremely good generators of memes - those little bits of information which move virally through society. Take the grooming gang in Rochdale. It gets invoked every time feminists try to have a conversation about male violence. Um, did you condemn Rochdale? By the time you reply, wearily, that yes you did, it's too late. The conversation has been derailed for good. What about FGM? Well, yes, of course I'm agains-- oh, too late. We've moved on. 

***

The "alt right" - the online version of the populist right - loves to talk about left-wingers being "triggered" or "snowflakes". This is clearly a rhetorical tactic to delegitimise any criticism of them. I don't write about misogyny because I'm upset by it; I write about it because it's wrong. But it's a playbook that works: look into examples of "political correctness gone mad" and you'll often find a story that has been exaggerated, twisted or straight-up invented in order to paint the left as dolorous monks intent on killing fun. But anyone with any strong beliefs, anyone who holds anything sacred, will react when some shows disrespect to something they care about. The right has just as many shibboleths it is unwilling to see violated. (If you don't believe me, try burning a poppy or the American flag.)

The strangest part of yesterday was seeing Milo Yiannopoulous's increasingly sincere Facebook posts, as the awful realisation dawned on him - as it dawned on Nigel Farage during the referendum - that the sweet shelter of the mainstream right was being withdrawn from him. When he had attacked his female peers in the London tech scene, when he attacked transgender people for being "mentally ill", when he attacked an actor for the temerity to be black, female and funny in a jumpsuit, he was given licence. He was provocative, starting a debate, exercising his free speech. But yesterday he found out that there is always a line. For the right, it's child abuse - because children, uniquely among people who might be sexually abused, are deemed to be innocent. No one is going to buy that a 13-year-old shouldn't have been out that late, or wearing that, or brought it on himself. 

I would not be surprised if this isn't the end of Milo Yiannopoulos's career, and I will watch with keen interest what strategies he will use for his rehabilitation. He's still got his outlaw cachet, and there are still plenty of outlets where the very fact that people are objecting to a speaker is assumed to mean they have something that's worth hearing. And there are plenty more ideas that some on the right would be happy to see pushed a little further into the mainstream - with plausible deniability, of course. If that's the extreme, then the mainstream shifts imperceptibly with every new provocation. Because he's not one of us, oh no. They're not, either. But you see, they must be heard. And provocateurs are useful, until they're not. But it's not the left who decides when that is. Only the mainstream right can stop the extremists on their flanks.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.