The country with no politics finds its voice

From inside Libya

A fortnight ago, Tripoli was calm and quiet. The sunny main square, scene of the recent uprisings, is where couples would go for romantic walks. The women, in colourful sequinned hijabs, would sit on heart-shaped love seats surrounded by fake flowers. There is not much else to do in this tiny city centre, which has only a few cafés. Alcohol is banned and the streets are deserted at night. Friends would joke that Libya was the most boring place on earth.

For the past six months, I have lived with a family in Tripoli. While they talked openly about their lives, hopes and dreams, politics was never discussed. Together we celebrated Eid ul-Adha - the Islamic festival of sacrifice - by killing a goat and cooking it. The air on our balcony filled with the scent of burning charcoal and you could hear the murmur of a television from inside.

“This precious and great creature that lives among us," a choir on television sang. "We hope he will always be our leader." Images appeared of Muammar al-Gaddafi, riding a horse, black cape billowing behind him. When I asked the daughter to translate, she pretended not to understand. "We're not interested in politics," I was told.

Oil workers and rich Libyans I met at parties - drinking illegal alcohol, watched by ever-present spies - would scoff at the idea of a Libyan revolt. This month, those same people sit trapped inside their flats, listening to the hammer of gunfire outside. Their doors are locked tight and they are living off food and water hastily bought from shops now boarded up. They cannot use the phone and there is no internet access. They know that Gaddafi's African mercenaries have attacked demonstrators in the main square and surrounding streets, shooting civilians. Saif al-Islam, educated at the London School of Economics and previously portrayed as a western liberaliser, threatens to make Libya "worse than Iraq".

And yet, amazingly, people who always rejected politics continue to demonstrate. One young, handsome Libyan I know has gone out to protest despite huge rows in his family.

When the revolts started in Tunisia and Egypt, one sensed change in the air. People I know started to watch al-Jazeera. My friend Fatima told me about how she had been watching events in Egypt with her friends, crying tears of happiness. “If there are protests, I will join them," she whispered, gripping her coffee cup tightly; her words nearly made me drop mine. "You know what would happen to me if anyone had heard me say that," she added. She knew that although the image presented to the world was one of a unified and stable Libya, it was never this. Opposition had long existed in the country. It is significant that the recent riots started in the east and unsurprising that an army officer from there reclaimed the city of Benghazi for its people.

The Libyan nationalist leader Omar Mukhtar fought his final battles against the Italians in the valleys of the green mountains near Benghazi, in 1931. Ever since, the people of the east have opposed power in Tripoli. Because of this defiance, Benghazi, though the main city of the east, is practically a wasteland, largely ignored and neglected by the central government.

Colonel of truth

Even within the Gaddafi family there are divisions over control of the media and the different provinces. Besides this infighting, there is the pressure on the Gaddafis from the Libyan Islamic resistance. Libya has been praised in the west as a model of how to eliminate or contain Islamist terrorism.

In truth, the militant Muslim groups merely went underground; in Tripoli, you would often hear of battles in the desert between Islamists and government forces. The outside world has been complicit in the myth of Libyan normality. From being a pariah state, Libya became a valued partner of the west, one with oil wealth and a willingness to tackle illegal immigration into southern Europe from Africa.

The country's human rights record is appalling. The UN's High Commission for Refugees was recently banned from Libya; asylum-seekers and refugees have few rights if any. "Libya has no qualms about arresting and torturing foreign nationals," an embassy official told me. Even when rumours spread of foreigners disappearing, a media silence prevails. None of this has stopped Libya from sitting as a member of the UN Human Rights Council.

A myth is told about Libya; that it has cleaned up its act, liberalised and become an acceptable ally. The events of the past week remind us that under Gaddafi, it has always been one of the most murderous regimes in the world and its people have always been silently desperate to escape it. Now, that anger and frustration has been released. Everyone who used to think that he or she understood Libya or could predict what would happen there has been left speechless.

The author, whose name has been changed at her request, lives and works in Tripoli

Tags:Libya