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Conversations With Libyan Expats

“We are not talking about a civil war between factions, we are talking about a massacre. When the history is written, it will say that we stood by and watched a massacre at the hands of Qaddafi, and we did nothing,” said Ibrahim Sahad, a Libyan expat who sat down with me for an interview in the lobby of an aging community center in Vienna, Virginia, on Wednesday night after delivering a speech about the situation in Libya to group of mostly elderly expats from Libya, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and other parts of the Middle East.

The speech was organized by the Al-Hewar Center for Arab Culture and Dialogue, a community organization established by an intellectual opinion journal bearing the same name. The group was small and modest—running its program of speeches in a small room on the second floor of the Vienna Community Center, which it rents for each event. I had traveled there hoping to get some sense of what people from the region, especially Libyans, are thinking about the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi.

Sahad had come to the United States in 1984 to escape Qaddafi, and he is now the secretary-general for the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), a secular democratic organization that he helped found in 1981 with the intention of replacing the Qaddafi regime (the NFSL supports the transitional council in Benghazi, but the two groups are not connected). His speech, which was delivered in Arabic and translated for me by an interpreter, relayed gruesome horrors occurring at Qaddafi’s hands and called for the international community to provide weapons for the Libyan people and engage with the Libyan opposition openly, instead of behind closed doors. (After the speech, he explained his position to me more clearly in English. At the very least, he expected the United States to lead the way on imposing a no-fly zone, to jam Qaddafi’s communications, and to provide weapons, but not to intervene in any larger sense with boots on the ground: “The Libyan people do not want to see Americans killed on Libyan soil.”)

Louay Bahry, an Iraqi who is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former professor of political science at the University of Baghdad, said the most troubling thing about the president’s response was that his actions didn’t match his rhetoric. “He cannot say publicly that Qaddafi must go, because when the president of the United States says something, people expect follow-up … with concrete actions,” he explained. “He could have been ambiguous, but he stood in front of millions of people and stated a public policy, and big disappointment followed with the Libyan people because they fought thinking that Americans would help. If the president of the United States says something and doesn’t follow up with action, the young people who are starving for democracy will be disappointed.”

Later, in a different conversation, a Libyan lawyer who now works for the UAE’s embassy in Washington, D.C., echoed Bahry’s sentiments: “First we were optimistic about the U.S. government’s reaction, but unfortunately there are so many excuses and a delay on the most important issue—the no-fly zone. It was very disappointing. These are decisive, sincere, determined revolutionary people whose hearts are full of determination. [If you limit] the air strikes, you will allow them to do more.”

The lawyer, Fathalla Al Meswari, also knew some members of the Libyan rebel government. He told me that he got to know the chairman of the National Transitional Council—a justice minister named Mustafa Abud Al Jeleil who recently resigned his post and joined the rebellion—when he was a judge in Libya 25 years ago. (Al Meswari brought his family to the United States in 1980 because Qaddafi banned private practice for lawyers.) He described Al Jeleil as a very respectable person, and said that he knows of at least two others on the council from his city, whom he has heard are highly qualified. The event’s organizer, Sahad, described the Benghazi council in similar terms: “The council are very dignified people well known to Libyans. None of those people have connection with Islamic movements. I can see no ideology.”

I had attended the event of two minds: For four weeks I had felt alternately sure that we must do something to help the Libyans and fearful of the implications, which Secretary Gates had warned about, of entering into another conflict. But this event nudged me toward Sahad’s position. In English, he told me that he believed the president’s rhetoric and actions have taken a toll on the spirits of the rebels. “When the people see the president saying ‘Qaddafi must go,’ and the next day Clinton makes no decisive action and the Pentagon makes no decisive action on the no-fly zone—those mixed signals are devastating for the people fighting,” he said. “I cannot weigh how much the president’s statements affected them. But I felt the disappointment when I talked to people there. We thought the U.S. would lead.”

Eliza Gray is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.