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  April 2, 2011

Jihan Hafiz on Reporting From Libya

Recently returned from Benghazi, Hafiz reports on rebel fighters, supporters and early stages of the Libyan uprising
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Jihan Hafiz reported for The Real News Network while in Libya in February and March 2011


PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington. Jihan Hafiz has just returned from Benghazi after covering the story for The Real News Network. And she joins us now in our studio in Washington. Thanks for joining us.

JIHAN HAFIZ: Thanks for having me.

JAY: So there's a lot of debate about whether the no-fly zone was legal, not legal, the right thing to do or not. And one of the things at the core of this discussion-debate is just who are the rebels. So talk a bit about who you met, what you observed when you were in Benghazi.

HAFIZ: Sure. Well, just as we crossed the border from Egypt into Libya, we ran into some of these rebels. Most of them were not armed, but they were guarding the border. And a lot of them [inaudible] security forces, or they were engineers or shopkeepers or workers from the local area. And that's what we understood most of the rebels to be. They were average people. They were you and I. They were our neighbors. They were doctors, lawyers, engineers, pharmacists, students, unemployed. They were civilians. And it was very rare we ran into those who worked in the military and defected. Most of them were close to the military installations, and they were in charge of training. But for the most part, everyone in charge of this new provisional government, the media center, security, traffic, the clinics, these were all volunteer workers, these were all civilians.

JAY: And the question some people have raised is: is this movement in Benghazi and some of the other places in Libya similar or the same as the democracy movement in Egypt? Some people have suggested it's been somehow more manipulated from the West and kind of merging more with a Western agenda in Libya.

HAFIZ: Well, I would argue there's more evidence and lots of proof that there were many elements in the Egyptian revolution which were co-opted. You had a number of different organizations, prior to the revolution, being funded by organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, which is close by here in Washington, and the USAID, which has been synonymous with democracy promotion and in many ways regime change. And there was evidence of this. And, in fact, when we interviewed people from these different groups, such as Besm Fathi which is one of them--.

JAY: You're talking in Egypt now.

HAFIZ: This is Egypt, yes. They would say, yes, they were receiving $20,000 from the NAD, which receives most of its funding from Congress. And so--and there are many other elements--the April 6 Movement, other democracy-promotion groups that were in Cairo. And The New York Times wrote extensively about those. However, in Libya it was very hard to find anyone who had any contact with the American government. I'm not saying that we looked that deeply into it. We can verify certainly that there was no kind of co-opting going on or no kind of involvement from these groups, but--.

JAY: You're saying you can't say that.

HAFIZ: I cannot say that, no. And, in fact, during one of the press conferences, we did ask: was the National Front for the Salvation of Libya--which is an opposition group which has been around for decades now--have they been involved there? And somebody even argued there are CIA links to this group. We asked the provisional council, the national government there now, were there any kind of connections, did they contact them, are they funding them or helping them in any way, and they didn't know what we were talking about. And, in fact, they asked us more about this, about this organization. So from asking people in the street, from asking people inside the courthouse and the media center who were mainly in charge of this new provisional government if there were any kind of connections with democracy-promotion groups such as the ones I mentioned, including IRI, NDI--these are other democracy-promotion groups here in Washington--if they'd been in Libya, and no one knew who or what they were.

JAY: And in terms of--I know you didn't do opinion polls when you were there, but if you get a sense of the political mood when you--in your first reports, it seemed to be very strong, no foreign intervention, and there was a big banner on the side of the wall that said, you know, we can do this ourselves. The mood in the beginning seemed to be West, stay out. So talk about that period, because then it changes.

HAFIZ: Yes. Well, as soon as we came in, it was really an incredible feeling as soon as you entered Benghazi. You truly felt like you were in liberated territory.

JAY: And how many days after the uprising did you get to Benghazi?

HAFIZ: Four days later. Benghazi fell around the 20th, and the--or the 21st, and we got there the 23rd, 24th, depending on when we crossed the border. We traveled 24 hours from Cairo to Libya, so it was around the 23rd, the 24th. But, you know, once you got there, you could recognize this was a liberated area. And so lots of the people, they were enthusiastic about journalists coming in. Many of them had never spoken to a journalist in their lives. And the difference, I'd say, between Egypt and Libya is--. I've been covering Egypt, actually, for a while. For three years now I've been going back and forth following the different democracy organizations and movements that have sprung up that really led to this revolution, the workers movement being one of the most important, and I'd say that that was a revolution of the working class. This was where people were suffering, where there was an incredible wealth divide, and you could see the gentrification, you could see visually the poverty in Egypt, whereas in Libya this was somewhere no one has ever been able to report before. It's almost like reporting in Saudi Arabia. How many reports do you see from there?

JAY: Because of the repression and the inability of foreign journalists to get in.

HAFIZ: Because of mainly the inability. And usually when you went in--. We did speak to a Japanese reporter who had mentioned that anyone that was trying to get to Libya, even if this was the tourism, they'd have to be guided by the government, by a government minder. And so you really didn't know who Libyan people were. You didn't know if they lived in tents or not, if they were Bedouin, if they were Berber. And so this was the first contact that journalists had with Libyans--and, likewise, Libyans had, on the other hand. But in relation to what you asked, the foreign intervention, there was this deep sense of solidarity, of national pride, that anyone refused--despite the fact all these journalists were coming in, they refused any kind of help from the outside. Even if you mentioned there are groups in Washington that promote democracy, would you like their help, they would flat out deny it, they'd refuse it, they wouldn't want it. However, the fighting intensified, and in the beginning they were doing very well. They pushed on through Ajdabiya, Brega, then on to Ra's Lanuf and Bin Jawad, which was not easy. But they eventually got there, and Gaddafi's forces pounded them. And they even said, we're going to turn up the heat, meaning we're going to use armed force, and they did. And this was a civilian force of people who took up arms against their government.

JAY: Now, one of the questions that's been in this debate is: why did it get to an armed struggle so quickly? In Egypt, in Tunisia, mostly peaceful. Even after some attacks, even after some of the protesters were killed, there seemed to be a kind of understanding amongst the protesters that if you go to a level of armed struggle, you're going to bite off more than you can chew. Why did it happen this way in Libya?

HAFIZ: The way it happened in Libya actually started February 15, although it had been announced on Facebook for the 17th. And it really sprang up from the family members of victims from the Abu Salim massacre, prison massacre, where 1,200 prisoners were killed in 1996. Most of these victims, these family members of the victims didn't know their family members were killed. They kept taking photos and food and clothing years later, not knowing that they had been massacred. And so this was one of the only groups in Libya that consistently was protesting. You know, they addressed the government, wanted to find out what was happening, who was responsible. And one of the main lawyers for these family members was a man named Fathi Tirbil. He was arrested, and this sparked the Libyan revolution. It infuriated so many people, they protested outside one of the interior ministries and they said, we want him out, at which point they shot at people. They didn't use tear gas. They didn't use rubber bullets. They used lethal weapons to kill people. And according to the doctors in all the many hospitals that we went to, they shot to kill. They shot in the head, in the heart, and in the neck. And this is what the Libyan people were up against. This is a civilian population. They fought a military that had antiaircraft weapons.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

HAFIZ: Thank you for having me.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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