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Author Hisham Matar’s father was secretly jailed by Gaddafi in 1990 as a member of the NFSL, an organization attempting regime change and alleged to be supported by CIA

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In 1990, Jaballa Matar was in Cairo. He was then on the executive committee of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya. He was, as far as people know, then captured by the Egyptian secret police. And his family came to learn a few years later that he was actually handed over by the Egyptian secret police to the Libyan secret police and was being held in prison in Libya. To discuss what happened to his father and talk about the current situation in Libya, we’re now joined by Jaballa’s son. Hisham Matar is author of The Anatomy of a Disappearance and In the Country of Men, and he joins us now from London. Thanks for joining us.

HISHAM MATAR, AUTHOR: Pleasure. Hello.

JAY: Recap a bit what happened to your father, to start with.

MATAR: My father was a Libyan political dissident living in Cairo, and the Libyan secret service took him in March 1990. Unbeknownst to us, they handed him over to the Libyans, who then took him to Libya, imprisoned him without trial, tortured him. And eventually he disappears within Libya’s political prison system. The Egyptians continued to tell us that he was actually being kept in Egypt and to use that as a way to keep us quiet. So they would threaten us, saying things like, if you speak, you know, we can’t guarantee the safety of your father, etc. And then my father smuggled a letter from Abu Salim Prison, which is a political prison in Tripoli, in which he details exactly what happened to him.

JAY: We’re talking about a period where Libya had very, very antagonistic relations with the United States, and the Egyptians essentially a pro-American military regime. Why do you think the Egyptians would have cooperated?

MATAR: Well, at that time, the Egyptian dictatorship and the Libyan dictatorship had very good relations, and it became beneficial for both of them to trade dissidents. Just because Egypt was on good terms with America doesn’t necessarily mean that therefore Egypt is not on good terms with Libya. They had a lot of dealings between them, a lot of business dealings and so-called security interests that they supported.

JAY: Your father, after the revolution in Libya and Gaddafi’s coup, he’s in the army. He becomes part of the Libyan delegation to the United Nations in New York. At some point he decides that he disagrees with Gaddafi’s policies. He goes back with you and the family to Libya, where he becomes quite a successful businessman. He represents, I think, the American company Converse, and then reaches some point of real falling out with Gaddafi. And that’s when your family goes to Egypt. So am I right so far?

MATAR: Reasonably right, yes. We have a website that we created around our campaign to find out the whereabouts of my father, and the website is My father was in the Royal Army before the revolution, and after the revolution, like many, you know, high-ranking officers in the Royal Army, he was posted on a benign diplomatic mission abroad, and it was a way by which the revolution or Gaddafi’s regime could keep an eye on people that they weren’t sure about–weren’t sure of their loyalty, and at the same time keep them away. And my father was sent to the UN in New York. But my father then resigns when the Libyan dictatorship started to show its true colors. My father resigned and went back to Libya, and as you say, you know, he became an entrepreneur and lived a private life in Libya that wasn’t politically involved at all.

JAY: In Libya. But when he went to Cairo, your father then becomes a member of the executive for the National Front for the Salvation of Libya.

MATAR: That’s where it concluded. I mean, he was a member of various different, you know, opposition parties. But when he was kidnapped, that’s the position he held, yeah.

JAY: If you read about the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, there’s a lot of accusations, or maybe facts, I don’t know, you can say, that there was a fairly close connection or support from Saudi Arabia and the CIA, which is not hard to understand, given the relationship of the United States and Libya. What do you make of that front and the issue of the CIA connections?

MATAR: I haven’t seen any evidence to support these two claims, but there are lots of allegations flying around. I just simply don’t know, because it’s–as you probably know, it’s very much a kind of suspended organization, or at least doesn’t exist in the same way that it did before.

JAY: I’m trying to just get clear on your father’s role in Cairo. It’s not to defend that somebody should be kidnapped and imprisoned without being heard from again, but your father was financing students abroad, was he not, in terms of giving grants to students that were organizing against Gaddafi.

MATAR: No, not organizing against Gaddafi. My father had a private fund for scholarships for Libyan students. The scholarship fund wasn’t determined by, you know, the political views of those students. You know, he was keen on helping students that were abroad and didn’t have, you know, the funds to carry on their post-graduate degrees.

JAY: In 1988, apparently, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya sent commandos to try to assassinate Gaddafi. Do you know anything about this? And is there truth to that?

MATAR: I mean, it’s an exaggerated–I mean, “commandos” would be putting it–. Look, I mean, this was an organization that was trying to undermine and overthrow the regime. They had cells inside the country that were discovered, and all those people inside were brutally executed. You know, so maybe that’s what you’re referring to. But it was definitely a movement committed to the overthrow of the regime. It didn’t believe in, you know, trying to do it any other ways except, you know, through an armed struggle movement. That was their belief. Now, I can’t speak for a whole movement, but I can speak for my father, and my father–. Actually, I can’t even speak for my father, but I know that I know more of my father than I do the movement, and my father has always been a man committed to democracy, committed to the institutions of the law and to freedom of speech. The level of the violence of the regime and its brutality has meant that a lot of opposition groups in Libya in exile–this is, of course, a time that’s now expired in a way, ’cause this now doesn’t–this, you know, it’s a different time, but it was–you know, in the late ’80s and so on, there was the belief that the only way you are going to be able to change things in Libya is through an armed struggle movement. You can’t change it through dialog with a regime that, you know, has–acts with complete impunity against its own people and executes people and makes people disappear.

JAY: Gaddafi is–I mean, he’s a controversial figure, to say the least. A lot of the world, meaning national liberation movements in Africa, in Latin America, they saw him as a somewhat anti-imperialist figure, someone who was helping finance these struggles. And a lot of the political world saw that what the United States was doing around the world was far more grave and on a scale that would have surpassed anything Gaddafi was doing, and saw Gaddafi resisting some of this American position, first of all, what do you make of that in terms of what Gaddafi’s role was during that period?

MATAR: Well, you know, I have always resisted this kind of reading where you sort of look–you first use America as the reference point of international policy, and you say, well, look, what is–America’s doing and how it then–. You know, it’s slightly misplaced, I think, and inappropriate. I think the more appropriate reading is where you look at politics in the Middle East or in Libya or in Africa, whatever reference point you choose, and judge it by that rather than by–in reference to some kind of abstract idea of what is going on in America. American foreign policy has been, you know, incredibly intrusive and, you know, at times terribly unjust and crude and violent, sure. But that’s not to then give legitimacy to the incredibly violent and crude and corrupt engagements that Gaddafi has had. He’s been behind ETA in Spain. He has been behind the IRA and–here in the United Kingdom. He has played a significant role in the current situation in Somalia. He is until now playing a very dangerous game in Sudan, where he’s funding opposing factions and different sides, because it serves his interests as to what happens in Chad. And if one were to look at the big picture of Gaddafi’s project and intruding either in African countries [snip] then, you know, one can only conclude that it’s been a very negative influence that has relied heavily on, you know, corrupting different factions and arming different factions. And Gaddafi has a great deal of blood on his hands, African blood on his hands, if we just forget about Libya for a moment.

JAY: The issue of the role of the US and its relationship with Gaddafi is not, I don’t think, so abstract. During this entire period, the US, first of all, is supporting military dictatorships throughout the region and certainly has designs on wanting to get hold of Libyan oil, make a deal with Gaddafi in 2003 and kind of bring him back into the fold, and he becomes, you know, I think one could say, part of this system of pro-American dictatorships, really. But prior to that, when we’re talking about this earlier period, this is what seems far more complicated. And they try to kill him when they bomb his tent. And there’s a real fight going on. So in terms of the American role there and how people see him resisting that, and then they see the position of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, which seems to be very part of an–at least allied, supported, somehow converging with US interests, how do you take all that on?

MATAR: I wouldn’t be surprised if they had somehow relied on their converging interests with America in order to seek some [inaudible] That’s a subject I just can’t speak about with any authority. But what I could say about the changing relationship between America and Libya, it’s a fascinating one, as you point out. You’re absolutely right that before 2003 and for a long time, there was this tit for tat game going on. I don’t think America had the intention of killing Gaddafi when it bombed Bab al-Azizia, because the strikes had just–that wasn’t the intention. It was more just to show him that they could reach him. America’s less interested in killing Gaddafi than–I believe, than it was in making Gaddafi do what it wanted to do, what was in its interests. And Gaddafi then, of course, claimed that his daughter was killed in the attack. I mean, there are many rumors flying around that suggest that, well, actually, his daughter wasn’t killed in the attack, or the person that was killed in the attack was somebody that was in his care who wasn’t his daughter, and all this kind of–which seems rather insignificant. You know, people died. That’s all that should matter. It was completely wrong to go into a sovereign country and bomb indiscriminately that way. So Gaddafi was completely aware of the romanticism that that, you know, creates around him, the aura of the romantic, you know, anti-imperialist person, which he played, I think, dishonestly. He wasn’t really that at all, in my view.

JAY: I guess the context is important to understand in terms of Gaddafi’s motivations during that period, that whether one defends or doesn’t defend what he was doing, there was a very active campaign to overthrow him, there was a very active campaign, some say, to try to take him out. If I understand correctly, during the late ’80s there were various attempts, as you were saying, to militarily overthrow him through cells in the country. There is a context. It’s not just that these are dissidents. These are dissidents that are trying to overthrow him.

MATAR: Yes, absolutely, and I don’t think that you–I mean, I don’t think you can justify the kind of oppressive tactics of Gaddafi, whether against the people who oppose him or people that don’t oppose him. You know, let’s not forget that, you know, the rest of the population that was living under him during that time [snip] The violence that’s happening now, the massacres that are happening now in Libya, this is not some new kind of turn in the dictatorship. The scale is of course much larger. But this kind of ability for this kind of, you know, treacherous, dishonest–you know, not that violence can ever be honest, but, you know, dishonorable level of violence, where you are oppressing people by any means, you know, they use, whether it’s killing the innocent, or raping, or pillaging, or destroying homes. I mean, this is not new.

JAY: So when you look at the situation now, there’s debates going on everywhere, and particularly in Latin America, and other places, where there’s people trying to separate what are the Libyan people’s aspirations here and what are the American-British aspirations here. Castro, for example, wrote a piece recently talking about the idea that one way or the other the Americans and British would like to get hold and control of Libyan oil. You hear from people in Benghazi telling foreigners to stay the heck out; this is a Libyan struggle.

MATAR: Yeah.

JAY: So what do you make of what’s going on?

MATAR: America’s interests, you know, have been served very well by Gaddafi, you know, which is why the moral responsibility on what they do right now is greater, I think, than otherwise. Something extraordinary is happening in Libya. The people, after 42 years, almost half a century of very aggressive oppression, which was treated either as comical by some parts of the world because [of] Gaddafi’s, you know, idiosyncratic characteristics and his clothes and his female guards, or by people like Chavez who see him as, you know, some kind of liberator or something–. And for a long time, we have been caught between these two realities. And now we have risen, and we are demanding in the most, I think, courageous and honest way what it is that we want: a civil, constitutional democracy and an end to the dictatorship. And they formed a council, and the council has been approved by France. And I hope that the international community will follow suit, not only to isolate the dictatorship further, but to provide a framework, a logistical framework, for Libyans to be able to run their own business, to run their own economy. That’s a very significant thing. And to me it seems the last eight years have been despicable, how the world has dealt with Gaddafi. They have given him more legitimacy than he had. They’ve made him stronger. They made him more able to oppress his own people. The argument was that, you know, by taking him in into the international fold, he will become less dangerous, and that he will be more inclined to carry out reform and act with less impunity against his own people. And we can see that that’s so clearly not the case. He’s been able to act with even more impunity under this kind of the–you know, oppressing his own people; and calling them terrorists, anybody that objects is a terrorist; and fitting in with the American narrative of, you know, the war on terror and all that rubbish.

JAY: If Gaddafi had more or less become an agent of American interest in Libya (at least since 2003 the interests converge), then one would think the US policy and British policy now is to find who will be their next agent. So there’s going to be quite a struggle over who controls the new Libyan state, assuming Gaddafi falls, which may be a little too soon to assume that, anyway.

MATAR: Yeah, no, I agree, I agree. And I think, you know, there is a huge danger that now you’ve got this country that is strategically incredibly important, it’s a hugely wealthy country in resources, oil and gas, and the danger of interference is very high, and Libyans are very aware of that, which is why they’ve been very reluctant to accept any outside help in their rebellion, even though they’re losing a lot and are suffering a great deal.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Hashim.

MATAR: Pleasure.

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

End of Transcript

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Hisham Matar is a Libyan author. His debut novel In the Country of Men was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize. Matar's essays have appeared in the Asharq Alawsat, The Independent, The Guardian, The Times and The New York Times. His second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, was published on 3rd March 2011. He currently lives and writes in London.