By Andrew England
Activists and revolutionaries reflect on their struggles for reform in the countries they fought to free.
TAKING ON GADDAFI
On February 17 2011, Libyans inspired by events in Cairo and Tunis used social media to call for a “Day of Rage” to protest Muammer Gaddafi’s despotic 42-year rule.
The dictator responded with predictable ruthlessness, dispatching his feared security forces to demonstrations in the eastern city of Benghazi. But the protesters remained defiant.
Ahmed (not his real name) was a 22-year-old fresh out of university, determined to join the crowds filling Benghazi’s streets. On February 18, he ventured out with his father. “I remember thousands and thousands all over and screaming and yelling against Gaddafi . . . and looking at my father’s face,” Ahmed says.
“He was in such awe, such disbelief, because he lived through the prime of Gaddafi’s authority in the 1970s and 1980s, when colleagues [in academia] were hanged.”
As torched state buildings and police stations smouldered and the bodies of martyrs were laid to rest, the security forces began pulling back. “It was unimaginable,” Ahmed recalls.
I first met Ahmed a few days later, when I crossed into Libya from Egypt after covering the fall of Mubarak. As Gaddafi’s grip loosened, Benghazi was a city high with expectation.
The old courthouse, which looked out on the Mediterranean, was a cacophony of activity, a focal point for revolutionaries who set about establishing a “national council” and publishing the first editions of the Libya Free newspaper.
Ahmed, who spoke perfect English, became my fixer. Over the coming weeks, we sped along behind trucks and cars crammed with rebel fighters towards “front-lines” that in the early days were often no more than barriers erected across the desert road to Tripoli. Most had never picked up a gun in anger.
Often, they would fire in the air in a show of bravado, then retreat after Gaddafi’s better-equipped forces lobbed mortars and rockets in their direction. But they were resolute, and the intervention of Nato fighter jets in March neutralised Gaddafi’s military superiority.
Ahmed watched from the sidelines. He was keen to join his peers in battle, but committed to his work with me. In May, after I left Libya, he finally enlisted. “I don’t think I would have been able to live with myself if I hadn’t done it,” he says now. “It still annoys me today that I wasn’t able to reach the protests on February 17.”
Three months later, he was in the revolutionary convoy that rolled into Tripoli as huge crowds cheered their liberators. The images are still vivid: “You think these things are imaginary and made up, but it was like that exactly.”
Ahmed then took part in the assault on Gaddafi’s compound, which signalled the fall of Tripoli. The culmination of seven months of tumult and bloodshed, it was also an intoxicating period of hope, as the nation felt the shackles being lifted.
Academics, lawyers and others now had a chance to shape the nation in their vision. Ahmed put down his AK-47 and returned to Benghazi to raise awareness about the constitutional process, voting and political parties.
Most Libyans had zero experience of elections but, in July 2012, they cast their ballots. “It was like Libya had won the World Cup — national flags everywhere and people hanging out of cars, honking their horns,” Ahmed says. “A lot of people, even in Libya, forget how good it was because of how bad things are [now].
But if you talk to anyone and remind them of the details, they remember, yeah, actually how powerful it was.”
SYRIA: ASSAD CRACKS DOWN
As Egypt, Libya and Tunisia navigated the bumpy road towards elections, Mazen Darwish was braving security forces’ bullets in Damascus.
In March 2011, he was briefly detained as the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime gathered momentum. The shootings, beatings and arrests “were an early sign that it was not going to go the same way as Egypt or Tunisia”, he remembers.
A human rights lawyer, Darwish knew the risks of opposing a regime with a history of ruthlessly snuffing out dissent. But he prayed Assad would agree to compromises, so the protesters could, at least, achieve partial gains.
Early on, Darwish and others met groups of youths and warned them against violence and sectarianism. “We thought the regime couldn’t win if the opposition used political or peaceful and moral means because our demands were patriotic,” he recalls.
“But we always said if the regime managed to lure the protest movement to violence or sectarianism, it would win because these are its two favoured arenas.”
He believes the opposition’s use of arms was inevitable after the regime resorted to brutal methods to crush them. It also became apparent that the struggle in Syria would not remain a domestic affair.
The regime was soon supported by Iran and the militias it backed, including the Lebanese movement Hizbollah. In 2015, Russia’s intervention tilted the war irrevocably in Assad’s favour.
And as peaceful protest morphed into armed rebellion, governments such as Turkey and the US provided arms and cash to the opposition, including the Islamist factions that ultimately dominated moderate groups.
Darwish and others tried to convince Islamists to avoid violence but, he says, “The regime, regional actors, domestic factions, they all had an interest in violence.”
However, it was the regime, with its chemical weapons and barrel bombs, that “started the violence and created the ground for others” to behave likewise.
Darwish endured this brutality first hand. In February 2012, regime forces sealed off streets around his office in Damascus, bundled him and 15 others into a bus and carted them off to a military base. Over three and a half years of detention, he was beaten with clubs, shocked with electric prods and hung by his arms.
On one occasion, his limp body was dumped among the dead, only for guards to realise he was alive. “It was a form of revenge with no other objective,” he says, speaking in a measured tone.
He was released in 2015 to a Damascus he no longer recognised. Most of his friends had left Syria or were imprisoned or missing — among tens of thousands of people the regime had “disappeared”.
Darwish escaped to Germany, joining the nearly six million Syrians — almost a third of the population — who have fled their homeland. Today, Assad, with Russian and Iranian backing, has reclaimed control of most of the country. But he clings to a pyrrhic victory as the broken nation’s economy teeters towards collapse.
Millions are destitute. Isis, the jihadi group that exploited the chaos to take over swathes of Syria, remains a threat despite losing its hold on territory. “There are no victors in Syria,” Darwish says. “The Syrian nation lost.”
Now 47, he knows “utopian” thoughts of regime change are delusional for the foreseeable future, though he believes Assad will eventually be replaced from within as his foreign backers realise they are better off without him.
“The regional and international players will reach a point . . . where it will no longer be possible to invest in the Syrian war,” Darwish says. But even that seems optimistic for now.
Andrew England is the Middle East editor. He was previously MIddle East and Africa news editor. Prior to that, he spent 17 years based in the Middle East and Africa as a foreign correspondent.
His posts included Southern Africa bureau chief, Abu Dhabi bureau chief and Middle East and North Africa correspondent.
He joined the Financial Times in 2004 as East Africa correspondent. Before joining the FT, he was East Africa correspondent for the Associated Press.