Libyans eager to recapture the language of freedom from Qaddafi

Members of Libya's National Transitional Council must "restore the honour to these kind of words: democracy, freedom, socialism".

BENGHAZI // Jubilant after a day of good news for the rebels in Libya, Alaa El Huni cried out: "Victory for the revolutionaries!" as the radio chronicled the battles of the day.

But catching himself, his voice quickly turned sober and pensive.

"Even now, it is difficult for us to call ourselves revolutionaries," he said. "Qaddafi took every word, every idea, from us and turned it around for his own use."

Winning back language from Col Muammar Qaddafi's defunct regime, it turns out, may be as monumental a task as creating institutions of government and civil society from virtually nothing.

Col Qaddafi keenly understood that words - and the ability to co-opt and manipulate them - were as important to maintaining his rule as guns, fear and patronage.

Revolution? Libya was in a state of "permanent revolution", the colonel insisted, long after it had sunk into culture, economic and political lethargy.

Dictatorship? Nonsense. He was merely "Brotherly Leader and Guide to the Revolution" - a comradely honorific he accorded himself - even though his control over every aspect of Libyan life was all but absolute.

Mr El Huni and other functionaries of the National Transitional Council, the putative successor to the Qaddafi regime, are grappling with the nitty-gritty questions of government and institution-building in the post-Qaddafi era, and the language legacy is one of their most formidable challenges.

"Qaddafi has confiscated all the dictionary of progressive ideas from us," said Idris Tayeb Lamin, a Libyan poet and foreign affairs officer under the new interim government. "We have to restore the honour to these kind of words: democracy, freedom, socialism. They have been humiliated under Qaddafi."

Mr Lamin spent 10 years in prison in Tripoli for writing critical opinion articles in a government newspaper. Even then, he said he and others with ideas about how the country could be better found it difficult to "distinguish our ideas from those of Qaddafi," he said. "He used the same words."

The irony, Mr Lamin said, is that now the ideas that Col Qaddafi used as a cover for obsessive control of power would become "liberated" on their own.

The use of language in this way is a trend across the Arab Spring, where leaders who came to power through coups against colonial regimes have tried to reduce opposition by claiming to be a part of their movement, he said.

One of the NTC's first announcements since the lightning invasion of Tripoli was its plans to restart schools across the country after Eid Al Fitr. Importantly, there will not be enough time to rewrite the curriculum, much of which refers to Col Qaddafi's political doctrine. Children would have learnt about the "revolution" of 1973, when Col Qaddafi created people's committees across the country and created a new word, "jamahiriya" - meaning "state of the masses" - to describe Libya's purported direct democracy.

"What Qaddafi did with language was unique in my mind," said Ronald Bruce St John, an author of several books on Libya. "When he set himself apart by not taking any official position, calling himself the guide, he removed himself from potential criticism by portraying himself as someone outside the loop, outside the official decision-making channel."

But of course it was all nonsense, St John said. "The system of official people's committees was a facade and it was parallel to the Qaddafi regime, with its various security and intelligence actually running the place."

The newly freed Libyans will then have two "revolutions" in their history: the coup of 1969 and uprising of 2011. It will be up to the authors of new textbooks to make sense of the differences.

Street graffiti around the rebel capital of Benghazi shows young Libyans are fully aware of the power of language in repurposing history. Aside one distorted image of Qaddafi's face is scrawled in Arabic: "Monkey of monkeys of Africa", a play on one of his preferred titles, "king of kings".

Col Qaddafi blasted the emir of Qatar at a meeting in 2009 during one of his characteristic outbursts: "I am an international leader, the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims, and my international status does not allow me to descend to a lower level," he said, before storming out of the conference.

Now, he is known as "frizz head", as can be found on walls or in the chants of protesters. Employees of Libya Alhurra - the rebel television station - stamp on his face as they enter their offices inside a former security building with jail cells holding equipment and desks. Children spit on his spray-painted image on walls. And the rebel flag - taken from the period of the Kingdom of Libya from 1951 to 1969 - flies from buildings nearly everywhere.

Published: August 28, 2011 04:00 AM


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