A year ago, my colleagues and I organized an unprecedented news conference in Tripoli to release our report assessing Libya's human rights record and steps toward reform. We invited victims of government abuses to join us and speak about what they had suffered.
Seif Islam Kadafi, one of the sons of Libya's ruler, was primarily responsible for persuading officials to allow us to hold the news conference. As the semi-sanctioned internal voice for reform, his "private" foundation had pushed publicly for changing the country's laws and freeing political prisoners, and it helped establish two private newspapers that sometimes criticized government policies. We had a sense that, with Seif Islam's support, some genuine political liberalization was possible and civil society might be able to breathe more freely.
Yet early Monday, the same Seif Islam told the world that he and his father's government would fight to the "last bullet" to keep themselves in power. And true to his word — this time — the Libyan authorities attacked their own people, declaring "major military operations" against "pockets of terror." As of this writing, the death toll since protests began has reached the hundreds. Doctors have told us that many deaths were from gunshot wounds to the head, neck and shoulders. Seif Islam, who might have led Libyans to a peaceful transition, has become an advocate for policies leading to their deaths.
Seif Islam in fact abandoned his nascent reform agenda long before the past week's demonstrations rocked "Brother Leader" Moammar Kadafi's rule. With no progress on any institutional or legal reforms, and a stalemate with the old guard over his efforts to rein in the country's notorious security forces, Seif Islam last year announced his withdrawal from political life and said that his foundation would no longer focus on human rights and political affairs. His two newspapers, press agency and radio stations were closed for various periods of time, and scores of journalists who were the least bit critical were suspended and even arrested.
For sure, most Libyans we spoke with never had much faith that Moammar Kadafi would learn new tricks, or that the announced reforms were anything more than an endless loop of promises made and broken. What is awe-inspiring and heartening is the Libyans' stand today, against deadly force and against decades of stifling oppression that has kept their society in despair and disrepair.
Libyans stand almost alone among other Arabs for the extreme isolation they experienced not only under Kadafi's iron-fisted rule but over a decade of international sanctions for the country's role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Until a few years ago, Internet communications were virtually nonexistent and the only local news source was state media. Satellite television, especially Al Jazeera, had opened Libyan eyes to developments in the world and region, but reports about Libya by international or independent journalists had been a rarity.
Libyans thus had little opportunity to assemble components of civil society. Political associations, human rights organizations, independent professional associations or trade unions were all strictly proscribed, and organized opposition to the "ideology of the 1969 revolution" was punishable by death. On my first visit to Libya in 2005, the specially selected "civil society representatives" permitted to talk with us, and even government officials we met, displayed anxiety about expressing any opinions outside their sanctioned talking points. They literally recited chapter and verse of the Green Book, Kadafi's small manuscript on governance. The performance was unmatched by anything I had seen in Syria and Iraq.
This atmosphere improved, and we heard more criticism and debate, during the brief opening Seif Islam heralded. No doubt wider access to the Internet has had the greatest effect, making available not just independent news about Libya — particularly from opposition websites such as Libya Alyoum — but also communication among Libyans. Witnessing the collapse of their neighbors' strongmen — Tunisia's Zine el Abidine ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak — doubtless bolstered Libyans' newfound confidence that such a transformation was within their reach.
In December 2009, I recorded our meeting with a young Libyan activist outside Tripoli who told us about the arrests, beatings and torture he and his brothers had endured after security forces discovered that they had planned a demonstration in the capital's central square. I asked him why he risked so much to organize at best 100 demonstrators who would probably be crushed within an hour of assembling. "It could be like the time the Americans landed on the moon," he replied, "a small step for us but a big step for Libya."
This week, Libyans had their moon landing. We owe it to them to help ensure that their journey has not been in vain.
Sarah Leah Whitson is director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.