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In Libya, ‘People Are Willing to Die’ for Freedom From Gadhafi

February 25, 2011 at 6:16 PM EST
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Reports of violence continue to trickle out from Libya, where foreign journalists are largely barred from working. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with several people inside Libya via phone, then to software engineer Mohamed Eljahmi and nuclear scientist Naeem Gheriany, both Libyan-Americans and longtime critics of the Gadhafi regime.
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JIM LEHRER: And now to Hari Sreenivasan. He has been talking by phone to several people in Libya.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In Tripoli, we spoke with a woman who wanted only over be identified by her first name. Rhama lives in the Suq al Jum’ah neighborhood. She watched Gadhafi’s speech and wondered if his supporters in Green Square had been paid to be there.

RHAMA, Suq al Jum’ah, Libya: Fear is back. We had eyewitnesses that saw in the Green Square an SUV with an open back filled with fresh cash just out of the bank. And they were asking people, hey, can you bring me 30 — 30 guys? How much do you want, 12 grand, 10 grand? And they just give them cash straight. Just bring us people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: She says Gadhafi used the cash to fill Green Square with supporters and that the smiles and support are easy to buy from a population that needs so much.

RHAMA: These people are hungry for money. I mean, if you take a bunch of Libyans and take them to Gadhafi, and Gadhafi asks them, what do you guys want, a lot of them would say, oh, yes, we need cars, we need housing, we need to live life, basically.

And if you bribe them with cash, they are very, you know, close-minded, that they don’t know what other stuff would be beneficiary for them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On the western side of Tripoli, a man we spoke to who only goes only by his screen name on Twitter, Libya_United, said the propaganda machine has been running for several days now. He’s been getting pro-Gadhafi text messages on his phone.

LIBYA_UNITED, Tripoli, Libya: We’re getting messages that we have four red lines. Anyone who try to cross the lines will be punished. And these four — four red lines are country, Gadhafi, security, Libyan security stuff, this — these things. Don’t cross these four lines, so you don’t get punched and stuff like that. The last messages were just fatwa from sheiks from Saudi, Saudi Arabia, that says it’s (INAUDIBLE) to come against the leader of the country.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the eastern part of Libya, in the city of Benghazi, we reached a 42-year-old man just after Friday prayers. He said thousands took to the streets and were united in their defiance of Gadhafi.

MARI BOURHIL, Benghazi, Libya: I swear to Allah we are going to condemn, all (INAUDIBLE) him and send him to the high court. This is from me and from the whole Libyan. We need help. We need help from America. We need help from Europe, because the people at the streets, we don’t have planes to fight. We don’t have guns to fight. We fight just by sticks or stones.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now to what Libyan-Americans are hearing from their contacts, friends and families across Libya, as Gadhafi struggles to hold on to power in Tripoli. We have two longtime critics of the Gadhafi regime: Mohamed Eljahmi, who works as a software engineer, and Naeem Gheriany, a nuclear scientist.

Thanks for joining us.

So, Mohamed, let start with you first, Mr. Eljahmi.

Is this parallel, does this sync up with what you’re hearing from your family members there, that there is almost this propaganda machine that is going on to try to present this image that Gadhafi is still in power?

MOHAMED ELJAHMI, Activist: Yes.

Mr. Gadhafi, throughout his rule, has been consistent in building his — his rule on three components: fear, deceit, and impoverishing the Libyan people. Impoverishing the Libyan people meaning tying their individual needs, their basic needs to — fulfilling their basic needs to absolute loyalty to him.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Mr. Gheriany, what are you hearing? Is this what you’re hearing on the ground?

NAEEM GHERIANY, activist: Well, what we’re hearing is that there was more killing today in Tripoli. We knew that that’s coming, that was coming.

There has been a buildup for this battle over the past four or five days, both from the demonstrators’ side, as well as the — Gadhafi’s people and his security apparatus or whatever remains of that.

We are kind of surprised that it took so long, because Gadhafi definitely would have wanted to crush the protesters as soon as possible. They have been in the streets of Tripoli for the past several days. We think that he didn’t do that, not out of nicety, but just because he could have not arranged for his own security. And that’s an indication that he doesn’t really have much control.

In fact, yesterday, he appeared — or he called, rather, over the phone the state TV and didn’t even have a picture of him.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. Eljahmi, what about — what about the speech today? What do you make of it?

MOHAMED ELJAHMI: I — this is basically more desperation. He’s playing on to the anger. He’s trying to show that he has control in terms of trying — imploring his people to retaliate. And it is all desperation.

We may be looking at Mr. Gadhafi’s last speech. I really think, when you look at where his control is, it is his (INAUDIBLE) and some other parts in the south. But, you know, and for the better of Libyan society and the Libyan state is that Mr. Gadhafi needs to go. The longer he stays around, the — the more is the threat of a civil war and so — and destabilization of Libya.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. Gheriany, are you hearing a consistent message? In Egypt, it seemed that it was Mubarak out, democracy in. What are you hearing in Libya?

NAEEM GHERIANY: It’s very consistent and — consistent, the message that we’re hearing from Libya, that enough Gadhafi. That’s the message. Gadhafi has been around for 41 years. This is his 42nd year. That’s since the time of Nixon. It’s eight American administrations.

And over those four decades, he destroyed the country in every aspect you can think of. So, people are fed up. Those who are revolting against him now are — were all born during his — his rule. And they knew nothing but Gadhafi. Yet, they reject him, and it’s very determined. There’s no going back.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is the emphasis on a democracy there?

NAEEM GHERIANY: There’s a lot of thirst for democracy in Libya and in the whole region, of course, yes.

There were no other slogans that were people chanting, other than, you know, we want freedom, we want to live like human beings, we had enough of this tyranny, and we are not going to take it anymore. And people are willing to die facing machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, mercenaries, all kinds of assaults on them. And they are facing that with — with very, very — and determination.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. Eljahmi, what about the movement? If we can talk a little bit about what you’re hearing on the ground there, is there an organizational structure that’s forming? We saw a little bit in one of those stories, but are there people starting to organize to say, we’re ready to lead, in the absence of Gadhafi?

MOHAMED ELJAHMI: Well, it started in the eastern parts, yes. The tribes played — there tribes are playing a positive role.

It — there is — when the tribes, the elders talk, the younger ones listen. In Al Bayda, for example, the former justice minister who quit was put in charge of Al Bayda. In Benghazi, they formed a committee of — made out of the attorney Fathi Terbil, who is the one who started the — the protest — or his arrest by Libyan security, by Gadhafi’s security, triggered the protest.

And they informed some committee to do the work and — for the city of Benghazi. The — what in the Libya — Libya, the positive thing right now is there’s emphasis on unity. For example, the flag of the independence flag, which was the time with the last — with the constitutional monarchy, is being raised in Tripoli and Benghazi.

The — every city, they’re talking about national unity. And if it is — if it continues, it seems like the enemy — well, the enemy really here is Mr. Gadhafi himself, because he consistently, for nearly 42 years, has prevented Libyans from, you know, meeting their aspirations.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.

MOHAMED ELJAHMI: In addition, his — in his policies, these policies, the new youth of Libya right now, they’re looking for the — or the embodies of a mix of spirituality of the East with materialism of the West.

They want — they want to earn things the right way, unlike what Mr. Gadhafi did. He corrupted Libyan society…

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.

MOHAMED ELJAHMI: … by creating a situation where the only way to do — to become is to be involved in state security and harm your citizens and terrorize the population.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, we will have to leave it there.

Mohamed Eljahmi, thanks so much.

And, Naeem Gheriany, thank you for your time.

NAEEM GHERIANY: Thank you.