It was late in the evening in Zawiyah just west of Tripoli — after the town had endured a horrifying assault by Libyan government forces earlier Tuesday — when I finally reached someone who was willing to talk to me in a taped telephone call about what he’d seen.
His voice suggested he was in his middle years. But he spoke to me on the condition that I say nothing else that could betray his identity, not his first name nor his profession nor any details about his family.
His account of the siege of Zawiyah by Moammar Gadhafi-led forces trying to retake lost territory was riveting, and at times horrifying. But what was most compelling to me were the echoes I heard of Egypt. It was the same hunger for dignity and respect that I heard from newly minted revolutionaries in Tahrir Square during my 10 days there, 10 days that ended with President Mubarak leaving power.
“The boys are in control of the city,” the Zawiyah man began by saying. By “boys,” did he mean the rebels? “No,” he said firmly. “We are not rebels. We don’t want to be called rebels. We are revolutionary forces, we are the dignity revolution.”
He added later, “We are peaceful people. … We only said, ‘No. Enough. Enough is enough.'” That’s the sort of thing I heard over and over in Egypt.
I recall a 29-year-old out-of-work research assistant who vowed to me that he’d stay in his tent on the square until Mubarak left. “We don’t have guns, we only have words. But they can’t hear our words. For 30 years, they haven’t heard our words. We’re nothing to Mubarak. To him, we’re just animals.”
And a young engineering student who’d traveled 200 miles from his town in the conservative Delta region, who said, “I want my country back. We have a 7,000-year-old civilization. We deserve our dignity.”
Here’s another echo — as in Egypt, a tale of remarkable courage displayed by ordinary people. My Zawiyah friend was describing the residents’ reaction to Gadhafi’s threat Monday night (which news accounts say was conveyed in a phone call from Gadhafi to a town elder) that if Zawiyah didn’t give up, it would be bombarded from the air. The townspeople’s response, he said, was to “come out of their homes, women and children and old people and everybody, and stand — some 10,000 of us — spend the night waiting for this bombardment.” They heard jet planes overhead, but the bombing never came. Militarily, he said, the townspeople are outgunned, but they’ve managed to hold back the government forces by blocking the three main entrances into town. “Our power is our confidence in ourselves and confidence in our belief. We want to be free. That’s our strength,” he said.
He also described the same sort of solidarity that brought together all layers of Egyptian society during the heady 18-day uprising there. “You can’t believe the confidence and happiness on the faces,” he said, as people with money share with those who have none, and people with bread do the same.
There is one chilling difference, of course — the violence being employed by the Libyan government against its own people. The man from Zawiyah was begging for outside intervention — “time is against us” — before there’s a massacre. But when it comes to military assistance, even a no-fly zone, the international community’s answer is no. Or at least, not yet.
Libya could still end very badly. Of the three options outlined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday — democracy, protracted civil war or chaos — two are grim indeed. What’s more, after 42 years of concerted repression, the protesters in Libya have nothing like the civil society, professional institutions and volunteer organizations to draw upon that Egyptians did. But a conversation like this one reminds us that the yearning for respect lurks in all of us, deeply felt if never fully expressed.