Libya: Meet The Quiet Lawyer Who Sparked A Revolution

What pushed Libyans to rise up against Gaddafi's regime? It may have all begun with the Feb. 15 arrest of Fathi Tirbil, a young Benghazi attorney known for his probes into earlier massacres.

Courthouse Square, Benghazi
Courthouse Square, Benghazi
Nicolas Bourcier

BENGHAZI - It all started in the home of a 38-year-old lawyer. At around 3 p.m. on February 15, Fathi Tirbil opened the door of his small Benghazi bachelor's apartment to see more than 20 armed Libyan national security officers waiting for him. They pushed their way in, seized his computer, phones and papers, and then escorted him to the local police station.

By 6 p.m., the news of his arrest had already started to spread. A handful of fellow attorneys and human rights activists then rushed to the despised headquarters of the police, demanding an explanation. A few hours later, they were joined by several hundred protesters. Without knowing it, Fathi Tirbil had just triggered what would shortly become the third major uprising in the Arab world, following those in Tunisia and Egypt.

For Libyans, Fathi Tirbil was the spark, and became one of the revolution's first faces. With his air of eternal youth and the keffiyeh scarf around his neck, Fathi Tirbil had been working for many years on one of Libya's most sensitive matters. As part of a team of half a dozen lawyers, he acted on behalf of the families of those gone missing from the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli.

On June 29 1996, more than 1,270 prisoners were shot to death by the soldiers there, and none of the bodies were delivered to their families – and nobody has ever been charged for the massacre.

"The Libyan people needed a cause to fight for"

By choosing to pick on Fathi Tirbil, Muammar Gaddafi had reopened the festering wounds of the much neglected, and often repressed population of Eastern Libya. "The people started this revolt because of the injustices to which it has been subjected to for so long," says the lawyer from his hotel room in Benghazi, where he now stays for safety reasons. "But the people needed a cause to fight for. By taking to the streets and demanding the release of all detainees, myself included, the revolt suddenly found a justification."

Fathi Tirbil is endowed with a rare sense of idealism, and his modesty is fueled by a deep thirst for justice. The prospect of seeing Gaddafi's troops closing in on Benghazi once more does not scare him, he says. "There is absolutely nothing which would make us go back. It is too late for that: the people have tasted the great wind of liberty."

After seeing dozens of people being hanged on state television in 1986, and after the imprisonment of one of his brothers, three years later, at Abu Salim without any explanation, Fathi Tirbil quickly forged a conscience. "I told myself that Gaddafi was capable of sending anyone to prison, no matter what they stood for." That is why he needed to become a lawyer, which he considers "the only way to deal with this regime."

Five times he was arrested and beaten by the police: "Sometimes they wanted the names of liberal opponents to the regime, and other times religious opponents." Like the vast majority of students of his generation, Fathi Tirbil was not able to finish his studies as he should have. He was imprisoned twice on the day of exams.

So it took him 10 years of correspondence courses to finally obtain his precious diploma in 2006. Two years later, a colleague talked to him about the case of Afiz Garguri, imprisoned in Abu Salim in 1996. There was no mention of his name in any record: the man was a "missing person," like so many others.

Fathi Tirbil admits that he first smiled at the thought of going after the government with this issue, "But we did it anyway." Together with a small group of lawyers, they started gathering documents, and struggled to convince other families to file complaints. They started with 30 cases, then the number grew to 80 a few months later, and finally reached around 100 before the outbreak of the insurgency. "We were unable to find more families willing to talk, everyone was so terrified."

A hotline...just in case

On March 26, 2009, five Benghazis involved in the Abu Salim missing prisoner case were arrested and later released. At this point, the legal team decided to set up a hotline intended for the reporting of future possible arrests and considered organizing, if need be, a rally in front of the police headquarters.

And that very need presented itself on February 15. "Inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, a Facebook page called for a massive demonstration on February 17", Fathi Tirbil says. "But my arrest and the popular discontent it created took the authorities off guard. And that was our chance."

Somewhere around 10 p.m, the lawyer was transferred to the police headquarters. He was surprised to see that Gaddafi's sinister intelligence chief, Abdullah Senussi, came in person in his cell. By a strange coincidence, the man is considered one of the main official figures behind the killings of Abu Salim.

Senussi was angry. He thought that Fathi Tirbil was one of the instigators of the February 17 demonstration. "He was talking with two other people, when suddenly he asked me to stop the crowd. I told him that that was impossible, but that I could try talking to people provided that he called his men off the streets. He replied that he did not want to make me a hero."

Facing pressure, the regime's strong man had no choice but to free the lawyer at 2:30 a.m. In the afternoon of February 16, Senussi summoned him back again to the police station in Benghazi. "You do not have the choice", he told Tirbil, asking him again to call a stop to the protest scheduled for the day after. The lawyer urged him to allow the event "to proceed peacefully." Mr. Senussi then left the room, returning just a few minutes later: "You know we have the power to stop this demonstration. Do not make me act rashly." At which the lawyer replied: "I can do nothing." And they split. The following day was one of the bloodiest of the insurgency, with eastern cities Tobruk and Al-Bayda rising up as well.

Fathi Tirbil helped show the way for the insurgency, showing that desire for dignity can sometimes be more powerful than fear. "Yes, we benefitted from what happened in Tunisia and Egypt," the young lawyer explains. "Yes, we must be thankful to France. But now it is up to us to continue the movement. We have all we need to make Libya a great country."

Read the original article in French

Photo - Al Jazeera

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How Low Trust In Government Fuels Violence Against Politicians

The deadly stabbing of UK MP David Amess confirms this researcher's ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad.

Tribute to slain UK MP David Amess in Leigh-on-Sea on Oct. 15

James Weinberg

The killing of British Conservative MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on October 15, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councillor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

This is to say nothing of the 2018 attack on the Palace of Westminster that left police officer Keith Palmer dead and MPs in a state of shock.

Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

Between the divisive politics of Brexit and the growing polarization of British party politics, MPs currently work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. Even before the existential angst and subsequent politicking of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement concluded that “opinions of the systems of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandal."

The ramifications of governing in such an age of distrust are significant for the mental health and wellbeing of politicians. With colleagues, I've argued that such visceral and endemic distrust is a key stressor in political life. People are not simply wary or skeptical of politicians, they now routinely criticize their personalities and dismiss their good intentions. At its most severe, this “distrust stressor" manifests in the growing threat of physical violence faced by politicians.

Unfortunately, the distrust stressor is commonplace in the febrile climate of post-millennial UK politics. Serious cases of stalking and harassment have become a “common experience" for MPs. In the UK general election of 2017, for example, 56% of surveyed parliamentary candidates expressed concern about the levels of abuse and intimidation they had received and 31% said they had felt “fearful" during the campaign. Misuse of anonymous social media accounts has intensified these problems and created a toxic environment for elected politicians that regularly exposes them to online rape and murder threats.

Governing under threat

As part of an ongoing study of trust and governance in five democracies around the world, I recently carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with junior and senior politicians in national legislatures, including questions on the stresses and strains of political life.

Reflecting on the ramifications of simply doing their job, one Conservative MP commented:

There have been votes that have been controversial, and you can then get a lot of abuse as a result of picking a side. My office has been vandalized, I've had stuff sent to me in the post, I've received death threats. And you do build up a very thick skin doing this job, there's no shadow of a doubt. Because one week in it, if you're not able to roll with the punches, you won't see through a whole term.

Almost 40% of interviewees were able to cite more than one instance of serious abuse or threats of physical violence. Not only are these experiences felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK, but they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile. As one MP in New Zealand told me:

I've had some pretty horrible death threats and I've had a lot of abuse, particularly through social media. But also, funnily enough, in writing and phone calls. Unfortunately it's becoming more part of our political life.

Another, this time in South Africa, said:

What [this group of constituents] were saying is that if the water supply was not fixed by a certain time, they were going to kill me. And what they did is they took a tyre and said that this tyre was going to go around my neck and they're going to light it and that was going to be my demise. Listen, when you see your life flash before your eyes… you start to question whether it's worth it.

In the UK, analysis of data from the Representative Audit of Britain (a survey of all parliamentary candidates who stood in general elections between 2015 and 2019) suggests that the harassment, abuse and intimidation of elected and aspiring politicians is also highly gendered. Women politicians, and black and minority ethnic women in particular, experience a disproportionate share of sexualized abuse online. They also receive more aggressive and sexualized threats offline.

Contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation.

It is relatively easy to understand why all this would be detrimental to politicians' professional competence and their sense of personal worth and wellbeing, but it is harder to find solutions to this crisis.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for increased security measures in the wake of Amess's death. This is welcome but it's an instrumental response which might not be easy to implement. Political contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation – and it is unlikely that most MPs will agree to suspend constituency surgeries or fill their offices with armed guards at a time when governor-governed relations are already so strained.

Photo of \u200bNew Zealand's parliament in Wellington

New Zealand's parliament in Wellington

Guo Lei/Xinhua/ZUMA

Compassion and education

While specific issues around MPs' security and training are grappled with, we also need a call for conscious restraint and compassion in political discourse. When some politicians themselves resort to dog-whistle populism, verbal abuse and infighting, it broadcasts an image of politics as an arena for incivility. At the same time, it perpetuates a binary worldview that crowds out the possibility of empathy and compromise.

Alongside this, we need to overhaul the media coverage of politics. Increasingly intent on personalizing the political and politicizing the personal, a 24-hour news media too often drip feeds blunt stereotypes about politicians' personalities and motives. In contrast to much news coverage of politicians, my own research with hundreds of elected MPs and councillors has shown that the majority enter politics with an extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of others that is rarely perceived or appreciated by those they govern.

A deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible.

Equally important, nations around the world must commit to fully funded and well-resourced programmes of democratic education. Politics is messy and full of contingencies, and a deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible or desirable. In turn, this breeds disappointment and lowered self-efficacy, which together disrupt the positive potential of deliberative participation.

Ultimately, there is no place for political violence, harassment or intimidation in a functioning democracy. At the very least, politicians are ordinary humans attempting to undertake an extraordinary job on behalf of everybody else. Whatever their political views, nobody who has the courage to "step into the arena", to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, deserves to fear for their life in the pursuit of public service. To say that we need to rediscover civility and respect in our politics is once again an understatement of a devastating truth.The Conversation


James Weinberg is a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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