Young protesters march in front of the White House at a rally earlier this year in support of the revolt against the rule of Libyan leader Momar Gaddafi. Photo by Collin David Anderson.
Local Libyan Immigrants Support Anti-Gaddafi Revolution
Yahia Tagouri immigrated to the United States from Libya in 1987. He returned only once – in 2007 when his father passed away.
Last February, he watched as his homeland exploded, blowing the lid off of four decades of oppressive rule under President Momar Gaddafi. Like so many Arab-Americans inspired by the freedom movement which began in Tunisia and which continues to convulse the entire region, Tagouri is now doing what he can to support the on-going revolution in Libya.
When the Muslim Link called him to interview him on what local Libyan-Americans were doing to support there brethren displaced by the fighting, he asked the first question.
“So, what do you know about Libya?”
The question hinted at his apprehension – shared by Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians, and other Arab-Americans put into a situation of being educators and pubic relations specialists on behalf of their compatriots on the Arab streets – that most Americans see the Arab revolutions in a time frame going back weeks, not decades.
So, the medical researcher and board member of the newly formed Libyan Council of North America began giving this non-Libyan reporter a broad historical summary of the four decade rule of a tyrant who many deem mentally unsound.
Starting from Gaddafi’s seizure of power through a coup in 1969, Tagouri went through the last 42 years, describing how Gaddafi halted constitutional rights and laws starting in 1973, and began publicly assassinating opposition leaders in 1977.
“I am a witness to [these assassinations] because it happened in front of my eyes in Benghazi and then in Tripoli,” said Tagouri. Gaddafi even had exiled opposition leaders killed in Europe and elsewhere, he added.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, both secular and Islamic opposition groups attempted to remove Gadaffi through coups or assassination.
In 1996, overcrowding in Abusalem jail in the capital Tripoli prompted inmates – most of whom were members of various Islamic groups – to take over the prison. They demanded due process – many were in prison without charges or sentences – health care, and contact with their family members. Gaddafi sent his officials to the prison, promising to hear inmate concerns if they returned to their cells. The inmates agreed. The following day 1,280 of the inmates were assembled in a yard and gunned down with machine guns and heavy artillery. Their bodies were dumped in a massive pit and sealed over with concrete.
Though rumors were rife, family members did not know if their loved ones were dead or alive behind the prison walls. Guards took food and money from family members, promising to deliver the items to inmates they knew were killed.
Finally in 2008, families of prisoners from the eastern city of Benghazi formed a coalition, hired a lawyer, and began protesting every Saturday in front of the court in Benghazi, demanding to know if their sons, fathers, and husbands were dead or alive. In Washington DC, Tagouri and other Libyan-Americans did the same, protesting every Saturday in front of the White House.
Then, the Tunisian revolution shook the Arab world, unleashing pent up energy from the Arab street with forced Tunis’ long-time dictator from power. Just days later, the Egyptian revolution topples Mubarak.
“When it was successful in Egypt also, the organizers of the protest in Libya said they will take February 17 as the day to protest. [Their] lawyers were arrested few days before [the protest], and then the entire city of Benghazi went out on Feb 17. Tanks and heavy artillery [were used] against them, that day several secret service members joined the protesters,” recalled Tagouri.
Tagouri and other Libyan-Americans teleconferenced and on February 19 they formed the Libyan Emergency Task Force with three main committees: a political committee headed by Esam Omeish from Virginia, a humanitarian aid committee headed by Tagouri, and a media committee.
“[Cities] were falling quickly on the east side and we thought this will be the fastest revolution that ever took place,” recalled Tagouri. But fighting continued, and Gadaffi regrouped.
The Washington area Libyan Emergency Task Force quickly expanded to a network of Libyan task forces in major cities across the US and Canada. The first priority for these mostly new activists was to push the international community to set-up and enforce a no-fly zone to stop Gadaffi’s planes from bombing the revolting cities.
Yahia Tagouri’s home was attacked twice; no one was injured.
One month later, on April 17, 300 Libyans from across the US and Canada met in Washington DC and formed the Libyan Council of North America with an aim to “facilitate and integrate humanitarian aid, political action and media outreach among various organizations, groups and individuals” in support of the Libyan people. Both Yahia Tagouri and Esam Omeish were elected to the Board.
Politically, the new Libyan Council of North America helps facilitate meetings between US officials and representatives from the anti-Gaddafi forces. Earlier this year the Libyan Council of North America helped arrange such a meeting with Senator John Kerry.
Asked if he fears for his safety because of his involvement with the Libyan Council, Tagouri said he and the other Libyan-American activists are “beyond the fear” and that “over 30,000 people have [already] given their lives for Libya.”
Tagouri’s humanitarian committee responsibility on the new Council puts him in direct contact with the situation of the over 60,000 Libyan refugees now in Tunisia.
“What the Tunisians did was unbelievable. Some families let people stay with them who they don’t know, and some [gave up] their homes for Libyan families,” said Tagouri.
Qatar and UAE built the two refugee camps Tunis and Tagouri helps provide food, medicine, clothing, and other assistance to Libyans in the camps. “We are also dealing with hundreds of rape cases,” he added, saying Gaddafi has given a “green light” to his soldiers to rape women at will.
Tagouri and other Libyan-American activists hope they are witnessing the last days of Gaddafi’s reign.
“I think if we can take Libya back to 1969, we’ll be going 40 years forward. [Gaddafi] completely destroyed the health and education systems … there is no justice. Poverty is among the highest. You are talking about a country which produces some of the finest oil in the world,” explained Tagouri. “Before February 17 , if you told me there was going to be a revolution in Libya, I would have told you that you were dreaming … that Libyans are incapable of doing what the Tunisians did …. I never saw there was any chance to make a difference,” he admitted.
But now he knows the Libya he left in 1987 is very different than the one he sees today and for one reason: its people.
“When I talk to my brother in Libya I hear takbeer in the background and they said from day one the takbeer did not stop from the masajid,” said Tagouri, becoming emotional. “A young man lost both his legs, [he is] maybe in his early twenties from Misrata. He could not stop saying ‘alhumdulillah that my legs preceded me to jannah’ ...can you imagine what those types of people could have done given time [without this war]?”
The revolution, as Tagouri sees it, occurred in the hearts of his people.
For more information on the new Libyan council, visit www.Northamericanlibyans.org.