Before he fled Libya 30 years ago, Mansour El-Kikhia remembers driving past bodies strung up in town squares across Benghazi, bodies of men who he said were outspoken government dissidents just like him. El-Kikhia, who now chairs UTSA’s political science and geography department, has for decades spoken out against the regime of Muammar El-Qaddafi, writing extensively about the Libyan dictator’s “personality cult” in newspaper columns, academic papers, and books challenging the Qaddafi regime. As revolt began to shake Qaddafi’s hold on Libya last year, El-Kikhia helped fan from afar the flames of revolution growing out of his hometown, the rebel capital Benghazi.
Throughout the fighting, El-Kikhia has stayed in close contact with members of the opposition’s transitional council, acting as an advisor to the opposition as rebel fighters seized Libya one city at a time. In April, El-Kikhia ventured back to Libya for the first time in over 30 years to work with the opposition and see the situation firsthand. Last week, on the eve of another trip to Libya following the fall of Tripoli to rebel fighters, El-Kikhia spoke of his time back home and his role as advisor to the revolution.
What were the circumstances when you fled Libya?
I was very politically active before I fled, and I was a very ardent critic of the injustice I saw. I saw murder. Murder at the hands of the regime, murder of those who stood against the regime. I saw so much that was wrong, and I saw [Qaddaffi’s] personality cult very early on. I eventually spoke up and it became increasingly difficult and dangerous for me. By the end, my family, my friends, everyone knew the regime wanted my head. So I had to leave. I had to escape.
How did you become involved in the opposition?
I had been talking to a number of people over there on the phone and internet even before there was this huge movement you see now. Even at that point, I was very active even in bringing about the revolution. I worked hard along with a lot of other Libyans, some inside the country, some who were forced outside like me. We all have a personal stake in this. I continue to have access to members of the government council over there and I let them know my ideas and what I think. But most importantly, I tell them I and others are going to hold them accountable for what happens going forward.
This is a new Libya, we’re starting from scratch. Not like the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions where the bureaucracy is still there. What you write on this piece of paper, this empty white piece of paper, will be the revolution. It will be our country going forward.
Who are the rebels, the opposition leaders?
It’s really made up of amateurs who decided to take up the task of running the show until an elected government is selected. That, by the way, is key to Libya’s future: a government truly elected by the people, and I think the opposition realizes that. In this movement, you have people from a broad range of Libyan society. You have people who have lived in America, people who are progressive, people who are nationalists, a variety of people. But some of this criticism, this idea that, ‘Oh, we’re going to have al Qaeda,’ it’s nonsense. That’s not who these people are, that’s not going to happen in Libya.
What was it like being back after 30 years?
For the last 30 years, I was like a bird that yearns to go back to that place I was born. I’ve seen the change in Libyans since I left, through three decades of oppression. I expected the country would be better, but it was much worse than when I had left it. But now I see a Libya that is changing.
What happens to Libya now?
I’m afraid Qaddafi will still be taunting for many years to come. I’m talking about Qaddafi as far as ideology, what he’s done to people in Libya. He was a magnet to certain types of people in Libya. What do you do with them? Do you eradicate them? Of course not. You can’t. They’re going to be there. They’re going to have children. Are they going to be influenced by Qaddafi? Of course they are. Are they going to continue to buy into Qaddafi even after he’s gone? Of course. But you’ve got to set up a democratic, transparent, and secular state in Libya. How can you deny them the right to vote? This is one of the things I stress when I talk to leaders in the opposition and I hope they listen. •
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