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What makes a dissident stand up after being knocked down again and again?


The life of dissident Fathi Eljahmi – who died this May after seven years in jail – remains a disturbing counterpoint to Libya’s apparent transformation from rogue state to darling of the West. Eljahmi was one of countless jailed human rights activists who have been left behind in Libya’s emergence as a Western ally.

Few people have stood their ground against so much. In 2004 de facto Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s thugs threatened to rape Eljahmi’s daughters unless he asked for forgiveness on national television for criticizing the Libyan regime. Eljahmi replied that he would rather die than apologize for speaking the truth. What makes a dissident stand up after being knocked down over and over again?

Born in Egypt in 1941, Eljahmi was the eldest of six children. His father – who came to Egypt from Libya to study Arabic and Islamic Law – was a stubborn man who lived by the laws he studied. His moral integrity was so fierce, for example, he once walked from the town of Asyut to Cairo (a distance of almost 200 miles) instead of borrowing money for a train ticket. He was forever reigning in his son, who was trying to find his own place in the world. “Fathi was strong willed,” his brother Mohamed explained to me over the phone. “My late father, who was equally strong willed, had trouble taming him.”

Once of age, Eljahmi moved to Tripoli to study civil engineering and eventually became the governor of the oil-rich Al Khaleej province. He enforced laws and governed the province according to his father’s code of ethics. In Gadhafi, Libya’s newly-minted dictator, Eljahmi saw a man with beliefs in stark contrast to his own. Eljahmi refused to participate in the bribery and corruption that marked the new government and spoke out at state-sponsored neighborhood meetings, called Basic People’s Conferences. In 1986 Eljahmi filed a lawsuit against the minister of education for closing Libya’s English schools. He won the lawsuit (after picketing the education ministry with his children), but lost the fight. The education minister, Ahmad Ibrahim, was Gadhafi’s cousin, so the case was dismissed. Eljahmi then wrote letters to Gadhafi about the failures of the legal system, injustices of the regime and the state of country. “Libyans are growing silent day by day,” he warned, “and apathy has become pervasive in society.”

This unswerving sense of moral duty pervaded every facet of Eljahmi’s life. After Eljahmi’s father died, his brothers, sisters and mother moved to Tripoli to live under his care. Mohamed – who is 20 years younger than his brother – remembers the day he brought home too much change from the corner store. Eljahmi marched him back to the store and made him confess and return the extra money to the clerk. “Fathi once told me, ‘if you promise to give your shirt to someone, you’d better take your shirt off and give it to him.’”

Eljahmi’s blunt criticisms soon became impossible for the government to ignore. A few years later, he refused a government posting by telling a senior regime operative, “I will not accept this appointment because, in the current political environment, only pimps and prostitutes thrive.”

Retribution came swift and brutal. Masked men invaded his home and held his family hostage for several hours. They stabbed Eljahmi and his wife, and terrorized his children by licking Eljahmi’s blood off the floor.

Why didn’t Eljahmi stay quiet after this? Why didn’t he go with the rest of his family to Benghazi instead of staying in Tripoli to continue his protests and calls for reform? Why, at another People’s Conference in 2002, did he call for a free press and democracy and the abolition of Gadhafi’s Green Book, only to be arrested on the spot and sentenced to five years in Abu Salim prison?

Eljahmi believed that Gadhafi had a fragile hold on power. He often claimed that enough sustained internal and international pressure would crumble the regime … and if it didn’t, Eljahmi feared that Libya would disintegrate into a lawless state. Ultimately he refused (with the same moral rectitude, perhaps, that led his father to walk to Cairo) to be changed by a corrupt and vengeful regime. He once wrote to Gadhafi, “I feel internal peace because I know every fate is predestined.”

In March of 2004, after diplomatic pressure from then-senator Joseph Biden, Eljahmi was briefly released. It afforded Eljahmi another opportunity to change his course, but he didn’t. As soon as he was released, he spoke to foreign journalists and international Arab-language TV stations about the state of Libya’s political prisoners and life in Libya. He told the Wall Street Journal, “All that is left for [Gadhafi] to do is hand us a prayer carpet and ask us to bow before his picture and worship him.”

The regime quickly rearrested Eljahmi, ransacked his house and terrorized his family. He spent the next five years, until his death at the age of 68, in Libya’s prisons, much of the time in an isolated cell. At one point Gadhafi’s son, Seif el-Islam, agreed to release Eljahmi if his family would guarantee his silence – they declined. “None of us would agree,” Mohamed later wrote, “to force our brother, husband or father to compromise his principles or to apologize for his outspokenness.”

Ian Bullock is a Vancouver-based writer of fiction and creative nonfiction.

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