The Virtual World / The Natural World

Fathi Eljahmi

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

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.

32 comments on the article “Fathi Eljahmi”

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Anonymo

Lloyd Pitcher is worried so much about one article in a million, as if this magazine had been publishing numerous stories about Ejahmi and other Libyan human rights activists, whom we are unlikely ever to hear about, because Gaddafi pays !!. Lloyd, if you have not been paid already from that rotten oil that is coming out of that rotten desert, make sure you do soon. Six million people in Libya have been living in hell for 40 years under Gaddafi, and mr Lloyd thinks that has nothing to do with us. It is no wonder how much hate towards us exist in that part of the world.

Anonymo

Lloyd Pitcher is worried so much about one article in a million, as if this magazine had been publishing numerous stories about Ejahmi and other Libyan human rights activists, whom we are unlikely ever to hear about, because Gaddafi pays !!. Lloyd, if you have not been paid already from that rotten oil that is coming out of that rotten desert, make sure you do soon. Six million people in Libya have been living in hell for 40 years under Gaddafi, and mr Lloyd thinks that has nothing to do with us. It is no wonder how much hate towards us exist in that part of the world.

Anonymo

How mistaken and immoral, Mr. Lloyd? Because the western media does not report what is happening in Libya does not mean that nothing terrible had taken place over there for the last 40 years. The politicians and the multinational conglomerates know it all because they are the driving force behind the media blackout on Gaddafi's atrocities against the Libyan people. But now, with the internet, things are starting to come out all over the globe and nothing can be hidden anymore, and people like you hate it.
If you visit Libya and you do not see any signs of social uprising, that does not mean Libyans are living in paradise. As a visitor you are only allowed to see what had been orchestrated for you to see, because the whole country is run as a police state and the slightest sign of dissent is treated with either torture or death. That is exactly what El Jahmi tried to do, to give the world an idea of what actually is going on in Libya and that was his fate.

When Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum, discovered the huge resources of Libyan fine oil in the late 1960s, he made sure no one knew about it. Only this year it was revealed that oil reserves of Libya are the biggest in Africa, and even that is not the whole story. Libyan oil was kept in reserve just in case those oil wells in the middle east run dry. Armand Hammer cut a deal with Gaddafi and his military junta to keep him in power as long as possible, no matter what. This was bequeathed to many others in the west after his death. Go and search who was Armand Hammer!

Here is one example of the scale of atrocities committed by Gaddafi's regime, which no main stream western media would dare to report, in which 1,200 people were massacre in a Libyan prison in one night:
http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/06/30/uk-protestors-mark-13th-anniversary-of-libyan-prison-massacre/

Also, see this detailed report from Human Rights Watch about Gaddafi's 40 year rule.
http://www.hrw.org/en/node/11480/section/5

After reading the above, Mr. Lloyd, I think it is better that you shut the f*** up for good.

Anonymo

How mistaken and immoral, Mr. Lloyd? Because the western media does not report what is happening in Libya does not mean that nothing terrible had taken place over there for the last 40 years. The politicians and the multinational conglomerates know it all because they are the driving force behind the media blackout on Gaddafi's atrocities against the Libyan people. But now, with the internet, things are starting to come out all over the globe and nothing can be hidden anymore, and people like you hate it.
If you visit Libya and you do not see any signs of social uprising, that does not mean Libyans are living in paradise. As a visitor you are only allowed to see what had been orchestrated for you to see, because the whole country is run as a police state and the slightest sign of dissent is treated with either torture or death. That is exactly what El Jahmi tried to do, to give the world an idea of what actually is going on in Libya and that was his fate.

When Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum, discovered the huge resources of Libyan fine oil in the late 1960s, he made sure no one knew about it. Only this year it was revealed that oil reserves of Libya are the biggest in Africa, and even that is not the whole story. Libyan oil was kept in reserve just in case those oil wells in the middle east run dry. Armand Hammer cut a deal with Gaddafi and his military junta to keep him in power as long as possible, no matter what. This was bequeathed to many others in the west after his death. Go and search who was Armand Hammer!

Here is one example of the scale of atrocities committed by Gaddafi's regime, which no main stream western media would dare to report, in which 1,200 people were massacre in a Libyan prison in one night:
http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/06/30/uk-protestors-mark-13th-anniversary-of-libyan-prison-massacre/

Also, see this detailed report from Human Rights Watch about Gaddafi's 40 year rule.
http://www.hrw.org/en/node/11480/section/5

After reading the above, Mr. Lloyd, I think it is better that you shut the f*** up for good.

Chez

One correction Lloyd. They will be the ones who are in favour of invading libya or iraq until the invasion takes place. At this time, it is no longer cool and they will groan for years about how stupid everyone is for supporting such an idea.

Chez

No Kidding. I still dont really see what this has to do with adbusters theme. I guess one could argue that it might stir up some of the same feelings many of the other articles here do. But thats about it. And that certainly does not help foster the mental environment.

Anya Jaworski

And how many of those executions and incarcerations are due to political reasons, Llyod? You can't take statistics and numbers and blindly compare them, there needs to be some sort of contextual padding.

Unfortunately in the real world, your pseudo-intellectual, patronizing bullshit would be lost on everybody.

Anonymous

Although the last paragraph of the article quotes a (male) member of Eljahmi's family on their commitment to Eljahmi's cause, and their refusal to guarantee his silence...the very first paragraph, in which Eljahmi is established as a hero, a human rights crusader, etc, praises him for standing firm: he would rather die than apologize for speaking the truth. However, in 2004 the threat referred to was not against his life. It was a threat of rape against his daughters. While I acknowledge cultural differences, it is not up to Eljahmi to call the bluff of a threat against another body. Any human rights activist will agree that it is not acceptable for an individual to determine the value of his principles against the value of another's bodily safety/integrity/power/agency. By 2004, an educated man who purports to speak the 'truth' but still conflates his daughters' bodies w/ his own honor/pride/life obviously has a 'blind spot' too significant to ignore.
If, the daughters were willing to accept that threat and the risk involved, that needs to be stated in the article. Otherwise, it cannot be assumed that they had any voice--in fact, the opposite is suggested, intentionally or not. If the article cites that threat of rape, it has a responsibility to recognize the political/ethical implications of not qualifying Eljahmi's apparent oversight, and also to acknowledge the lack of representative voices of those being threatened. Otherwise, this report/its author/and its subject lose credibility.
I am not dismissing Eljahmi's bravery/endurance etc. However, if this article wishes to do justice to a man who deserves some praise, it fails by suggesting his blatant disregard for his daughters' status as legitimate beings who deserve to respond FOR THEMSELVES to a threat against THEIR bodies.

Anonymous

Although the last paragraph of the article quotes a (male) member of Eljahmi's family on their commitment to Eljahmi's cause, and their refusal to guarantee his silence...the very first paragraph, in which Eljahmi is established as a hero, a human rights crusader, etc, praises him for standing firm: he would rather die than apologize for speaking the truth. However, in 2004 the threat referred to was not against his life. It was a threat of rape against his daughters. While I acknowledge cultural differences, it is not up to Eljahmi to call the bluff of a threat against another body. Any human rights activist will agree that it is not acceptable for an individual to determine the value of his principles against the value of another's bodily safety/integrity/power/agency. By 2004, an educated man who purports to speak the 'truth' but still conflates his daughters' bodies w/ his own honor/pride/life obviously has a 'blind spot' too significant to ignore.
If, the daughters were willing to accept that threat and the risk involved, that needs to be stated in the article. Otherwise, it cannot be assumed that they had any voice--in fact, the opposite is suggested, intentionally or not. If the article cites that threat of rape, it has a responsibility to recognize the political/ethical implications of not qualifying Eljahmi's apparent oversight, and also to acknowledge the lack of representative voices of those being threatened. Otherwise, this report/its author/and its subject lose credibility.
I am not dismissing Eljahmi's bravery/endurance etc. However, if this article wishes to do justice to a man who deserves some praise, it fails by suggesting his blatant disregard for his daughters' status as legitimate beings who deserve to respond FOR THEMSELVES to a threat against THEIR bodies.

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