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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Anonymous

Your argument about El Jahmi's "blatant disregard for his daughters" is sickening. How dare you criticize El Jahmi for standing up to such a savage dictator and for giving up his life which people like you cling to at all costs even if it means walking on the bodies of those poor Libyans and sucking up their blood. El Jahmi endured extreme pain and torture and gave his life so the world might hear his voice and do something to stop the raping of 6 million human beings, not just one family, and for that he is discredited by some distorted logic such as yours.

Here is something to add to your cultural and political ignorance: beside raping a whole country, the raping of men and women in Libya had been taking place for 40 years carried out by members of the Libyan security services who take their orders directly from Gaddafi, as a way of terrorizing the population. You know nothing about rape in Libya. Because of Gaddafi, the country had slipped back to the middle ages and had not heard or acknowledged yet the achievements of man (and women) in modern times which gave us the respect for "human" rights which you purport to defend.

Gaddafi used many terror tactics to bring the Libyan people into total submission, while the world was watching and fully engaged with him and his regime. The only Libyan known to westerners was Gaddafi, because no other Libyan name was allowed to be published by the media or broadcast on television or radio, not even the prime minister or any of his government ministers. All are addressed by their titles not names.

Gaddafi terrorized the population by public hangings, in university campuses and public squares, of students, businessmen and intellectuals . These were shown live and repeated for days on television at prime time to make sure that every Libyan is terrorized to the extreme. You can find them on YouTube if you wanted to see them. Numerous uprisings and military attempts to get rid of Gaddafi were carried out by Libyans only to be betrayed and sold out by Western intelligence services to be crushed and slaughtered by Gaddafi. In one case, Omar al-Maheshi, Gaddafi killed him by his own hands.

Gaddafi banned Libyans from learning all foreign languages which was never heard of anywhere in the world. No other independent country with such huge revenues from natural resources had its education system destroyed like that of Libya, especially given its geographical position and cultural and historical ties with Europe which go back thousands of years. Most of those who graduate from so called "Libyan universities" buy their certificates with money or personal favors to fit in with Gaddafi's ultimate aim of corrupting the whole population as a means of keeping himself in power. Compare this to Libyan's who graduated in the 1960s and up to mid 1970s, many of whom went on to study at top universities of the world.

Playing and enjoying western music was also banned in Libya because it was not compatible with Gaddafi's beduin and arab culture! Actually no, because he hated seeing people happy and enjoying themselves.

Until 2005 Libya was a big jail where no one was allowed to leave or enter the country without special permission from the security services. Although since then Libyans were allowed to travel and few tourists to visit, after fulfilling some bizarre criteria, most of the population (75% under the age of 30) knew no one in authority except Gaddafi who made sure his terror and fear policies are fed to them as soon as they were born.

And they tell me where terrorists who want to blow us up come from?!

Anonymous

Your argument about El Jahmi's "blatant disregard for his daughters" is sickening. How dare you criticize El Jahmi for standing up to such a savage dictator and for giving up his life which people like you cling to at all costs even if it means walking on the bodies of those poor Libyans and sucking up their blood. El Jahmi endured extreme pain and torture and gave his life so the world might hear his voice and do something to stop the raping of 6 million human beings, not just one family, and for that he is discredited by some distorted logic such as yours.

Here is something to add to your cultural and political ignorance: beside raping a whole country, the raping of men and women in Libya had been taking place for 40 years carried out by members of the Libyan security services who take their orders directly from Gaddafi, as a way of terrorizing the population. You know nothing about rape in Libya. Because of Gaddafi, the country had slipped back to the middle ages and had not heard or acknowledged yet the achievements of man (and women) in modern times which gave us the respect for "human" rights which you purport to defend.

Gaddafi used many terror tactics to bring the Libyan people into total submission, while the world was watching and fully engaged with him and his regime. The only Libyan known to westerners was Gaddafi, because no other Libyan name was allowed to be published by the media or broadcast on television or radio, not even the prime minister or any of his government ministers. All are addressed by their titles not names.

Gaddafi terrorized the population by public hangings, in university campuses and public squares, of students, businessmen and intellectuals . These were shown live and repeated for days on television at prime time to make sure that every Libyan is terrorized to the extreme. You can find them on YouTube if you wanted to see them. Numerous uprisings and military attempts to get rid of Gaddafi were carried out by Libyans only to be betrayed and sold out by Western intelligence services to be crushed and slaughtered by Gaddafi. In one case, Omar al-Maheshi, Gaddafi killed him by his own hands.

Gaddafi banned Libyans from learning all foreign languages which was never heard of anywhere in the world. No other independent country with such huge revenues from natural resources had its education system destroyed like that of Libya, especially given its geographical position and cultural and historical ties with Europe which go back thousands of years. Most of those who graduate from so called "Libyan universities" buy their certificates with money or personal favors to fit in with Gaddafi's ultimate aim of corrupting the whole population as a means of keeping himself in power. Compare this to Libyan's who graduated in the 1960s and up to mid 1970s, many of whom went on to study at top universities of the world.

Playing and enjoying western music was also banned in Libya because it was not compatible with Gaddafi's beduin and arab culture! Actually no, because he hated seeing people happy and enjoying themselves.

Until 2005 Libya was a big jail where no one was allowed to leave or enter the country without special permission from the security services. Although since then Libyans were allowed to travel and few tourists to visit, after fulfilling some bizarre criteria, most of the population (75% under the age of 30) knew no one in authority except Gaddafi who made sure his terror and fear policies are fed to them as soon as they were born.

And they tell me where terrorists who want to blow us up come from?!

Anonymous

it is 40 years u know, hardley one post, one blog, one website or even the whole internet is enough to list all of Gaddafi's crimes. What is mentioned above are some of the facts, u hear idiot facts not fiction. You think your job to defend the undefendable is worth the bucks gaddafi's agents are paying u even if it means people will be tortured, raped and killed as a result of your actions. Surely u belong to a category well below that of ordinary, desent and civilized human beings.

Anonymous

The one who might be brain-dead and brain washed has a clear consience which allows him to sleep everynight in complete peace whereas the lowly scum can never have a tast of that. Kicks, licks and sticks might do.

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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.

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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.

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