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Libyan rebels speak live with Lehigh students

Students listen to Issa Hakim (left on screen) and rebels speak via Skype from Libya. Photo by Ryan Hulvat

A Libyan graduate student on leave from his studies made a virtual return to campus today to talk about the civil war in his homeland and the role he is playing in the effort to oust ruler Moammar Gadhafi.

Issa Hakim and a half-dozen other members of the rebel-led National Transitional Council told 60 students in Packard Lab via Skype that Gadhafi was waging a “mercenary” war against Libyans who are seeking merely to “achieve freedom and dignity.”

The uprising, said Hakim, “began as a peaceful campaign. Gadhafi has responded by killing tens of thousands of innocent people. We are not terrorists; we do not know how to use arms but necessity required that we fight.”

In response to a question posed by Sofia Covarrubias ’12, a sociology major from Mexico, Hakim described the legacy the rebels hope to leave:

“We are fighting against a tyrant who has held power for 42 years. We are very proud of what we’re doing.”

The roots of the February 17th Revolution

Hakim and leaders of the National Transitional Council spoke live from the council’s headquarters near Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. A teleconferencing link connected them to students and to reporters from the Associated Press and CNN.

The event was sponsored by the office of international affairs, the office of graduate student life and the Global Union. It was moderated by Hakim’s adviser, John Coulter, professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics, and produced by John Santamaria and Edward Ballinger of the office of distance education.

The Libyan uprising is known as the February 17th Revolution, the rebels said, and owes its origins in part to the 1996 massacre of a reported 1,200 inmates of the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, Libya’s capital. Family members of many victims did not learn from the government until 2008 that their relatives had died.

Protesters gathered two months ago in Benghazi to commemorate the massacre and demand an apology from Gadhafi, the rebels said, and were fired on by members of Libya’s secret police. The Gadhafi regime has also responded to the uprising by arresting and assassinating journalists.

Assistance from defecting leaders

Since then, the rebels said, some Libyan military leaders and government ministers have defected to join the National Transitional Council. Other government leaders have accused Gadhafi of committing genocide against the Libyan people.

“These leaders defected to the revolution because of their clear mission to protect the Libyan people, not the regime,” said Hakim. “It would be very difficult for us to succeed without their support.”

The rebels said they were grateful to coalition forces from Great Britain, France and the United States for using air strikes to prevent a “real massacre” of civilians by Gadhafi’s forces in Benghazi. They said they were not satisfied with NATO’s “slow” response to the civil war.

“We would like to see an intensified campaign against Gadhafi’s tanks and armored vehicles, including the use of antitank aircraft,” one rebel leader said in response to a question from Dat Hoang ’12, an accounting and finance major from Vietnam.

Clarifying the values of a new government

Bu Wang, a graduate student in materials science and engineering from China, asked what kind of country the rebels would build if they ousted Gadhafi.

“We are sure Gadhafi will leave eventually,” one leader said. “Afterwards, we will build a democratic country based on freedom, justice and dignity for the Libyan people. We will fix our constitution and we will abide by the same international values as other free, democratic countries.”

There are only two possible outcomes to the civil war, the rebels said in a prepared handout given to the students: “Gadhafi commits genocide and stays in power” or “the rebels overthrow Gadhafi and establish a democratic country.”

A reporter with The Chronicle of Higher Education asked in an e-mail why it was vital for the rebels to speak to an academic group.

“Through higher education we can form an idea of where we stand in terms of values,” one leader responded. “And the real-time information we convey to you is very important for research and policy-making.”

“This was a tremendous event,” said Hatem Hassan ’12, a sociology major who is writing a thesis on the comparative histories of Middle Eastern countries. “It was extremely useful to have this communication.”

Read: The Chronicle of Higher Education account of the symposium, Libyan Rebels Skype with Lehigh U. Students 

Story by Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Friday, April 15, 2011

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