The right to peaceful protest is far from universal. Citizens in Bahrain, China and Syria can all testify to the dangers involved in daring to be a dissenting voice, especially if one seeks to dissent in public. London is a place familiar with protest, most of it peaceful; in recent years a whole raft of causes from fox hunting to military intervention in Iraq have galvanised protesters who have taken to the streets of the capital in order to make their voice heard.
As London is home to the world’s most ethnically diverse population it should come of little surprise that the so-called Arab Spring has touched a chord, and many in the Arab Diaspora have felt it is their duty to demonstrate publicly their solidarity with their brothers and sisters seeking change. To those prepared to take time out from busy lives such protest would appear to be cathartic, yet equally raises questions about identity, leadership and the uncertain future of the nations they love. Equally there are those happy to flaunt their loyalty to existing regimes, although generally such individuals have tended to have chosen to be less visible.
Protest by its very nature is an act of defiance and it can take a variety of forms. The Syrian Embassy in London was recently daubed with graffiti, a subversive activity frowned upon by most governments and along with this came more traditional protests, those featuring students, families, academics and exiles all eager to voice their frustration and despair over the events taking place in cities such as Deraa, Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. Flags, placards, posters and loudhailers are the meat and drink of protest, along with the obligatory police presence. The response to events across the Maghreb and throughout the Middle East has meant that the Diplomatic Protection Group (DPG) a Specialist Operation unit of London’s Metropolitan Police Force has been being kept especially busy of late.
For those spirited individuals who mount a daily protest opposite the Libyan Embassy they face a number of challenges, not least endeavouring to sustain interest in the cause. The Libyan Embassy is located at No 15 Knightsbridge, near Hyde Park Corner, only a couple of blocks from the Lanesborough – an exclusive 5-star hotel. On the day I go to interview protesters they are outnumbered 10 -1 by Lady Gaga groupies and photographers waiting eagerly outside the Lanesborough desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of the eccentric pop star. For those organising protests and seeking to generate media interest, here is the heart of the problem – the general public and the media are extraordinary shallow and soon tire of seemingly intractable foreign news stories and thus fallback on something far easier to comprehend, such as the absurd contrived goings on of self-obsessed celebrities.
Since the beginning of the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi began the numbers of Libyans manning the daily protest opposite the Libyan Embassy has dwindled, something that must gratify the occupants of the building still flying the Green Flag. Police protection has been stepped up, something that is in marked contrast with the situation in Tripoli, where the British Embassy was attacked on 1st May 2011 and torched by an angry mob of Gaddafi loyalists. Each day, those seeking regime change gather under the London Plane trees, where they unfurl the pre-revolutionary flag and exchange snippets of news from their bloodstained homeland. As tourists on red double-decker buses pass by the protestors endeavour to remain optimistic in the face of news of stalemates, false dawns and setbacks. Most are philosophical, possessing a remarkable grasp of the dynamics of the situation. Young men laugh and joke, then speak of casualties and the fear that exists that if the world forgets ‘the tyrant of Libya’ will revenge himself on those still left alive.
A young engineer who came to England to study speaks of how the Libyan regime had for so long crushed the spirit of the people, saying that it was only after they read and saw (albeit via the television and internet) news of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that they were finally emboldened enough to seek to do the same.
There is much talk of how the Arabs rarely if ever help each other and the fact that corruption is so endemic that it will be virtually impossible to root out regardless of who replaces Gaddafi. “Remember the vast majority of Libyans are Bedouin...” the engineer continues “look at Saif al Gaddafi, you can take the Bedouin out of the Bedu, but you can never take the Bedu out of the Bedouin.” The activists fear that when Gaddafi is finally out of the picture Libya will soon forget those who fought, were injured, maimed and tortured. “We have no NHS, no social services, they will be left to beg on the streets, it may well become like Russia after the fall of Communism. The rich and well connected will get richer and forget those who gave their all for freedom.”
The protesters are acutely aware of the past record of the regime they so despise that they are reluctant to give their names for fear of reprisals against family members back home. Each has a tale of loved ones and neighbours lost, one young man tells me that two of his cousins were shot dead, one aged 19, the other 23, he claims that neither was carrying arms. A number of the campaigners is sporting caps or t-shirts featuring the colours of the Libyan flag prior to the revolution of 1969, most are ambivalent about the restoration of the monarchy, but the flag of the monarchy is rich in symbolism for it now embodies the spirit of rebellion, of defiance and the desire for liberty. Under the Gaddafi regime the old flag was forbidden as was discussion of the former ruler and his family. Aware of the hardships and privations currently being suffered by their compatriots at home there is deep sense of nostalgia that is accentuated by the current troubles. One student speaks warmly of the friendliness of the people in his home city of Al Bayda in the northern Cyrenaica region of Eastern Libya, whilst the young engineer declares with conviction; “Libya has everything. I would go back in a heartbeat.”.
What strikes one about these Libyans living in London is how objective they can be about the land of their birth. They are aware that Gaddafi and the discovery of oil brought some progress and development, they despise what his regimes has done to terrorise the people, yet are equally gloomy in their prognosis for Libya post Colonel Gaddafi. They fear that the Arab Spring has opened a Pandora’s Box, and all that they have left is hope. One young man who is a monarchist reflects on Gaddafi’s coming to power in 1969; “He betrayed his King and now he is paying for what he has done to the country and the people.” An elderly Libyan man turns to me and begins to bemoan the role of the Arab League; “Libya has few real friends and for far too long we have not helped ourselves. How can we really expect anything positive from the Arab League, its members may not be admirers of Gaddafi but they are all just as ruthless.” Another looks across towards the Lanesborough and comments wistfully that their cause is already being relegated by the world’s media; “We are in danger of becoming yesterday’s people.” A media presence or not, these protesters are united in their determination to maintain their campaign of witness, as Arabs their hope is tinged with a healthy pragmatism and a belief that if Allah wills it the Libya they love will survive to see better days.