Historian Ya'akov Hajaj-Lilof, 69, is the director of the Institute for the Research and Study of Libyan Jewry and a member of the board of the World Organization of Libyan Jews. In recent days, he has been closely following the reports from Tripoli, Benghazi and the other locations in Libya where there has been political unrest against the regime of Muammar Gadhafi, who has been in power since 1969 and is considered the longest ruling non-royal leader in the world. Hajaj-Lilof believes that if there is a successful revolution against Gadhafi, it will be much more difficult and prolonged than those in Tunisia and Egypt.
Who is behind the demonstrations in Libya? Who forms the opposition to Gadhafi?
I attach great importance to the hatred and antagonism that exists between the two parts of that country - between the region of Cyrenaica which covers a little more than one half of the area of Libya and has Benghazi as its capital, and the region of Tripolitania with its capital, Tripoli. The focus of the unrest is in Cyrenaica where they still remember that Gadhafi overthrew King Idris I who was born in the region.
In addition, Libya has a problem that is similar to the one we saw in Egypt, and that is unemployment. There is tremendous unemployment in Libya despite the oil reserves and despite the huge water projects that the regime has introduced. But the thousands of people with an academic education who graduate every year from the universities have no work, and the unskilled jobs in agriculture and construction are taken by refugees from other African countries, and this creates bitterness. Another opposition element is the Islamists who exploit the mosques.
Every one of these elements is guided by another idea but they could all unite in a revolution against Gadhafi's rule and then very interesting situations could develop. But even if that does happen, it will take much more time than the ten days that it took in Egypt.
Is that because Gadhafi has adopted a policy of no restraints against the protesters?
First it must be remembered that Gadhafi had more than a month to prepare. From the moment that the riots in Tunis began, he started preparing himself and his forces. He repressed the opposition elements and worked on the revolutionary guard forces, the army and the secret security services, the Mukhabarat, in anticipation of demonstrations. It is possible to see on Al Jazeera how these guys, dressed in civilian clothes, mingle in the crowd and when they feel that the demonstration is getting out of hand, they pull out their weapons and disperse the crowd. There is talk of dozens of dead - for sure there are many dead. About the reports that helicopters have fired into the crowd, I would take them with a grain of salt until such time that one sees them in the pictures.
There is a great deal of disinformation on both sides. There are also reports that policemen have defected to the side of the protesters but that is typical mainly of the Cyrenaica region. For the time being, it seems that the army and the revolutionary guards are standing behind Gadhafi. On Friday he headed a procession to show that he is in control of the situation and to give backing to his supporters. But Libya also does not resemble Egypt from the point of view of its government. It has a very special regime that is locked up in its own ideology. The revolutionary guards decide how the country will be run and Gadhafi is supposedly the one who carries out the decisions.
From their point of view, their revolution is the supreme value, it is for the benefit of the people and the benefit of the public. This concept is deeply seated in the minds of the leaders and there have been times when the revolutionary guards decided on moves that were even more drastic than those of Gadhafi.
How will this wave of protests end, in your opinion?
It is impossible to know what can happen. But I believe that there can certainly be a situation where, during an intermediary stage, the country will be divided. Gadhafi will use his judgment and say to himself then that, instead of giving up the entire country like [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak and taking the first plane out, he will give up only the eastern part of the country, Cyrenaica. But it is certainly possible that it would not stop there.
In recent years, Gadhafi has tried to move closer to the West. How has this found expression in his attitude toward the Jews of Libya?
Six years ago, the last Jewish woman left Libya and since then there are no Jews there. But really since the Second Gulf War, in my opinion because he saw what happened to Saddam Hussein, Gadhafi has tried to return to the family of nations. A few years ago, representatives of the Libyan Embassy in Amman approached us and asked for a meeting with members of the world organization of Libyan Jews. We coordinated the trip with the [Israeli] Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister's Office and the president. The main topic at the meetings was the Jewish property in Libya - synagogues and cemeteries. He wanted to demonstrate his openness and that he was returning to the family of nations. But nothing came of this.
However, I sent Gadhafi my book about Libya's Jews and I know he received it and read it. In the dedication, I wrote that I have a dream - I would like to be the first Israeli ambassador to present credentials to him.
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