The Revolution of September 1969.

Libya: the Teacher Leader and ‘Free’ Education

Mohammed Alnaas

Mohammed Alnaas

Mohammed is a Libyan writer and author, interested in anthropology and the history of the Libyan people over the past 100 years. He is always interested in social issues through rewriting the Libyan cultural aspects such as literature, music, arts, and clothing.

The green ideology was introduced by Colonel Muammar Al Gaddafi before the publication of his Green Book (1975). During Colonel Gaddafi’s 41-year reign, 33 years of them were spent under the “Green,” as it was known. During this period the Libyan people were subject to a free ideological education in schools, homes, public institutions, the streets and live TV, with the goal of creating a new society with new ideals. That society, however, lacked an adequate system of public education.
 
On June 5th 1984, Alsadek El Shwehdi, a recent university graduate and member of the Libyan opposition, was publicly executed by the “People’s Judicial committee” on charges of treason and for attempting to assassinate the Colonel, following a public trial that was aired on Libyan TV. The broadcast was run by the “Revolutionary Committees”, a group of devotees to “The Brother Leader” – Colonel Gaddafi. El Shwehdi was seen kneeling on the ground crying and beseeching the judges, all of whom were members of the committees, to appeal the case and have mercy on him. They did not.

Huda Ben Amer, a member of the Revolutionary Committees, who became an infamous figure in the public trials and was one of Gaddafi’s Apostles as they were called, began chanting in Arabic “Hang them in the field, don’t have mercy on those who betrayed us”. Her chant called on the “Brother Leader” to execute a member of the opposition in front of the people. When the executioners failed, leaving El Shwehdi gasping for air and trying to grab hold of the rope, she jumped onto his body, adding her weight to his struggle, to make sure that he died. Such execution scenes were normal viewing for Libyans at that time. It was common to break fast during Ramadan by watching these executions, shown on the only available source of mainstream media. They were part of the “educational” process for the people, intended to demonstrate that no mercy shall be given to those who oppose the regime.

Whenever I remember this incident, I’m left in a state of disbelief, unable to get my mind around it. It seems more like a dark fairytale. In the nineties, as kids, we were completely sheltered from what was happening around us, just like my foreign friends who always ask me why the Libyan people – with all the riches and free services they had access to – would rebel against Gaddafi. For them, it didn’t make sense, like Lucifer rebelling against God.

However terrible the acts of violence, however terrible the state policing and public executions were during the 33 years of the colonel’s rule, they are not the main theme of this essay. I would like to focus, instead, on sometimes forgotten aspects of the Gaddafi years, driven by the growing nostalgia over the past ten years among Libyans for the days of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahirya (1977-2011) – the political system inspired by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s “Green Book” (1) a three volume social, economic and political manifesto for what Gaddafi called the Third World-Wide Theory. My other concern is for how people across the Middle East and Africa increasingly imagine Libya during this period.

But first we should make sure that there are no misconceptions about the Libyan system in the 33 years of Gaddafi’s rule. Aljamahirya (Arabic for the rule of Masses) was not a republic. It was not a system of governance similar to any existing system, but a mixture of Greek, Islamic and Socialist systems of governing. In theory, it respected private property while encouraging public ownership of that private property. It’s complicated until you hear the system explained by those who lived under it.

In 1996 I was enrolled in public school. The first thing I learned was the “Call for the Green Flag”, a chant uttered before raising the Libyan Green Flag. The call states two “facts” in an Orwellian manner: The colors blue, red, yellow, and black are colors of destruction and desperation, but green is a color of hope, life, even paradise. There is no reference to what the first four colors mean: meanwhile, green means Aljamahirya. If I were to guess, blue may refer to American capitalism, red to Soviet communism, yellow to Chinese communism, and black to Islamic statehood.

For some additional context, green or light green was everywhere in the country at the time. Schools were painted green, along with hospitals, and so were student benches, park chairs, doors, and windows. It was the color that Gaddafi loved and adored.

Every day after a morning training that mimicked the training of soldiers, while chanting that we were revolutionaries and freedom fighters, a child was chosen at random to address the “Call for the Green Flag”, while the other kids would stand and salute the Green Flag. The chosen child would ask us “ًWho are we?”, and we responded, “We are the generation of Great Alfatah”- Great Alfatah refers to the coup d’etat of 1969 – and uttered other revolutionary chants we were trained to repeat. This needed to be memorized because one day you would also be chosen.

While the Libyan people lived in Gaddafi’s Green paradise, the country also passed through many social changes that affected the people’s ways of life to this day, changes that affected all forms of life, from clothing and consumption habits, to architecture, environmental issues and public services, as well as governing, health care, education, employment and career preferences.
The philosophy of the Green Book was offered as “salvation for humanity”, a third world order promising to eradicate both liberal capitalism and communism, the world’s rival systems of government in the 1970s. The Third International Theory, in contrast, stated that the people should govern themselves directly, and in theory included several sound principles, such as all people should enjoy the basic necessities: a car for the driver of that car (1), a home for the one who lives in that home, and land for the one who works it.

These principles and many others were taught to young children on a daily basis. Kids like me would repeat these verses without fully understanding what they meant. We would see them on school walls, in classrooms, and everywhere else. We repeated them again and again every year from 4th grade to the second year of University. While we were students, the generations before us knew them very well, and they knew what they could do for their livelihood.

The public education system was the first target of the regime’s new plans for the country. High schools and universities were the first targets to be “cleansed” during the early years of Gaddafi’s “Alfateh revolution”. The regime targeted the political and cultural intelligentsia of students and teachers. In the first six years, young activists, writers, and poets were either executed on campus or jailed, including communists, liberals, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even Pan-Arabists who didn’t like Gaddafi. This cleared the way for his Revolutionary Committees to become the only political and cultural authorities governing the school system.
For decades these committees worked on erasing Libyan history before Gaddafi, rewriting that history to fit their own priorities, teaching children that before living in the Green Paradise their forefathers had lived in a hell of “ignorance, illiteracy and backwardness” – a hell called the Libyan Kingdom.
 

The Revolution of September 1969.
The Revolution of September 1969. Photo @Wikimedia Commons

In the period of the Libyan Kingdom (1951-1969), the state encouraged Libyan families to invest in their children’s future. The state worked hard to convince fathers who needed extra hands on the farm to let their sons and daughters study. During the 1950s and 60s, the  Ministry of Education recruited Iraqi, Egyptian, Sudanese, and Western teachers, and a handful of educated Libyans, to teach its younger generation. They supported families with weekly allowances, proper clothing, daily meals in school, free books, and stationery, just to let their kids go to school.

None of this was available during Gaddafi’s Green period. Instead, students were enrolled in a collapsing school system. And most teachers didn’t have a full grasp of their profession. I recall how I, as a 10-year old student, would sometimes have to correct information given in a Math, Arabic, or English language class.

The school system was failing, and there existed no educational standards. Kids living in the heart of the Capital received a better education and schooling than others. Our school, located 20 kilometers away from the Capital, was caught between traditional societal restrictions and the policies of the state. One simple illustration is that the state would require boys and girls to sit on the same bench when in class, while playgrounds remained segregated.

Segregation had a big impact on the way boys and girls perceived each other. High school was a completely segregated period of education, characterized by all boys schools and all girls schools in most of the country. Non-segregated schools were rare. I attended an all-boys high school, though we were taught by female teachers. I witnessed countless daily incidents of sexual harassment of teachers.  Boys had no respect for women, because they weren’t taught to respect them; they would escape the six meter-high walls of the school during lunch break and walk miles to an all-girls school.

The classes we took were also subjected to these factors, the enforcement of the Green ideology and of conservative tradition. We weren’t taught Libyan history in depth and remained ignorant of the Libyan Kingdom (or the “fake independence state” as it was called then). What we knew came from our parents’ tales. Turkish and Italian rule were only briefly considered, and only in a negative light. Even with respect to the Libyan struggle for independence against Italy, the state insisted upon installing its own ideals of Pan-Arabism.
On the other hand, biology classes were more interesting. In 9th grade, the last year of primary school, we were taught human anatomy. At the start of the school year, we gossiped with anticipation about the lesson on “sexual anatomy”. However, even though we were given exams on the topic, it was never discussed in class. “The last topic, study it at home” was what our teacher said.  She was too afraid to even name the topic. Alternatively, teachers might opt to explain it separately to boys and girls. Our teacher made the easier choice to let kids figure it out on their own.

I remember the principal of our primary school, Mr. Mohammed Alatrash, whose behavior was something that even Pink Floyd wouldn’t have dreamt about for their  “Another Brick in the Wall”. In military school style, 6- and 7-year-old kids were beaten by Mr. Alatrash just because they were late or absent or didn’t do their homework. He also disciplined entire classes by making them march on their knees for an hour on an asphalt basketball court amid The Sahara’s summer sun, just because one of “the bad apples that could ruin the other good apples” made a noise in class. I was terrified of Mr. Alatrash during primary school. Most school principals used the same methods.

Mr. Alatrash was the example that school teachers followed. He was without mercy, so teachers also tended to be violent. “Il Dobremanna” (AKA The Doberman Pinscher)- nicknamed for her violence and whose real name I still can’t remember – was our “Aljamahiry Society”, that is, The Society of The Masses- subject teacher. She was responsible for teaching us the Green Ideology and how to be the “Ideal Aljamahiry Human” deserving of living in Aljamahiria. She was creative when punishing students, and had an infamous weapon of choice named “Il Gomma” – Italian for the Rubber Baton. If you didn’t do your homework, didn’t review the entirety of the previous lessons, or didn’t prepare for the new lesson, she would demand that you put your fingers together on the desk and then smashed them with Il Gomma. I’ve seen kids with their fingers covered in blood after receiving a beating from her. Parents didn’t care for the way the teachers behaved towards their kids, though sometimes they would encourage them.

During Gaddafi’s regime students were used as “political activists” and as “on demand” soldiers. During the Libyan-Chadian Conflict (1978-1987), high school aged boys were picked up by army trucks for participating in “peaceful protests” calling for peace between the two countries, only to find themselves on the outskirts of the Sahara fighting the Chadians, with minimal military experience. Most of them died in the desert sand or were taken prisoner. Some returned home, but truly damaged and unable to process life after the horrors they experienced. Some were even persecuted by the Libyan state because they were considered deserters.

Our Generation were more “political activists” than soldiers. I still remember how the school principal Mr. Alatrash would round us up, tell one of the teachers to repeat some chants for us to memorize, after which we would be bussed to protests condemning the terrible acts of the West or glorifying our Brother Leader. Those caught escaping the protest were punished by Mr. Alatrash the next day.

The Green Ideology and its revolutionary committees demanded acolytes to carry the green lit torch to Humanity. Therefore they invented new student groups with names like “The Sprouts” for children under fifteen, ”The Cubs” for those under eighteen, and the “Forearms of Alfatah” for university students. These formed “The Green Student Bond” student groups meant to replace the Boy and Girl Scouts and The Student Unions, which existed before Gaddafi.

After each school year, those groups gathered information on the most academically outstanding students and were asked to recruit them. I was recruited after primary school. A teacher approached and ordered me to come to the annual Sprouts camp or I would “not get my school curriculum”, a certificate I needed to advance to High School. I attended the month-long camp – boring to a kid wanting to enjoy summer at the beach – organized around advancing your revolutionary ideology. The camp was like a gathering of fanatics in a new-religious cult centered on Gaddafi himself. I wish this were an exaggeration.

Secondary School wasn’t any better. My school’s name was “7th of April Secondary Barrack”, and in military style we were treated like soldiers who studied engineering, medicine, economics, or literature on the side. The name 7th of April is a reference to the “Student Revolution”. During the morning training and call for the Green Flag, we would line up as soldiers, be expected to behave like them, and wear military clothing. We also received training with automatic weapons. We would be taken for visits to army camps to learn to fire weapons. But our generation was luckier than the previous generation, who really were trained as soldiers. My mother-in-law once recounted to me how they would be disciplined if they didn’t wear their military clothes, socks, and shoes correctly.

Sooner or later, everyone was required to enroll in mandatory service as part of the “People’s Army”, another body created to replace the Libyan Army. Thankfully, Gaddafi left before our generation was required to serve.
Language was a topic of interest for the Colonel. He promoted the Arabic language and forbade instruction in other languages. Italian was the first to be banned, and Gaddafi’s regime tried hard to use the education system to replace existing Italian vocabulary in the Libyan dialect with Arabic terms.  He also banned the local Tamazight and Tabu languages. However, when the regime’s ideology switched from Pan-Arabism to Pan-Africanism, it was rumored in school that we would learn Swahili, though not indigenous to Libya. It was added to the school curriculum as a secondary language.

Among all the subjects we studied in primary and secondary school, English class was the worst of them all. After a decade of banning the teaching of English (2) in the public school system, we were suddenly allowed to study it again. But since our teachers belonged to a generation that lacked English instruction, they were terrible at teaching the language. Most of my generation never learned English.

In primary and secondary school, math, thermodynamics, dynamics, and other subjects were studied in Arabic. But as university students we encountered a different reality, needing to unlearn everything we had learned previously, because we had to study in English. Most of my peers failed university because they were studying in a language they didn’t understand. I was lucky enough to learn the basics of the language, and so made it through. Although today I still can’t write in English properly.

To return to El Shwehdi’s story, before being executed, he was a graduate student accused of planning a coup and of being an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood and the US. University students were among the groups that Gaddafi hated the most, since many students wanted him and his regime to fulfill the promise of returning power to the people, taken away in 1969, and establish a real democracy. On the 7th of April, 1976, students held peaceful protests in universities, clashing with student revolutionary committees, who executed many of them on the university campus. Gaddafi labeled the terrible acts done by his revolutionaries the “Student Revolution”, claiming it liberated universities once and for all from the threats posed by communists, capitalists, Islamists, and free-thinkers.

Each year thereafter during the period of April 1-7, normal studies were suspended for a week so that schools could celebrate the Student Revolution. Schools held activities commemorating the incident, and it was a happy week for us kids. We danced and sang songs glorifying our Brother Leader. And we learned more about the history of Aljamahirya through art, theater, and music.

Gaddafi loved titles. One of his titles connected to education was “The Teacher Leader”. He loved to give lectures on everything – religion, philosophy, politics, economics, health, education, and other topics, which ran for hours on the TV or radio. Educating his people on what to do, his speeches were named “Teachings”. Sometimes, when he arrived at political gatherings, people chanted to him, “Teach us, oh Brother Leader! Teach us! Teach us how to fulfill our future”.

A phrase comes to mind. The last time I heard it, it made me laugh, because I didn’t really understand what it meant. This would have been in May 2011, during the third month of the February 17th uprising in Libya. I was watching the Aljamahirya channel because I wanted to check out what the “other side” was saying about the revolution. The channel was airing segments of a 40-year-old man lying on bed, chanting, screaming, and dressed all in green, repeating, “I want Papa Muammer, I want Papa Muammer”.

Where I come from, kids don’t call their fathers “Papa”.  Typically, I always called my father “Bui”, which is the Libyan version of the word “Abi” in Arabic. I know some kids who were raised to call their fathers “Sidi”, which means “Master” in Arabic. Only “Happy Families” – a Libyan slang expression mocking the elite – would consider calling fathers “Papa”. So, I found it weird for a 40-year-old man to use the term. At that time only kids my age and younger might say “Papa Muammer”.
But, reflecting on that time, Gaddafi sought to create a new society, even for those who were already adults when he came to power. He was the “Papa” of the Libyan nation. That 40-year-old man was among the first generations to be molded by Gaddafi’s ideals. Gaddafi was the founding father of a new nation, the Green Nation, a nation that would fulfill his own prophecy and overthrow him with a destructive war. “Real democracy is only applicable when power, wealth and arms are in the hands of the people”, he wrote in his Green Book, when imagining the people he hoped to create.
Today, the school system is even worse than during Gaddafi’s time. War prevented a lot of students from continuing their studies. Kids are segregated by gender starting at nine. Meanwhile, Salafist schools that teach Saudi-like religious ideology operate outside of government jurisdiction.  If this has happened after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, I can’t help thinking that it is a result of that same regime.
I want to finish this essay as I started it, with a story about the brutality of the Green Nation. Daif Alghazal, the late Libyan journalist died in 2005 two years after Libya’s peace with the rest of the world, under mysterious circumstances. Before his death, he wrote confidently in national newspapers and was known for “educating” the public about state corruption. He didn’t speak against Gaddafi, but his articles angered Gaddafi’s minions. So, they kidnapped him, chopped off all his fingers, and killed him, in order to send a message to those who dare to “educate” the people about anything the regime didn’t want them to know.

 

Mohammed Alnaas

 

References:

  1. Gaddafi, M., “The Green Book”, 1975.
  2. Mohsen, A.S., “Teaching English as a Foreign Language in Libya”, Scientific Research Journal (SCIRJ), 2014
Received: 16.02.22, Ready: 23.02.22. Editors: David Ludden

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Culturico, its editorial team and of the editors who revised the article.

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