On Sunday, in a small white box of a room, stark images of the recent revolutionary battles in Libya hung on panels surrounding a large Libyan flag with gold fringe. A TV replayed major news stories from the last year, and students gazed at photos from the Libyan revolution depicting scenes of both horrible violence and celebrations of triumph.
The photographs were taken by Amr Abdallah of Reuters and Mohamed Messara of The European Pressphoto Agency, two photojournalists who worked in Libya throughout the recent revolution.
In one of Abdallah’s images, a soldier in fatigues holds crutches and limps on his only leg down a deserted highway to continue fighting. In one by Messara, from the fighting in Sirte, a man holds his massive rifle as he falls back on one hand, almost like a break-dancer. In countless pictures, blood trickles down the legs of wounded soldiers. In others, men wait, tired and dirty, for hostilities to resume. Images of large crowds of protesters in Libya and Cairo give context to the fighting and display the widespread desperation that pushed the rebels to fight until Qaddafi’s death a month ago.
On the left and right walls, quotations from the two photographers highlighted the hazardous nature behind their work. “In Libya, before going out to cover an event,” wrote Abdallah, “I pronounced the shahadah (profession of faith)….Photographers could expect to be kidnapped at any time by Qaddafi supporters.”
Messara’s tone was more dramatic. “Death was at the end of every street,” he wrote, “the main concern for the photographers was the sniper.”
This exhibit, called “Libya: The Road to Freedom,” is the inaugural event for the Libyan Student Association of the American University in Cairo, whose mere existence represents a shift in the confidence of Libyans living abroad, especially in Egypt, where anti-Qaddafi exiles had been captured by Egyptian secret police and handed over to the Libyan regime. At one time, Qaddafi’s niece was an AUC student, according to Noah Agily, a current member of the organization. In 2007, a delegation of AUC administrators visited Libya to advertise their university’s academic programs.
Munir Betelmal, the president of the group, is a third year student from Ben Ghazi. Qaddafi, he told me, “marginalized us” and “made the country all about him.” Betelmal started the group, printed I Love Libya t-shirts, and contacted the two internationally known photographers through Facebook, working “hand in hand” with them to put together the exhibit.
Although the organization resolutely stands with the revolutionary forces in Libya, the photographs presented a conflict with two very passionate sides. In one photograph, a woman protester, her mouth agape in shouting, held up an image of Qaddafi. Many of the photographs showed grizzled fighters clutching rifles and small projectiles. Only the captions next to the photos made clear which side the subject was fighting for.
Photography and photojournalism students milled about the room taking notes. “When I look at these pictures,” remarked student Mohammed Abou El Enain, “I wonder if the people in them are now dead or alive.”
At one point, the Libyan students clustered under the flag and sang the national anthem. Then, AUC President Lisa Anderson arrived and gave a quick history of Libya’s last hundred years. “It was in 1911 that Italy invaded a relatively prosperous Ottoman province,” she said, which gave way to “one of the most brutal of imperial experiences.” In 1951, she explained, the country achieved independence, but there were only 12 university graduates left in the whole country. “Most of the parliament was illiterate,” she told the crowd.
Qaddafi, she continued, further decimated the little infrastructure left. “I am reasonably optimistic,” she said, “but I think it’s going to be very hard. This is a society that needs a lot of healing.” The violence done to Qaddadi’s corpse, she contended, was evidence of the “expressions of pain” necessary for a population subject to “a hundred years of devastation.”
After she spoke, I saw a student pose for a picture, his hand forming a peace sign in front of Messara’s photograph, which depicts Qaddafi’s corpse laid out in a refrigerator.
Outside the exhibit, some students were heading on buses to Tahrir Square, an hour away from AUC’s New Cairo campus, where Egyptian demonstrators demanded a transition to civilian government and the “fall” of the current military leadership. Responding to the violent crackdown by Central Security Forces, some at the square were chanting “If you want it to be like Syria we will make it like Libya!”
“Libya: The Road to Freedom” is on display now at The Photographic Gallery, AUC New Cairo, Abdul Latif Jameel Hall, Plaza Level. Gallery hours are Sunday through Thursday, 10 am to 5 pm.
A photo by Mohamed Messara.